What Do the Molecules on Your Phone Reveal About Your Lifestyle?

Researchers have found that molecules left on a individual's phone can reveal a good deal about his/her lifestyle.

For some individuals, major aspects of their life are buried within the depths of their smartphone; with social media apps documenting where they have been, credit card apps allowing them to pay quickly on-the-go, and messages with friends and family who are close to them, one can tell a lot about a person just by looking through their phone. However, recent research has shown that much can be revealed about a person even without access into the phone’s contents; a personalized lifestyle “read out” can be made just by sampling the molecules on the phone itself.

By looking at the molecules and microbes that remain on phones, researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences were able to essentially create a “lifestyle sketch” of the phone's owners that contained information related to “diet, preferred hygiene products, health status and locations visited,” according to an official press release.

In the press release, Pierre Dorrestein, PhD, professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and senior author of the study, said, “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. They would have nothing to go on to determine who that belongs to. So we thought—what if we take advantage of left-behind skin chemistry to tell us what kind of lifestyle this person has?”

In 2015, Dr. Dorrestein and his team took hundreds of skin swabs from two volunteers and created 3D models showcasing “molecular and microbial variations across the body.” The team found that the majority of the molecules came from beauty and hygiene products, despite the fact that the subjects did not use any such products for at least three days previous to the study sampling. The results of that study would inspire the researchers to take molecular analysis a step further.

Dr. Dorrestein explained, “All of these 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.”

For the next cell phone study, Dr. Dorrestein and his team took four swabs from the cell phones and eight swabs from the right hand of each of 39 healthy, adult volunteers; altogether totaling 500 swab samples. By using a technique called mass spectrometry, as well as the GNPS database, the researchers were able to identify a number of molecules by comparing their “reference structures” with the ones within the database.

The researchers found a number of medications in the sample swabs which ranged from anti-inflammatory drugs and anti-depressants to hair loss treatments, as well as anti-fungal skin creams. The samples also allowed researchers to identify a number of food molecules that included caffeine, herbs, spices, and even citrus. Some of the molecules, such as sunscreen and DEET, were found to have remained on cell phones months after the owners used them, which led researchers to another discovery: the cell phones can also provide researchers with more long-term information.

Dr. Dorrestein and his team took their research a step further by collecting sample swabs from a number of other personal objects that are frequently and consistently used, such as keys and wallets, from 80 additional volunteers. The team hopes to be able to identify bacteria as well as other microbes that can be found on the skin and on frequently-used objects.

For obvious reasons, this finding can help create a profile of someone in the field of forensics, but the researchers feel that these “read outs” can also be an asset in the medical field. Physicians are constantly seeking ways to test antibiotic adherence and this may just be the answer they have been looking for. By analyzing metabolites on their patients’ skin, they can see if their patient is sticking to the prescribed antibiotic regimen. In addition, skin metabolites can help researchers when it comes to creating subgroups for clinical trials. By learning which patients can metabolize the medication, they can make sure to only administer the medication to that subgroup.