Molecules you leave on your phone can reveal intimate lifestyle secrets

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By BenjaminBeck

Intimate details of a person’s lifestyle, shopping habits and health can now be gleaned from the molecules they leave behind on everyday objects such as smartphones, pens or keys, scientists have proven.

US researchers took swabs from the mobile phones of 39 volunteers and used a technique called mass spectrometry to identify individual molecules and compounds on the case and screen.

They then compared them to the Global Natural Product Social Molecular Networking database which records the chemical make-up of thousands of products and drugs to reveal a unique profile of each owner.

The team was able to tell the sex of the owner as well as a host of private information such as whether they were suffering from depression, skin inflammation or allergies, based on medications which were present.

They could also tell whether a person preferred wine or beer, what cosmetics they used, if they dyed their hair or were bald, and if they spent a lot of time outdoors.

The test could show if someone is a beer or wine drinker 
The test could show if someone is a beer or wine drinker 

If was even possible to tell if they liked spicy food. The profiling could be useful for identifying suspects or victims in criminal cases, or even profiling people at airports, say researchers.

“By analyzing the molecules they’ve left behind on their phones, we could tell if a person is likely female, uses high-end cosmetics, dyes her hair, drinks coffee, prefers beer over wine, likes spicy food, is being treated for depression, wears sunscreen and bug spray, and therefore likely spends a lot of time outdoors,  all kinds of things,” said first author Dr Amina Bouslimani, of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

“This is the kind of information that could help an investigator narrow down the search for an object’s owner.”

Some of the medications they detected on phones included anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal skin creams, hair loss treatments, and eye drops.

Food molecules included citrus, caffeine, herbs and spices. Sunscreen ingredients and DEET mosquito repellant were detected on phones even months after they had last been used by the phone owners, suggesting these objects can provide long-term lifestyle sketches.

People do not realise how many chemical signatures they pass on to everyday objects, say scientists 
People do not realise how many chemical signatures they pass on to everyday objects, say scientists 

“You can imagine a scenario where a crime scene investigator comes across a personal object – like a phone, pen or key – without fingerprints or DNA, or with prints or DNA not found in the database,” said senior author Dr Pieter Dorrenstein of the University of California.

“So we thought – what if we take advantage of left-behind skin chemistry to tell us what kind of lifestyle this person has?

“All of the chemical traces on our bodies can transfer to objects. So we realized we could probably come up with a profile of a person’s lifestyle based on chemistries we can detect on objects they frequently use.”