New Evidence Test Helps Track Down Criminals Through Lipstick Prints

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The lipstick one puts on provides plenty of evidence about the person behind the pucker — taste level and skin-tone awareness, for starters, not to mention how high- or low-maintenance the wearer may be. But what if it could help track down a killer? That CSI–type scenario might be possible now, thanks to a scientific advance of the highest (lowest?) order.

Scientists have developed an improved method for lifting lipstick samples from surfaces, as well as the ideal way to analyze them — with a technique known as gas chromatography, which involves vaporizing compounds for analysis. The researchers presented their findings Monday as part of the American Chemical Society’s National Meeting and Exposition in San Diego.

Forensic scientists have, for years, been able to remove lipstick stains for analysis, although all current methods involve tedious and expensive steps that require long waits for results. “Working on this investigation has opened my eyes to the fact that TV has it wrong — things take much longer in real life,” lead researcher Bethany Esterlen, an undergraduate student at Western Illinois University, said in a press release.

Working in the lab of Brian Bellott, Ph.D., Esterlen and her colleagues improved upon established methods of lipstick extraction and eliminated unnecessary steps that slowed down the process. The final method is a simple two-part process: adding an organic solvent to remove most of the oils and waxes, then adding a basic organic solvent to extract the remaining residue.

“Right now we are just lifting samples off of paper, but in the future we are hoping to use different articles and media that could be found at a crime scene,” Bellott said.

Once they had an efficient way to lift the lipstick samples, the team tried three types of chromatography — two of which use computers to read results and one of which involves placing samples under ultraviolet light. The team then analyzed 40 lipsticks and was able to discover the compositions of organic molecules unique to specific brands. The complete method, Bellott said, is effective enough to be adopted right now by forensic labs. (And while the technique does not involve looking at DNA, Bellott says he’s open to the idea of a collaboration that would develop that additional piece.)

But how often would a quick lipstick analysis really be the trick that cracks a case?

“I don’t have any hard data on how often lipstick would be used as a defining piece of evidence,” Bellott tells Yahoo Beauty. “A lipstick trace could be used as a part of a larger case, allowing for one more piece of the puzzle for investigators.” For example, he explains, “One could imagine a scenario in which two different people are suspected of a crime. Our method could be used to differentiate between the two people. It does appear to be a tiny piece, but providing people with as many tools to solve a crime is one of our overarching goals.”  

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