Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Cortisol in hair measured in young adults - a biomarker of major life stressors?

Jerker Karlén1*, Johnny Ludvigsson2, Anneli Frostell23, Elvar Theodorsson4 and Tomas Faresjö1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Medical and Health Sciences, Division of Community Medicine. Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

2 Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Division of Pediatrics. Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

3 Department of behavioural science and learning, Division of cognition, development and disability. Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

4 Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Division of Clinical Chemistry. Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

For all author emails, please log on.

Citation and License

BMC Clinical Pathology 2011, 11:12  doi:10.1186/1472-6890-11-12

Published: 25 October 2011



Stress as a cause of illness has been firmly established. In public health and stress research a retrospective biomarker of extended stress would be an indispensible aid. The objective of this pilot study was to investigate whether concentrations of cortisol in hair correlate with perceived stress, experiences of serious life events, and perceived health in young adults.


Hair samples were cut from the posterior vertex area of (n = 99) university students who also answered a questionnaire covering experiences of serious life events, perceived Stress Scale and perceived health during the last three months. Cortisol was measured using a competitive radioimmunoassay in methanol extracts of hair samples frozen in liquid nitrogen and mechanically pulverised.


Mean cortisol levels were significantly related to serious life events (p = 0.045), weakly negatively correlated to perceived stress (p = 0.025, r = -0.061) but nor affected by sex, coloured/permed hair, intake of pharmaceuticals or self-reported health. In a multiple regression model, only the indicator of serious life events had an independent (p = 0.041) explanation of increased levels of cortisol in hair. Out of four outliers with extremely high cortisol levels two could be contacted, both reported serious psychological problems.


These findings suggest that measurement of cortisol in hair could serve as a retrospective biomarker of increased cortisol production reflecting exposure to major life stressors and possibly extended psychological illness with important implications for research, clinical practice and public health. Experience of serious life events seems to be more important in raising cortisol levels in hair than perceived stress.

Biomarker; Coping; Cortisol; Hair; Serious life events; Stress