New Study: The Smell of Your Hands Could Become Criminal Evidence

While fingerprints and DNA have long been the forensic gold standards for ID-ing a suspect, a new study suggests human scent could help lock up the case.

Past social psychology research has suggested that an individual’s hands are the second body part we study to draw conclusions about them after we’ve encountered their face.

Now, new research hints that there might be even more to your hands than meets the eye—or rather, the nose. A July 2023 study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE sniffed out this layer of perception, suggesting that the scent of your hands might be as distinctive as your fingerprint.

The power of scent

Leveraging an advanced mass spectrometry technique, a group of researchers were led by Kenneth Furton, PhD, a biochemist and chief scientific officer at Florida International University, where he’s heralded as a “world-leading scholar in forensic chemistry focused on trace detection and olfaction.” Dr. Furton’s team analyzed the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in hand odor samples from 60 individuals. The data revealed compelling differences between male and female scent profiles, pinpointing a person’s gender with an impressive 96.67% accuracy.

Beyond traditional biometrics

The study authors discussed that hands often leave behind potent clues in crime scene investigations. While fingerprints and DNA have long been the gold standards for identification, their presence isn’t always guaranteed.

Here lies the potential of human scent. Crime investigations, from robberies to assaults, often see the perpetrator’s hands as instruments, transferring biological and inorganic evidence to the scene. While canines have harnessed the potential of human scent for investigative purposes, bringing this capability into the lab can redefine the way we approach crime scenes, especially when tangible evidence like fingerprints or DNA is sparse.

Even when traditional evidence is elusive, the volatile organic compounds from your hands—a complex concoction determined by genetics, environment, and bodily secretions—could provide pivotal insights. Prior studies have explored scents from the breath or underarms, but focusing on hand odor opens up a novel forensic avenue.

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Forensic insight beyond crime scenes

The potential applications of this knowledge stretch further. Think of personalized healthcare diagnostics, or tailoring personal care products based on individual hand scent profiles: The science of human odor patterns might soon emerge as invaluable in a range of sectors.

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Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO
Tricia is a doctor of osteopathy with experience in primary healthcare. She received her medical degree from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and conducts clinical research in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, as she is motivated by the desire to contribute to the development of innovative treatments and therapies. She is also a certified lifestyle coach for the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program, empowering individuals to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Varacallo loves to write— especially about health, wellness, and grief. Drawing from her own experiences of loss and caregiving, she loves to offer support and encouragement to those navigating their own grief journeys. Outside of her professional life, she enjoys traveling and exploring the sunny beaches of Florida with her significant other, always ready for their next adventure.