Can This Undercover Nail Polish Detect Date Rape Drugs?

2014 830 nail st(Image: Chantal Wagner Kornin)My parents did their best to prepare me for life on my own. As I headed off to college, hoping that I might actually have a social life between the working three jobs and studying, they offered advice on how to handle certain social situations. One rather salient piece of advice was related to parties and drinking. Whether it was getting water or a potent mixed drink, my mother always advised me to get my own. If I was at a party and wanted a bottle of water or a beer, I opened it myself. I never left my open drink alone, and I always remained with friends so we could keep an eye on each other.

They never wanted me to be fearful, just aware.

While the terms rape or sexual assault were never used when giving these pieces of advice, there was no doubt the purpose of encouraging me to take informed actions was to help me avoid some of the more dangerous situations of being a young woman in the world. Of course, we know that when girls and women are attacked, it has nothing to do with her actions and everything to do with the men who choose to violate her. Still, there is something to be said about feeling in control in the face of potential danger.

Now, four undergraduate students are trying to give women another way to have this feeling in a very fashionable way. Undercover Colors is a line of nail polish that is chemically designed to detect some commonly known date rape drugs. The polish can detect Rohypnol and GHB, as well as Xanax. Known as “roofies,” these drugs incapacitate victims, making them physically unable to fight back or even scream for help. Many victims suffer amnesia and often do not get to the doctor before the drugs leave their system, which happens quickly. These drugs are often a facilitating factor in sexual assaults on college campuses.

The nail polish detects these drugs by changing colors when it comes in contact with them.

The four male students are majoring in Materials Science & Engineering at North Carolina State University. As they explain on their Facebook page, “While date rape drugs are often used to facilitate sexual assault, very little science exists for their detection. Our goal is to invent technologies that empower women to protect themselves from this heinous and quietly pervasive crime.”

They have garnered the attention of at least one major investor and have raised more than $100,000. They have also won prize money from competitions, and are currently fundraising to raise money for further research and development. This is just the first of many products they hope to develop, making them the “first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault.”

The company has even gotten the attention of multi-billionaire and investor Mark Cuban. He’s very impressed with the young men’s unique approach to a social problem. “So many people try to be the Uber of this or the Facebook of that,” he told the Triangle Business Journal. “The fact that they used nail polish to solve a serious problem is brilliant.”

Except that it doesn’t solve the serious problem.

Using these drugs facilitate, but do not cause, sexual assaults. The person that uses them does so to further his goal of violating a woman (and, yes, even men) to make his assault easier, with the hopes of minimizing his chances of being caught. Furthermore, the chemistry of date rape drugs is evolving rapidly and it would be difficult to manufacture any product that could detect everything. It’s not something that can be updated with the new fall fashion colors.

Their contribution is just the latest in other products designed to detect when a drink has been spiked. Drink Safe Technologies offers a line of products that can detect GHB and ketamine. Their Date Rape Drug Test (yes, they call it that) consists of testing strips that can detect the drugs with just a couple of drops. They also offer coasters with built in test strips. After being rendered incapacitated by a spiked drink, a Boston entrepreneur developed a line of straws and cups that also change colors when a drink is spiked with GHB, Rohypnol or ketamine.

The young men behind Undercover Colors acknowledge this is just one angle in combating the problem. They encourage support of Men Can Stop Rape, an advocacy and education organization that has taken the approach of men being responsible for preventing sexual assault. They also say their goal is to shift the fear from women to men. “Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk that they can get caught.”

There is no timeline as to when the nail polish will be available on the market as they are still raising money for the company. While many advocacy groups are educating boys and men to, you know, not rape, women are still tasked with the responsibility of keeping themselves safe. Mom’s sage advice of never taking drinks from strangers, never leaving your drink unattended, and using the buddy system remains the prevailing wisdom in just aspect of sexual assault prevention.

Still, there’s something to be said for feeling in control in the face of potential danger by simply stirring your drink with your fingernail painted in the latest fashionable colors.