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The Detection of Cortisol in Human Sweat: Implications for Measurement of Cortisol in Hair

Russell, Evan MSc*; Koren, Gideon MD*,†,‡,§; Rieder, Michael MD, PhD†,¶; Van Uum, Stan H. M. MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/FTD.0b013e31829daa0a
Original Article

Background: Hair cortisol analysis has been shown to be an effective measure of chronic stress. Cortisol is assumed to incorporate into hair via serum, sebum, and sweat sources; however, the extent to which sweat contributes to hair cortisol content is unknown.

Methods: Sweat and saliva samples were collected from 17 subjects after a period of intensive exercise and analyzed by salivary enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Subsequently, an in vitro test on exposure of hair to hydrocortisone was conducted. Residual hair samples were immersed in a 50-ng/mL hydrocortisone solution for periods lasting 15 minutes to 24 hours, followed by a wash or no-wash condition. Hair cortisol content was determined using our modified protocol for a salivary ELISA.

Results: Postexercise control sweat cortisol concentrations ranged from 8.16 to 141.7 ng/mL and correlated significantly with the log-transformed time of day. Sweat cortisol levels significantly correlated with salivary cortisol concentrations. In vitro hair exposure to a 50-ng/mL hydrocortisone solution (mimicking sweat) for 60 minutes or more resulted in significantly increased hair cortisol concentrations. Washing with isopropanol did not affect immersion-increased hair cortisol concentrations.

Conclusions: Human sweat contains cortisol in concentrations comparable with salivary cortisol levels. This study suggests that perfuse sweating after intense exercise may increase cortisol concentrations detected in hair. This increase likely cannot be effectively decreased with conventional washing procedures and should be considered carefully in studies using hair cortisol as a biomarker of chronic stress.

*Department of Physiology and Pharmacology,

Department of Medicine, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, and

Ivey Chair in Molecular Toxicology, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada;

§Department of Clinical Pharmacology/Toxicology, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; and

CIHR-GSK Chair in Pediatric Clinical Pharmacology, Children's Health Research Institute, London, Ontario, Canada.

Correspondence: Stan H. M. Van Uum, MD, PhD, St Joseph's Health Care, Room B5-120, 268 Grosvenor St, London, Ontario N6A 4V2, Canada (e-mail:

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Received September 24, 2012

Accepted May 27, 2013

© 2014 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins