Fingerprints Change Over the Course of a Person’s Life

By Carl Engelking | June 29, 2015 3:13 pm


Fingerprints may not be the permanent biological signatures we’ve built them up to be.

Since the 1920s, fingerprints have been accepted as evidence in courtrooms due to their uniqueness and permanence. And their uniqueness has been scientifically validated. But what of their permanence? Do those ridges and swirls remain the same from birth to death? According to a new study, our fingerprints do slightly change as time progresses — which could have implications for everything from law enforcement to unlocking your iPhone.

Deepening the Science

Belief in the permanence of human fingerprints largely hinges on evidence gleaned from a handful of case studies. Soweon Yoon and Anil Jain wanted to provide deeper scientific context.

They began by examining 10-print fingerprint records generated from 15,500 repeat offenders in a Michigan State Police database. In case you aren’t familiar, 10-print records are created in a controlled setting by dipping all 10 fingers in ink, and rolling each finger onto a card. Each criminal included in the study had five or more of these records spanning five years to 12 years, which allowed researchers to examine changes in prints over time.

Researchers ran the prints through two off-the-shelf fingerprint matching machines, looking for two separate measures: how well the machines paired different prints from the same person (genuine match scores), and if they could differentiate one person’s prints from another (imposter scores). Then, to investigate what factors influenced the machines’ judgments, they created a statistical model to mimic the machines’ output. The model took into account time between prints, fingerprint image quality, and the subject’s age, sex and race.

Fingerprint Fluidity

It turns out that a person’s age and the time interval between prints significantly affected the machines’ accuracy. Genuine match scores, comparing two prints from the same person, decreased as the time gap between prints grew. In other words, your fingerprints don’t look the same to machines as they did 12 years ago.

However, at 12 years (the longest this study investigated), the error rate was still within the normal margins of error for such machines in real-life, unless one of the prints was of poor quality. And regardless of age or elapsed time, the machines didn’t confuse one person’s prints with another person’s — kind of a big deal if you’re standing trial. The study was published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This study seems to indicate that, yes, our fingerprints do morph over time. But those slight changes aren’t enough to befuddle the machines in use today, for the most part. More research will need to be done to answer the question of how many years must elapse between prints for the machines to miss the match. For forensic scientists at least, the study is certainly food for thought.


Photo credit: viicha/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • saranya

    I seee. Science Would find everything and would give solution too. So lets seee what the solution comes for biological signature/identity.

  • polistra24

    Interesting but only a problem for “cold cases” where agencies with too much time on their hands try to solve 20-year-old crimes.

    In the real and urgent world of serious crime, suspects have been arrested and imprisoned often enough to have reasonably fresh prints.

    • ericlipps

      Not always. Some people may successfully flee after committing a single murder, or may hide the body where it isn’t found for many years, or commit some other serious crime just once. Should they be allowed to get away with it just because their fingerprints aren’t fresh when discovered?

      Your point really applies chiefly to career criminals. Of course, if, as some people advocate, everyone were fingerprinted, the situation would be different.

  • Paul R. Laska

    To a fingerprint examiner, change means the actual minutiae differ. While this story is not detailed, I expect the change it “reveals” is actually skin quality – thinning of the epidermis, drying of the skin, etc., but not change of the actual Galton detail that examiners depend upon to determine identity.

    • Danny1735

      If you would like extra income on the side averaging $50 to $300 a day for doing an online job from your house for several h daily then try this…

  • Barb

    Now that fingerprints are scanned at Immigration when entering the US, for example, the changing of fingerprints over time might need to be considered.

    • Kiara

      Fingerprints do not change they just widen unless your dermal layer is damaged after

  • Ivar Ivarson

    Hmmm. The Ohio Supreme Court fingerprinted us law students 45 years ago [insert “natural criminal class” joke here]. Any takers for a comparative study? It’s not like we used those hands for any manual labor.

  • Laurie Goffman

    I am 78 years old. About 5 year ago I was required to be fingerprinted for a job, and discovered I no longer have fingerprints. This was through Live Scan. They said the FBI would require the scan to be taken a second time, which it was, and then the FBI accepted the results. 14 of us took the test and 4 of us, all seniors, no longer had fingerprints. I know I had finger prints at age 21 when I was fingerprinted for a secret clearance position.

    • edith_jones3
    • edith_jones3
    • Kiara

      There was probably a strong acid in there because fingerprints can be burned off with acid

    • Ginger

      I too have no fingerprints. I went to get a gun license and they had to send my prints off to the FBI to put under a better method in order to obtain them.

  • Caseas

    < ?????? +dilbert +*********…..


  • Kiara

    I am doing a 8 month long project on fingerprints and with fingerprints are burned off the do grow back the may not look the same depending on how bad the dermal layer is damaged


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