Fingerprints are like a natural identity card that every human possesses. Did you know that even identical twins don’t have the same fingerprints? The loops, whorls and arches on the top portion of our fingers are unique enough to be considered as proof of identity. Since the 1920s, fingerprints have been accepted as evidence in courtrooms due to their unique nature and permanence. Over the past century, countless crimes have been solved solely by matching the criminal’s fingerprints to those found at a crime scene.
Most of your favorite crime shows end with the accused being arrested by matching his fingerprints with those that have already been entered into the database. The use of fingerprints in crime fiction has, of course, kept pace with its use in real-world detective work. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a short story about his celebrated sleuth Sherlock Holmes that features fingerprints very prominently.
One of his works, titled “The Norwood Builder”, involves the discovery of a bloody fingerprint that helps Holmes expose the real criminal and free his client. In short, fingerprints have proven to be an extremely reliable resource of information over the years.
The question is, do we inherit them for the complete duration of our existence, or do they change as we age?
The short answer is…. No, fingerprints don’t change over time, but there’s a catch. They do not change as we grow old, but they can be affected by certain external conditions.
A person’s fingerprints are formed when they are babies in their mother’s wombs (usually in the 17th week of pregnancy). These prints are set in stone before we even come out into the world. As a person grows, the prints get bigger, while retaining the same pattern. Essentially, the prints just scale up gradually.
Remember, fingerprints are permanent, but they can be affected by the following circumstances:
Although fingerprints don’t change with age, it can get a bit more difficult to capture them in older people. This is because the skin loses its elasticity with age and the patterns become less prominent, especially due to the thickening of ridges and furrows.
Construction workers, especially bricklayers and people who frequently wash dishes by hand, lose some of the detail in their fingerprints. Once they stop these activities, the ridges will grow back. People who work with chemicals (e.g. calcium oxide) can also lose some of the detail in their fingerprints. However, again, once such activities are stopped, the worn out patterns tend to grow back over time. In other words, even in such cases, the change in the appearance of fingerprints is only temporary.
Injuries and Diseases
There are certain skin diseases that destroy the dermis and epidermis layer of the skin. As a result, it becomes very difficult for fingerprint recognition systems to recognize the prints of these individuals. Adermatoglyphia is an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes a person to have no fingerprints. People with this disorder have completely smooth fingertips, palms, toes and soles.
In rare circumstances, cancer treatment can also make you lose your fingerprints. In 2008, a Singaporean man was detained at an airport for a routine fingerprint scan. However, it turned out that he had none. He was on chemotherapy to keep the cancer in his head and neck in check. As it turns out, a drug called capecitabine had given him a moderate case of something known as hand-foot syndrome, which can cause swelling, pain and peeling on the palms and soles of the feet – and apparently, the loss of fingerprints.
Cuts and burns that go deeper than the epidermis can also leave scars that alter the fingerprints permanently
There have been numerous instances in history where criminals have tried to alter their fingerprints in order to get away with their crimes.
In one such popular case, John Dillinger, a gangster from the 1930s, tried to destroy his fingerprints by burning his fingertips with fire and acid. However, the technique backfired, as the change was only temporary and the skin grew back after a while, with his fingerprints still intact.
The amazing thing is that damaged skin can reproduce cells to form the fingerprints exactly as they were before they were damaged, unless the cut penetrates the dermis.
The natural identity given to us in the form of fingerprints is actually quite solid. You may lose your driver’s license, unique identification card, passport or other modes of identification, but fingerprints are forever!
- Science Mag (American Association for the Advancement of Science)
- Scientific American
- Michigan State University Computer Science and Engineering
- University of Arizona Department of Mathematics