Do you know that on everything you touch, you leave fingerprints? If your hands are very dirty, this is obvious, because you can actually see them. But even if your hands seem clean, your fingerprints will stay behind on the surfaces you touch—they are just invisible! Do you want proof? Then make them visible in this activity and collect your own fingerprints!
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.
Detecting invisible fingerprints is an important task in forensic science, a branch of science that helps criminal investigations by collecting and analyzing evidence from crime scenes. Fingerprints are the most commonly-collected type of evidence. Because fingerprint patterns are unique to a specific person, they are a very reliable way of identifying a suspect. There are different types of fingerprints that can be left behind: 1) a fingerprint imprint in a soft surface, such as wax or soap; 2) a patent fingerprint, visible to the naked eye, such as fingerprints resulting from dirty hands; and 3) latent fingerprints, which are invisible, but still present.
These invisible latent fingerprints are made of water, fatty acids, amino acids, and triglycerides—in other words, they result from the oil and sweat that your skin produces naturally. To make them visible, you have to find a way to detect one of these substances present in the invisible fingerprint. The easiest method is called dusting, in which you use a very fine powder that can stick to the oil in the fingerprint. Once the fingerprint becomes visible, you can lift it from the surface with clear tape and transfer it to another surface to then take into the laboratory to analyze further. Other methods include using chemicals that react with the amino acids or water in the fingerprint; the chemical reaction results in a colored fingerprint, which you can then analyze easily.
Many factors determine the quality of a fingerprint on a surface. One of the most important factors is the surface texture. Fingerprints are most easily detected on smooth, non-textured, and dry surfaces. The rougher or more porous the material, the more difficult it will be to get good fingerprint evidence. Another factor is the condition of the skin on your fingertips. If it is very sweaty and oily, you are more likely to leave behind prints than if it is nice and clean. Of course, wearing gloves also prevents leaving behind fingerprints. Test it yourself and collect your own fingerprint evidence like a real crime scene investigator in this activity!
Extra: Can you prevent leaving behind fingerprints on a smooth surface? What about wearing gloves? Repeat steps 1–6 of this activity, but this time, wear gloves. Can you still find a fingerprint on the glass or metal surface?
Extra: In this activity, you tested a nice, smooth glass or metal surface. Do you think other surface textures or materials will result in fingerprints as well? There is only one way to find out! Test other materials such as paper, textiles, or wood. How do fingerprints look on these surfaces?
Extra: Now that you are a professional in collecting fingerprints from surfaces, try to find them in your house! Where is the best place to look for them? Can you find your own ones or some from your family members and make them visible?
Observations and Results
Were you able to collect some of your own fingerprints? On a smooth surface like glass or metal, fingerprints tend to stick very well. With your unwashed hands, you should have been able to make your fingerprint visible with either cacao or baby powder. Just a little powder applied with a brush should be enough to reveal your fingerprint. If you apply too much powder, however, the fine details of your print tend to get lost. When you press too hard onto the surface with the brush, the fingerprint will be wiped away, so you have to be careful when treating the surface with the powder.
Your freshly-washed hands have much less oil and sweat on their skin as they have been washed away with the soap and water. This results in a much less pronounced fingerprint. You might have had difficulties in collecting this fingerprint or may not have found one at all. On the other hand, if you apply hand lotion, which contains lots of oil and fat, this will make your fingertips much stickier, which leads to a much more pronounced fingerprint. You should have seen a big fat fingerprint once you applied the powder to the surface where you put your finger. If you compare all the prints you collected, the one with hand lotion should be most visible, whereas the print with your washed hands should be barely visible.
If you did the extra activities, you might have noticed that porous or rough surfaces or materials such as paper or textiles are not very good for collecting fingerprints. Also, when wearing gloves, no fingerprints are left behind. These are all important factors that real crime scene investigators have to take into account when collecting fingerprints at a crime scene. Considering your results, where would you look for fingerprints in your home? Did you find some?
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Svenja Lohner, PhD, Science Buddies
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