Instant vs. Lab Drug Tests: What Employers Need to Know

What are the pros and cons of instant and lab drug tests? Here’s what employers need to know to make the best decision when deciding which to use.

In 2013, almost 80% of employers tested for drugs in at least one section of their business.

It’s a vital part of finding the right candidates and keeping the workplace safe. Unfortunately, some drug tests are expensive, leaving employers facing one very important question: should they use lab drug tests or instant drug tests?

Let’s explore the pros and cons of each to discover which is right for you and your company.

Lab Drug Tests

Lab drug tests are conducted by professionals in controlled environments. Employees are directed to a site. There, a sample is collected.

Specialists later provide results directly to the company.


Many corporations, especially larger businesses, utilize laboratory testing for its many benefits.


Laboratory testing provides a range of options for companies to choose from. Employers can purchase five-panel, eight-panel and ten-panel screening tests.

The five-panel detects marijuana, PCP, cocaine, amphetamines and opiates. The eight-panel adds tranquilizers, barbiturates and methaqualone to the screening. In addition to these, the ten-panel usually screens for methadone and propoxyphene.

Of these, the most popular is the eight-panel. However, the flexibility allows businesses to choose how thorough they would like to be, making it especially ideal for positions involving safety hazards or medicines.

Furthermore, employers determine “cut-off levels” for each drug.


Laboratory tests are extremely accurate, but no drug test is correct in 100% of cases. Recent research discovers drug testing, in general, may produce false positives or false negatives 5% to 10% of the time.

However, laboratory testing does come with more regulations-which translates into greater accuracy. State laws in New York, for example, require careful labeling, certified personnel or individuals with degrees and even a secondary test if a sample turns up positive for drugs.


In legal matters, laboratory tests are especially effective. Because they comply with SAMHSA guidelines, the empirical data from tests can be used in court.

Most instant tests, on the other hand, require follow-up testing if employers need data for court.


Finally, laboratories take measures to protect against cheating tests. Some include a blue dye in toilet water; others turn off the water into the area where samples are collected.

This reduces the likelihood that a potential employee “cheats” the test.


Even so, laboratory drug testing does have its drawbacks. The very things that make it so accurate also come with other consequences.


A single laboratory test generally costs employers about $60 per person.

Furthermore, businesses must weigh results against costs. For instance, the federal government tested 29,000 employees in 1990. Of those employees, only 153 tested positive for drugs.

Over 11 million dollars were spent on these tests, but if companies consider only the results (the 153 positive tests), identifying a single drug user cost the government $77,000.


The biggest drawback to laboratory testing is the amount of time it takes. Most tests take anywhere from 24 to 72 hours for results. Sometimes, it takes even longer than this.

Consequently, employers who want to get the ball rolling on hiring must wait until the results are in.

Specialty Drugs

While lab testing searches for many types of drug use, there are specialty drugs that aren’t included in most panels. Drugs like Ecstasy, K2 and others aren’t included in most screenings.

If employers want to test for these substances, they must pay extra.

Instant Tests

Instant drug tests provide results within minutes. The most commonly used test is the urine drug test cup.

A sample is collected and the test measures the amount of substance in the urine. If the amount is greater than the threshold, it tests positive. The results are usually indicated on a colored panel.


There are several benefits to instant drug tests and many urban legends about their accuracy. However, these are viable options for almost all businesses.


For many businesses, using instant tests they provide through HR is much less expensive than going through a clinic or laboratory.

Tests range from $10 to above $100 depending on what businesses need.


By far the greatest advantage of instant drug tests is their efficiency. Employers know right away if a candidate is a good fit for the company.

This speeds the hiring process up considerably and saves the applicant time and money.


It’s a common myth that instant drug tests are less accurate than laboratory drug tests. Rapid screening tests are just as accurate as laboratory ones.

Studies indicate they have a greater than 97% accuracy rate. Added to the minimized expense and increased efficiency, this characteristic makes them a great asset for businesses.


Some corporations, such as businesses involving increased safety hazards or access to medications, require in-depth knowledge about an employee’s drug use.

But most businesses are comfortable with regular five, eight, or ten-panel tests or even single tests. Like laboratory screenings, instant tests provide options that work well for businesses.


Instant drug tests have a plethora of advantages, but there are several considerations business should keep in mind.


Not sending potential employees to a laboratory means someone in your business must be trained on how to take and test samples. Instant tests are easy to supply and read, but this does require extra time and training.

Furthermore, there is the general notion that instant drug tests provided by company workers are more susceptible to adulteration. Although there is no way to know if adulteration increases with the use of instant tests, it is advisable personnel have thorough training about how to watch for “cheating.”


Instant tests have limited assortments of panels, but today’s products offer so many choices this is rarely an issue.

In addition, certain positions that require specific empirical data about the levels found in potential employees are lacking. Panels generally provide a negative or positive result, making thresholds unable to be dictated by companies.

For government agencies, hospitals or dangerous positions, this can give a limited picture of the individual’s drug use when a more intricate understanding is needed.

Find Your Kit

Lab drug tests are advantageous for some employers, but most businesses benefit just as much (if not more) from instant and rapid drug tests.

For companies seeking a thorough understanding of past drug use and empirical data, laboratory tests are ideal. If you desire accuracy, efficiency and cost management, instant tests are your best option.

Yet even instant screenings require some knowledge. Do you know what type of drug testing kit you need? Find out by reading our article.

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