How can you identify heroin?

Being able to correctly identify heroin and the different forms it can come in is essential to avoiding accidental exposure and overdose.

Ophelia team
Heroin syringe
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Fact checked by
Arthur Robin Williams, MD

Heroin, a semi-synthetic opioid, often comes up in discussions about drug addiction and overdose. The drug presents a serious public health issue, with more than 10,000 national overdose deaths involving heroin in 2020, and many more from fentanyl that people consumed under the impression it was “heroin.” 

Being able to correctly identify heroin is essential to avoiding accidental exposure and overdose. The following guide will help you recognize heroin and associated paraphernalia if you encounter it. 

Types of heroin

The two main forms of heroin differ in appearance and texture. Despite these differences, they’re used in many of the same ways.

Powdered heroin

The most common type of heroin is powdered, often a light brown, beige, sand, or gray color.  People can administer powdered heroin by smoking, sniffing, or snorting it. 

Typically users smoke powdered heroin by:

  • Using glass pipes
  • Aluminum foil, paired with a straw and lighter

The last method is done by placing the heroin in aluminum foil, heating it with the lighter, and using the straw to inhale the smoke that comes off the heroin as it heats up. 

Injecting heroin is a popular way to administer the drug because it directly enters the bloodstream and creates the most immediate impact—effects from heroin injection can appear in less than a minute. The paraphernalia associated with injecting heroin includes:

  • Hypodermic needles
  • Spoons and bottle caps
  • Tie-offs like strings, shoelaces, or rubber ties
  • Cotton balls
  • Lighters or candles

To snort heroin, people generally don’t use any tools other than straws or rolled bills to help get the powdered heroin into their noses. 

Black tar heroin

Black tar heroin (also known as “Black Dragon”) is a cruder form of heroin compared to the powdered version. It’s a dark brown or black, sticky drug whose color comes from the impurities left behind after production. Generally, people smoke or inject black tar heroin using the same tools listed above. However because of the stickiness of the substance, people who inject black tar heroin are at greater risk of skin infections and abscesses. 

Tips for identifying heroin by look, smell and taste.

Identifying heroin

What does heroin look like?

Since the drug comes in different forms, it’s fair to ask, “What color is heroin?” It depends on the form. Powdered heroin is generally white or light brown. It’s a light, fine powder similar in texture to flour. This means it can easily be confused with other white powdered drugs, like cocaine. 

Black tar heroin looks very different. As the name suggests, black tar heroin is a very dark color. It can look like a piece of coal or a shiny clump of black clay.

What does heroin smell like?

Both forms of heroin also have different smells. Pure powdered heroin is generally odorless, but diluted heroin with additives often has an acidic, vinegary smell.

Because black tar heroin is less pure than other forms, it typically has a stronger vinegar smell. Powdered heroin that has few impurities or was washed at the end of the production process won’t smell as strongly. Brown powdered heroin is more likely to have an acidic smell since its color comes from having more impurities. 

What does heroin taste like?

People describe heroin as having a bitter taste, but its flavor can vary based on the substances used to cut it. Heroin may end up with an acidic, bitter, or sweet flavor from its additives. 

The dangers of heroin

When individuals come into contact with heroin, they aren’t always aware of the quantity of pure heroin they’re ingesting. This is because heroin is almost always cut or mixed with some other substance, such as powdered milk, sugar, starch, or other drugs meant to act as filler. 

Cutting the drug with other substances makes it almost impossible to know the exact composition and dosage of street heroin. People can easily ingest dangerous quantities without intending to, leading to accidental overdoses. 

Evidence-based help for heroin use

Addressing opioid dependency is key to preventing these overdoses. Ophelia offers medication-supported online opioid dependency treatment that fits into your life. We work with insurance providers—including state-sponsored plans—in a growing number of states to help people get the care they need. Find out if you’re a candidate for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and get connected with a care team today.


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