Assessment of substance exposures in nail clipping samples: A systematic review

Gretchen Bandoli, Florencia Anunziata, Ryan Bogdan, Anna Zilverstand, Barbara H. Chaiyachati, Kelly K. Gurka, Elinor Sullivan, Julie Croff, Ludmila N. Bakhireva

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background: Studies of prenatal substance exposure often rely on self-report, urine drug screens, and/or analyses of blood or meconium biomarkers. Accuracy of these measures is limited when assessing exposure over many weeks or months of gestation. Nails are increasingly being considered as a matrix from which to assess substance exposure. This systematic review synthesizes data on the validity of detecting alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, and opioid from nail clippings, with an emphasis on prenatal exposure assessment. Methods: The systematic review was conducted using PRISMA 2020 guidelines. Seven databases were searched with keywords relevant to the four substances of interest. Results were summarized grouping manuscripts by the exposure of interest with focus on accuracy and feasibility. Results: Of 2384 papers initially identified, 35 manuscripts were included in our qualitative synthesis. Only a few studies specifically looked at pregnant individuals or mother-child dyads. Across the four substances, many studies demonstrated a dose-response relationship between exposure and concentration of analytes in nails. Nail assays appear to detect lower level of exposure compared to hair; however, sample insufficiency, especially for multi-substance assays, remains a limitation. Conclusions: Based on the reviewed studies, nail clippings are an acceptable and potentially preferable matrix for the evaluation of these four prenatal substances when sampling frequency and/or study design necessitates assessment of past exposures over an extended period. Nails have the advantage of infrequent sampling and minimal invasiveness to assess a broad exposure period. Future studies should examine validity of analytes in toenail versus fingernail clippings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number111038
JournalDrug and alcohol dependence
StatePublished - Jan 1 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 Elsevier B.V.


  • Alcohol
  • Biomarkers
  • Cannabinoids
  • Keratinized samples
  • Nails
  • Nicotine
  • Opioids
  • Validity


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