Synthetic urine: the lab perspective

Jul 17, 2019

People with a lot at stake will give anything a go when they’re thinking “how to pass a drugs test” - bleaching, shaving, pills and purgatives have all been tried. One of the more daring options - switching the samples altogether - takes on a new dimension in the world of urine testing.

It’s not easy to fake a urine sample, but it’s been done. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson admits to using a prosthetic penis filled with uncontaminated urine to pass doping tests at the height of his career. And false member technology has continued to advance. It now includes heat packs and switch releases for faster delivery, and the loophole that Tyson always feared - being caught using a woman’s urine - has, in theory, been closed.

How? Synthetic urine. Yes, really!

A wee history of synthetic urine

Synthetic urine has been around for a while - the first sample of artificial urea, the key chemical making up urine, was created in 1828 by Friedrich Wöhler. At the time, this was a scientific curiosity, one of the first organic compounds produced in laboratory conditions. Now, Wöhler synthesis is sometimes recognised as the beginning of organic chemistry as a viable field.

Workplace drug testing has become more and more commonplace, particularly in the US, where the War On Drugs initiative of the late 1980s saw more and more workplaces introduce zero tolerance drug policies. In the UK, these policies have been slower to catch on, but TUC reports that safety critical industries like construction, transport and power have adopted a similar approach. In those circumstances, employees are becoming cagier and cagier, and looking for ways to ensure negative test results.

Enter the pee peddlers.

How commonplace is synthetic urine?

There’s a thriving market for both synthetic pee and prosthetics to deliver it: Ultra Klean synthetic urine is available on eBay, for instance, while distributors Urine Luck have been specialising in synthetic urine as a “detox product” since 2004.

It’s easy for companies to claim that’s not what their product is for. One company actually has a list of uses for synthetic urine on its website, claiming it’s used “to calibrate your urine testing equipment, getting down and dirty with some wet-sex simulation, or just pranking your friends"

Ultimately, it’s the same principle as head shops selling amyl nitrites as “room deodorisers” (and head shops are another easy way to lay your hands on some prosthetic pee). Everyone involved knows they’re for recreational consumption, but the letter of the law can’t prove that in court - after all, that’s not what it says on the packaging, and the company can’t be held accountable for misuse by consumers.

What’s synthetic urine made of?

As we’ve said, artificial urea is nothing new, but it’s a leap from this compound to synthetic urine that can fool a drug test.

Add water, creatinine, pH balancers and uric acid to this compound and you have the chemical balance right. But there’s more to the tests than this. Urinalysis clinics use gas chromatography to separate and identify the compounds in a sample, along with mass spectrometry to measure a sample’s density. Synthetic urine needs to be carefully blended so it has a comparable mass and composition to the real stuff – and crucially, it needs to be delivered at body heat.

Why’s that crucial? Because the sample needs to be heated to a specific, narrow temperature at the point of collection. It’s fiddly, it demands paraphernalia and waiting times, and it leads to detectable oddities in behaviour, for which the sample collector should be on the watch.

How to test for synthetic urine

Synthetic urine is, chemically speaking, quite sophisticated - and therefore not easy to detect through analysis. This means the point of collection is the best time to detect synthetic urine. Collectors will need to show the same diligence, the same duty of care, that they do for hair testing. They’ll need to balance a reasonable concern for the subject’s privacy with a certain scepticism about “pee shyness” to ensure no prosthetics are being whipped out in the lab.

Once the sample is verified and in hand, a rigorous chain of custody prevents the riskier approach of physically swapping the samples over. The sample should always be held by a named person, that person should always be accountable for what happens to it, and the sample should never be handed to an untrained or unaccountable third party.

At the end of the day, detecting synthetic urine is a job for the professionals - qualified and experienced toxicologists working with an accredited lab, one that’s proven it screens and handles its samples properly.

Find out how to be sure you’re working with a properly accredited testing lab.

Hair Testing Guide for Social Work


Picture credit


Image (CC) US Army

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