- Exposing the Cosmetics Cover-up: Is cancer-causing formaldehyde in your cosmetics?
- 23 Sources of Formaldehyde To Remove From Your Home
- Common Chemicals to Avoid: Formaldehyde
- Sources of Formaldehyde
- What is Formaldehyde?
- A Short History of Formaldehyde
- Why Is Formaldehyde So Bad?
- Tips for Reducing Overall Formaldehyde Levels
- FURTHER READING
- 7 Household Products That May Contain Formaldehyde & How To Avoid Them
- Toxic Chemical Glossary:What is Formaldehyde: Chemical Free Living
- What is formaldehyde?
- What products is formaldehyde in?
- How to tell if a product has formaldehyde
- Risks associated with formaldehyde
- How to avoid formaldehyde
- These Beauty Products Still Use Formaldehyde—Here’s Why You Should Care
- How are people exposed to formaldehyde?
- Can formaldehyde cause cancer?
- Does formaldehyde cause any other health problems?
- How can I limit my exposure to formaldehyde?
- Is My Home Embalmed?
- What Other Products May Contain Formaldehyde?
- Am I Cleaning My Home With Formaldehyde?
- The Dangers of Using Products Containing Formaldehyde
- Precautions You Can Take to Avoid Formaldehyde Exposure
- Formaldehyde And Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
- Formaldehyde and Its Uses
- Dangers of Formaldehyde Exposure
- 5 Products that Create Formaldehyde in Your Home
- Food Safety Focus (6th Issue, January 2007) – Incident in Focus
- Formaldehyde Infographic
- 5 Discussion
Exposing the Cosmetics Cover-up: Is cancer-causing formaldehyde in your cosmetics?
October 10, 2013
By Johanna Congleton, Former EWG Senior Scientist
Does a chemical that may cause cancer lurk in your cosmetics? Worse, in your kid’s personal care items?
Maybe. According to data from the federal Food and Drug Administration, nearly 1 in 5 cosmetic products contains a substance that generates formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.
The product label won’t tell you if formaldehyde is present, even though the manufacturer has made sure a small amount of it is inside in the jar or bottle, to prolong shelf life. As everybody who has ever dissected a frog in biology class knows, formaldehyde is an effective preservative.
But the U.S. government and World Health Organization have classified formaldehyde as carcinogenic when its fumes are inhaled. It is also a potent skin sensitizer and allergen. Cosmetics companies generally don’t dump pure formaldehyde into their concoctions. Instead, they take a roundabout route by using what they call “preservative systems” that employ any one of several chemicals, called “formaldehyde releasers.” These are chemicals that, when added to water, will decompose slowly over time to form molecules of formaldehyde. Some manufacturers favor this method because it acts like a time-release capsule, maintaining a fairly constant level of preservative in the mix. The reactions that generate formaldehyde occur silently as the products sit on shelves in stores or bathroom cabinets.
If you don’t want a product that contains a formaldehyde-releasing chemical, you have to play detective and scrutinize the product label. Chemicals in this category include:
The FDA does not restrict the amount of formaldehyde that can be present in cosmetics sold in the U.S. But the American personal care industry’s ingredient safety panel, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, has issued voluntary guidelines that echo the European Union’s legally enforceable directive, which bars more than 0.2 percent formaldehyde in personal care products.
The European Union’s policies are better than the FDA’s, but they do not completely protect people against cosmetic chemicals that may induce allergic reactions. The EU allows personal care products to contain up to 2,000 parts per million of free formaldehyde. That’s more than enough free formaldehyde to cause dermatitis, an inflammation of he skin. Concentrations of formaldehyde as low as 200 to 300 parts per million have been shown to trigger dermatitis. Like formaldehyde itself, formaldehyde-releasing chemicals are allergens.
To be sure, the amount of formaldehyde in a cosmetic product at any given time is tiny. The cancer risks presented by a cosmetic could be considered slight — but that product is not a person’s only source of exposure. People are also exposed to formaldehyde by pressed-wood products, cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and unvented fuel-burning appliances such as gas stoves, wood-burning stoves and kerosene heaters according to the National Cancer Institute and the Environmental Protection Agency. Personal care products that contain formaldehyde make an unnecessary contribution to an individual’s exposure to this chemical – particularly since research shows that cosmetic products can release small amounts of formaldehyde into the air shortly after they are applied. Formaldehyde is most dangerous when inhaled.
Cosmetics need preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria. But formaldehyde releasers are not the only option. Last year Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of baby care and adult skin and hair care products, announced it would cease adding formaldehyde releasers to its products. There are safer substitutes such as sodium benzoate.
How can you avoid formaldehyde in your products? Check the label carefully, both for the ingredient formaldehyde itself and for the seven common formaldehyde releasers listed above. Or let EWG do the research for you. Check out the products in EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. It contains information on more than 77,000 products and their ingredients. The database, searched more than 200 million times by savvy consumers, highlights toxic substances like formaldehyde — and those insidious formaldehyde releasers.
And watch for the Skin Deep mobile app, coming soon!
23 Sources of Formaldehyde
To Remove From Your Home
We’re on a mission to help people eliminate toxins from the places where people live, work, and play. We get a lot of questions from customers about what to do next. In response to these requests, we’re starting a new series about common household chemicals to avoid. Formaldehyde is the second chemical category in our series. We hope you’ll join us in ditching these harmful chemicals! Read about the rest of the common chemicals to avoid here.
Common Chemicals to Avoid: Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde, like pesticides, is a known carcinogen and is considered to be a universal sensitizer by the CDC (Center for Disease Control), which is a chemical that can make a person sensitive to all harmful chemicals if there is a big enough exposure.(1) Removal or reduction in exposure to formaldehyde is an important proactive move for your family’s health. The good news is, you can dramatically improve your air quality once you learn how to remove formaldehyde from your home.
Sources of Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is found in manufactured wood products used as building materials such as OSB, plywood, MDF, and particle board. These manufactured wood products are also found in furniture like desks, bookshelves, beds, kitchen cabinets, and more. Although formaldehyde emissions from wood products reduce over time, there are many other invisible sources in the home. Formaldehyde is also added to paints, coatings, plastic products, pesticides, cosmetics, mattress ticking, leather goods, adhesives, glues, resins, synthetic fabrics, permanent press bedding, clothing, and drapes. Formaldehyde is a combustion byproduct of cigarette smoke and unvented, fuel-burning appliances like gas stoves and space heaters.
Formaldehyde is a well-known VOC (volatile organic compound) that is found in both outdoor and indoor air. Formaldehyde occurs naturally in trees, vegetation, fruits, and vegetables, and is produced in very small amounts in animals and the human body to help synthesize amino acids.(2) This natural background level (usually less than .03 ppm) is actually not harmful to human health. However, in urban areas, higher concentrations of formaldehyde due to smog, automobile exhaust, industrial pollution, and combustion byproducts can create toxic levels that are hazardous to humans. Unfortunately, the highest levels are found inside our homes, offices, and schools, where products containing man-made formaldehyde are extensively used.(3)
A Short History of Formaldehyde
Widespread awareness of the dangers of formaldehyde in our homes began in the mid 1970s, when people experienced serious respiratory damage from urea foam formaldehyde insulation (U.F.F.I.).(4) Although the use of U.F.F.I was banned in 1982, the ban was overturned and formaldehyde continues to be used in building materials and products that affect indoor air quality.(5)
Why Is Formaldehyde So Bad?
Formaldehyde is a cancer-causing chemical. However, exposure to formaldehyde vapors can also produce a variety of short-term symptoms such as headaches, itchy and/or burning eyes and nose, asthma, respiratory difficulties, depression, insomnia, mental confusion, epistaxis (nose bleed), rashes, joint pains, disorientation, fatigue, laryngitis/hoarseness, nausea and vomiting. People with asthma and hyper-reactive airways (10-20% of the U.S. population) are especially susceptible to formaldehyde.(6) Exposure to formaldehyde through skin contact (cosmetics) and ingestion (foods) occur as well.(7)
Luckily, you can remove many sources of formaldehyde from your home and immediately improve the air quality inside. Read below for more information about removing these sources of formaldehyde from your home and how to replace them with nontoxic options.
1, 2: air fresheners and plug-in fragrance
One of our most popular blog articles explains why we think Fragrance is the New Secondhand Smoke – these artificial fragrance sources are full of chemicals (including formaldehyde) that you don’t want to be breathing, much less circulating in your home. Products with synthetic fragrance are constantly taxing your immune system as you breathe them or absorb them through your skin. They are also a contributing source of formaldehyde in your home. Instead of using air fresheners and plug-in fragrance, bring in some fresh flowers, create your own natural air freshener, or use organic potpourri.
3, 4: essential oils and cleaning products containing terpenes
Essential oils that include d-limonene, pinene, and citrus sources contain terpenes. The California Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Board warns that the terpenes in these essential oils may react with ozone in the air to produce formaldehyde and particulates.(8) Remove essential oils containing these terpenes from your home or only use during low outdoor pollution days. For ozone forecasts, visit AirNow. Check your cleaning supplies as well. Do any of your cleaners contain these ingredients?
5: paper towels
Use reusable rags or microfibers instead of paper towels. Most paper towels emit formaldehyde, which is added to improve the strength and water resistance of paper products.(9)
6, 7: cigarettes and e-cigarettes
Enforce a no smoking policy in your home – do not allow cigarettes inside. This applies to e-Cigarettes too, which have up to 15 times the formaldehyde of regular cigarettes.(10)
8: combustion byproducts from furnaces, water heaters, stoves, and fireplaces
Make sure gas or oil fired furnaces and water heaters, gas stoves, wood stoves, and fireplaces are properly exhausted. We recommend using this Combustion Spillage fact sheet to learn more about how this affects your health and what you can do about combustion sources of formaldehyde.
9: vehicle exhaust
Reduce exposure to vehicle exhaust, which can be extremely detrimental to your health, causing problems ranging from respiratory ailments to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.(11) If you have an attached garage, always open the garage door before starting your car and do not leave the car idling inside. You can also install a garage exhaust fan that runs continuously or is on an automatic timer to remove the car exhaust from the garage so it does not infiltrate the home. Protect the entrance to your home by adding good weather stripping around the door to the garage to help prevent exhaust from entering your home. Note: when it comes to indoor air quality, detached garages are the best option. Consider a detached garage if you are building/buying a new home.
Clothing and Bedding
10: clothes treated with formaldehyde
Pay attention to clothing labels and avoid “easy care” fabrics that claim to be permanent press, anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, and anti-shrink (especially shrink-proof wool), waterproof, stain resistant (especially for suede and chamois), perspiration-proof, moth-proof, mildew-resistant, color-fast. In order to meet these qualifications, these fabrics are often treated with urea-formaldehyde resins.(12)
11: polyester, cotton blend, or permanent press bedsheets
It may be time to change your bed linens too! The same rules apply to your bed sheets, pillowcases, and blankets. Avoid any polyester/cotton or percale blends and permanent press sheets (advertised as wrinkle-free), which are treated with a formaldehyde resin finish and will emit formaldehyde as you sleep. This can cause insomnia, coughing, watery eyes, fatigue upon awakening, and sore throat. As you replace any formaldehyde-treated, wrinkle-free sheets, we recommend switching to 100% cotton or organic cotton sheets. Check out this Buyers Guide to Organic Sheets before you buy. Tip: To avoid wrinkles on cotton sheets, remove your sheets and pillowcases the minute the dryer cycle ends and put them on the bed and pillows. You can also use cotton flannel, cotton knit, and woven cotton sheets labeled “untreated” or “formaldehyde free” – these do not wrinkle!
12: pillows containing formaldehyde
Don’t stop at sheets and pillowcases! Check the tag on your pillows, as their fabrics and fillings (particularly foam) may contain formaldehyde. There are many options available for any type of sleeper. We like this guide to Eco-Friendly and Cruelty-Free Pillows.
Fabrics & Upholstery
13: upholstered furniture or curtains treated with formaldehyde
Avoid textiles that are permanent press, no-iron, crease-resistant, shrink-proof, wrinkle-proof, stretch-proof, water repellent, or water-proofed. They release formaldehyde into the air. Look for natural fibers that are formaldehyde free for upholstered furniture, drapes, and more. Check labels before you purchase any new furniture and look for fabrics that are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified. For the past nine years, the GOTS standard has been ensuring environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing of organic textiles, along with proper labeling for consumers.”GOTS-certified” products are free of heavy metals.(13) Look for heavy-metal-free or vegetable-based dyes, which are not only good for your health, but are kind to the earth and don’t pollute waterways during production. Another certification standard for textiles is Oeko-Tex. Oeko-Tex is less stringent than GOTS, but ensures chemicals used in dyeing or finishing aren’t lingering on the finished product. The “Oeko-Tex Standard 100” certification offers some assurance that formaldehyde and other chemicals are restricted.
Body Care and Baby Products
14: skin care with formaldehyde-donor preservatives
Check the labels on all your skincare, body care, baby care, natural and organic products carefully. Many skincare products use formaldehyde donors as preservatives. In some cases, formaldehyde donors may increase your chances of acne breakouts.(14) Look for these ingredients containing formaldehyde donors: diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (most commonly known as bronopol), and sodium hydroxylmethylglycinate.
15, 16: conventional nail polish and nail polish remover
Nail polish and nail polish removers contain the highest level of formaldehyde in consumer products – up to 5% as formalin. When you are replacing nail polish that contains formaldehyde, look for chemical-free nail polish – we recommend Scotch Naturals or Zoya. Wellness Mama has written a review of her favorite nontoxic nail polishes as well, which you can find here. Replace your nail polish remover with a safer, formaldehyde free version. We recommend Hopscotch Kids, Acquarella, or Priti.
17: chemical hair straighteners and smoothers
Avoid chemical hair smoothing products that are high in formaldehyde, which can also lead to hair loss. These chemical formulas, which include Brazilian Blowout, Brasil Cacau Cadiveu, Keratin Smoothing Therapy, and Marcia Teixeira, are not only bad for you and your stylist, they can even lead to hair loss from chemical damage.(15)
18: toothpastes and dental care products with formaldehyde
Make sure your toothpaste and dental care products don’t contain formaldehyde.(16) Consider Earthpaste Toothpaste and Wellscents for dental care products.
19: perfume made with synthetic fragrance
Perfumes are typically comprised of synthetic chemicals, one of which may be formaldehyde.(17) Consider going fragrance-free or switch to a natural fragrance instead. Kelly likes Ambre Oil, which has a unique, natural fragrance that lasts.
20: baby care products with formaldehyde
Sadly, even baby products like baby wash and lotions contain formaldehyde. Check this list of baby care products containing formaldehyde that the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics compiled to see if any of your baby care products are listed. Babies are particularly vulnerable to toxins as they develop, which is why we recommend fragrance-free, nontoxic products for your little ones.
21: baby wipes containing formaldehyde
Baby wipes may contain formaldehyde donors as preservatives. The initial symptoms of formaldehyde exposure include itchy, swollen, and red, dry, or bumpy skin.(18) If you notice these symptoms on your baby’s bottom, carefully read the ingredients list on the baby wipes and seek out a nontoxic alternative if it’s time to change.
22: furniture made of manufactured wood
New furniture releases the highest emissions of formaldehyde (you may recognize that new furniture smell!). Although formaldehyde levels reduce as time goes by, the best way to reduce your formaldehyde exposure is to purchase solid wood pieces. When shopping for new furniture, select solid wood furniture or manufactured wood pieces with sealed or laminated panel surfaces and edges. Unlaminated or uncoated manufactured wood products emit more formaldehyde. We highly recommend shopping for vintage or antique furniture from thrift shops and flea markets. This furniture has already outgassed and will not contribute much formaldehyde to your indoor air.
23: beds and cribs with manufactured wood
Your bed is your most important piece of furniture in the home – as you sleep the body is trying to repair and regenerate overnight! That’s why you should carefully consider not only your sheets and pillows, but also your bed frame. Look for solid wood bed frames with no manufactured wood. There are many great options for solid wood, formaldehyde-free kids beds as well. Check out these options for safe kid beds on The Zoya Blog. Don’t forget to check your baby’s bed – is the crib frame free of formaldehyde? A baby spends even more time in his or her crib, up to 15 hours a day. Heirloom or antique, solid wood cribs are great options, but if you’re looking for a new crib, this is a great resource.
Tips for Reducing Overall Formaldehyde Levels
As we’ve mentioned, formaldehyde is commonly used in furniture made with manufactured wood and building materials such as plywood, OSB, particle board. Climate control and filtration provide immediate reduction of formaldehyde levels from these materials.
Keep your house cool & the humidity low
- Decrease temperature – Reduction of air temperature just a few degrees reduces exposure to formaldehyde. For example, reducing temperature from 86 F, to 68 F reduces levels 70%.(19) Heat actually volatilizes and increases outgassing. Move furniture made with composite woods, MDF, fiberboard, or pressboard away from direct sunlight or heat sources from contact with direct sunlight, heaters, and stoves.(20) Additionally, reducing humidity is effective – a reduction of 70% – 30% humidity reduces formaldehyde 40%.
- Open your windows for 5-10 minutes once or twice a day to purge chemicals and freshen the air. More fresh air = less formaldehyde.(21) You can also bring in fresh air through a central ventilation system.(22) As much as possible, use fans to circulate the air in the home. While ceiling and window fans do use electricity, they have a relatively low carbon footprint and actually improve efficiency of circulation.
- Run the exhaust fan above your stove when you are cooking to increase outgassing from gas combustion and reduce formaldehyde.
Filter the air
- Use an air purifier that reduces VOCs like formaldehyde with an activated carbon filter. We recommend Austin Air air purifiers, which remove 99.97% of all polluting particulates.
- Add house plants that help remove formaldehyde. Learn our top picks for plants that remove formaldehyde in 8 NASA-Approved Plants that Remove Formaldehyde.
Use toxin-free household and cleaning products
- Formaldehyde can be hiding in many of your common household products like soap, body wash, baby wipes and more. Using formaldehyde-free cleaning products is a great step you can take to start enjoying a chemical-free home that’s safe for all your favorite humans (and pets!)
You can make a difference in your health by reducing formaldehyde in your home. Each toxic chemical you remove helps create a safe haven for your family that can save money that might otherwise be spent on doctor visits, medication, and missed workdays. A healthy home enables the body to use its energy for rejuvenation and healing instead of detoxifying chemicals. Join us to transform your life with the power of pure!
Have you ever noticed any effects of formaldehyde in the products you use at home? Do you have any other tips for reducing your exposure?
- To get started with Branch Basics products and to learn more about all natural, human safe cleaning products, start here.
- For more healthy living and nontoxic cleaning tips, be sure to “Like” us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram, “Like” our Pinterest page, and follow us on Twitter!
1 – Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk by the National Cancer Institute | 2 – Foods Known to Contain Naturally Occurring Formaldehyde | 3 – EPA Formaldehyde: 50-00-0 Hazard Summary – Created in April 1992; Revised in January 2000 | 4 – Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation by the Canadian Home Inspection Corporation | 5 – Formaldehyde by DoItYourself.com | 6 – Formaldehyde – Sources, Health effects and Safety by PPM-Technology | 7 – Exposing the Cosmestics Cover-up: Is Cancer-Causing Formaldehyde in Your Cosmetics? by Johanna Congleton, EWG Senior Scientist | 8 – Indoor air chemistry: cleaning agents, ozone and toxic air contaminants by Nazaroff, William W, UC Berkeley | 9 – Formaldehyde in Paper Towels and Other Paper Products by Debra Lynn Dadd | 10 – Before You Vape: High levels of Formaldehyde Hidden in E-Cigs by NBC News | 11 – The Harmful Effects of Vehicle Exhaust by Environmental and Human Health, Inc. | 12 – Formaldehyde in your fabrics by O Ecotextiles | 13 – Dyes, synthetic and “natural” by O Ecotextiles | 14 – Fragrances, Perfumes, Preservatives, and Acne by FacingAcne.com | 15 – Hair Smoothing Products That Could Release Formaldehyde by Occupational Safety and Health Administration | 16 – Why There’s Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste: The Chemistry of Household by Simon Quellen Field | 17 – Fragrance, Perfume & Cologne – What’s the Difference? by Nontoxic.com | 18 – Hidden Ingredients in Baby Wipes by Irina Webb | 19 – Principles and Practice of Environmental Medicine edited by A.B. Tarcher | 20 – Is Your Kitchen Hazardous To Your Health? The Advantages of Steel by Moya | 21 – Easy ways to clear your indoor air from Chicago Tribune | 22 – Whole-House Ventilation Systems by Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Join us for the whole series about household chemicals: Common Household Chemicals to Avoid: A Branch Basics Series. You can learn How to Remove Pesticides from Your Home as well.
Did you know certain plants filter out formaldehyde naturally? We shared 8 NASA-Approved Plants that Remove Formaldehyde.
If you’re interested in learning more about the basics about formaldehyde and its use, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Report on Formaldehyde Safety is a good resource.
Improve your indoor air quality by using The Official Branch Basics Deep Cleaning Method.
This article explains why your dryer might be contaminated in the first place: Addicted to Dryer Sheets?
Want another trick for improving indoor air quality? Find out why we’re loving Himalayan Pink Salt Lamps!
Ready to replace personal and cosmetic products? We love The Green Beauty Guide by Julie Gabriel.
Finally, if this guide piqued your interest, then try our handy step-by-step post on How to Detox Your Home!
It’s no secret that some cosmetics contain chemicals, although recognizing which ones are harmful at what levels may be as difficult as pronouncing the chemicals themselves (just try saying phthalates out loud).
But cosmetic treatments like the Brazilian Blowout are under heavy fire lately for their use of formaldehyde, a chemical the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially classifies as a carcinogen. So are you hair treatments, manicures, and even lotions giving you cancer? Here, your formaldehyde questions answered: What is formaldehyde? Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas often used in cosmetics. (FYI, it’s also often used in the production of fertilizer, paper, and plywood, as well as used as a preservative in antiseptics and medicine, among other products.)
It’s most commonly used as a water solution called formalin, rather than in its pure form. With the help of preservatives, formaldehyde is released in small amounts over time to help protect cosmetic products against contamination by bacteria during storage and during continued use. Common formaldehyde releasers include quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. What cosmetics contain formaldehyde? Formaldehyde can be found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, eyelash glues, hair gels, soaps, makeup, shampoos, lotions, and deodorants, among other products.
An article published in the April 2010 volume of Contact Dermatitis looking at products from the FDA’s Voluntary Cosmetic Registration Program database found that nearly 20 percent of products contained formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.
The two known categories of products with the most formaldehyde are hair straightening treatments and nail hardeners.
What are the dangers of formaldehyde? The most common side effect of formaldehyde in cosmetics is skin irritation, including scalp burns and hair loss, according to Alexandra Scranton, Director of Science and Research for Women’s Voices for the Earth, a national organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals impacting women’s health. But that’s not very likely with the low levels typically found in cosmetics, unless a person is highly sensitive to the substance, she says. Plus, low levels of formaldehyde have been found to cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin.
But the major concern is that formaldehyde causes cancer. The National Toxicology Program’s June report classified formaldehyde as a carcinogen under conditions with high or prolonged exposure—conditions typical for industrial workers and professional groups, including embalmers and even salon workers. These exposures typically do not occur in cosmetic and personal care products. Hair smoothing treatments like the Brazilian Blowout came under fire earlier this year when the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned that its products contained unacceptable levels of formaldehyde. In some cases, salon workers complained of nose bleeds, eye irritation, and trouble breathing after using the products.
In September, the FDA sent a letter to the makers of Brazilian Blowout, stating that the product is “adulterated” with liquid formaldehyde, “which, under the conditions of use prescribed in the labeling,” releases dangerous levels of formaldehyde into the air to be inhaled. The FDA letter said Brazilian Blowout is “misbranded” because the product’s label falsely declares it to contain “No Formaldehyde” or that it is “Formaldehyde Free.” Meanwhile, at its September meeting, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel (CIR) determined that formaldehyde and methylene glycol are unsafe as they are currently used in hair straightening products.
When it comes to nail hardeners, formaldehyde is considered a potential threat because it isn’t just used as a preservative, as it is in most cosmetics, but as an active ingredient to coat and strengthen the surface of brittle or cracked nails. The FDA does not object if the level of formaldehyde in a nail hardener is 5 percent or less.
How much formaldehyde is safe? It depends whom you ask. While the FDA, which oversees the cosmetics industry, does not prohibit nor regulate the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics (except for nail polishes), the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an independent panel of experts that determines the safety of cosmetic ingredients, recommends that cosmetic products should not contain formaldehyde at amounts greater than 0.2 percent, for health and safety reasons, says Halyna Breslawec, Chief Scientist at the Personal Care Products Council. In aerosol products, the CIR recommends that formaldehyde not be used at all. Ultimately, though, these are just recommendations that cosmetic companies aren’t mandated to follow.
Some consumer groups reject any use altogether, asserting “there’s no acceptable level of formaldehyde in products,” says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “Alternatives are readily available, so there’s no reason to be exposing anybody to a known carcinogen,” she added. Plus, “If you’re using shampoo with formaldehyde on a daily basis for 30 or 40 years, that can be a problem,” says Scranton.
How can you tell if there is formaldehyde in your cosmetics? This is a bit tricky. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires cosmetic products sold to consumers in the U.S. to include a label with a list of ingredients. But since formaldehyde is not typically used in its pure form, but altered and often under the name formalin, it’s difficult to know when the label is actually listing formaldehyde.
Plus, ingredients present at one percent or less may be declared without regard for predominance. That makes it nearly impossible for the consumer to tell just from the label how much formaldehyde, or any chemical for that matter, is in cosmetics. To sort through the confusion, your best bet is to turn to something called the Skin Deep ADD Cosmetics Database, published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Essentially, it’s an online safety guide for cosmetics to help consumers find products with few hazards. What’s the bottom line? There’s currently no evidence linking formaldehyde in cosmetics to cancer and there’s no official concentration at which formaldehyde is considered acceptable in consumer products other than nail hardeners. Different groups disagree as to what is (and isn’t) safe.
Just in case, steer clear of hair-straightening treatments that contain formaldehyde. And if you use nail hardeners that contain formaldehyde, use them in a large room with plenty of ventilation and fans or an open window, so as to reduce exposure to formaldehyde.
Also, always opt for products with fewer ingredients when possible. That way, you can rest assured that you’re being exposed to fewer chemicals overall. Stick to products in the 1- or 2- low hazard range in the Skin Deep Database. Photo: Jupiterimages/ThinkStock
7 Household Products That May Contain Formaldehyde & How To Avoid Them
If you think formaldehyde isn’t something you have to worry about unless you work in a lab, this may not be the case. A recent report from POLITICO alleges that the Trump administration suppressed the release of an Environmental Protection Agency study warning “that most Americans inhale enough formaldehyde vapor in the course of daily life to put them at risk of developing leukemia and other ailments.” This vapor often comes from household products that contain formaldehyde, and overexposure to this carcinogen could have a negative impact on your health.
Formaldehyde is hiding in many places you might not suspect. For example, if you live in a recently constructed building, you own synthetic furniture, love to wear those wrinkle-free clothes, or you get hair-straightening treatments, you’re being exposed to formaldehyde. According to the National Cancer Institute, formaldehyde is present in particleboard, plywood, fiberboard, glues and adhesives, wrinkle-resistant fabrics, paper product coatings, and certain insulation materials.
The news that consumers may not have all the information they need about formaldehyde to make informed choices about what they purchase means that you need to be your own advocate in order to minimize your exposure to potentially carcinogenic chemicals. If you want to check to see if you’re currently using products on your body or in your home that contain formaldehyde, you can find a list of some common household items, including cleaning, bath, and pet products, on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. Additionally, here’s some other items you might not know aren’t formaldehyde-free.
1. Laundry & Dish Detergent
Even if you’re careful to make sure your clothing, bedding, and towels are formaldehyde free, some clothing detergents contain formaldehyde, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The same goes for dish detergents. If you want to be sure you’re not washing your clothes or dishes in harmful chemicals, opt for an organic brand or make your own. You can also check your clothing detergent against this list of harmful chemicals on the website Force of Nature.
2. Bath Soap & Body Wash
Before you soap up in the shower, you’re going to want to make sure you’re not washing your body with formaldehyde. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a number of soaps and body washes on their formaldehyde list. If you want to ensure your bath routine is formaldehyde-free, choose products that contain only ingredients you can pronounce and understand. Target also carries formaldehyde-free bath products, and has a dedicated list on its website.
While your apartment might look chic AF, if you’ve furnished it with particleboard pieces or synthetic wood, it may contains formaldehyde, which is released into the air over time as the furniture out gasses. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s Proposition 65 website — which requires businesses make determinations and provide warnings for exposures to carcinogens and reproductive toxicants — recommended choosing furniture made of solid wood or stainless steel, or furniture with lower formaldehyde gas-emission labels. Of course, this kind of quality furniture is really expensive. You can reduce the amount of formaldehyde released from your furniture by keeping your pad cool and dry and making sure you have adequate ventilation in your home because your furniture is more likely to give off gas in hot, damp, and enclosed environments.
4. Pet Products
If you’re committed to giving only the best to your fur babies, make sure the products you’re using on them are formaldehyde-free. Even some products labeled organic show up on the USDHHS list of products containing formaldehyde. Instead of harsh chemicals, you can opt to use essential oils to bathe your pets and treat them for fleas.
5. Your New Home
Thinking of moving into a fly new space-age pad? If you want to reduce your exposure to formaldehyde, you may be better off opting for a historic building instead. While it’s always nice to have something bright and shiny, newly constructed buildings are often made with synthetic materials, which means they contain significantly higher levels of formaldehyde than older buildings constructed with brick and hardwood, according to the EPA.
6. Gas Stoves & Kerosene Space Heaters
While the building materials are less likely to expose you to toxic chemicals, a few downsides to living in an older building include poor ventilation and drafty apartments. Because formaldehyde can also be emitted from unventilated fuel-burning products, if you have a gas stove or a kerosene space heater, it’s important to make sure your home or apartment is properly ventilated, the EPA noted.
7. Hair Straightening Treatments
If you get a hair straightening treatment at the salon on the regular, you’re being exposed to formaldehyde. The United States Department of Labor reported on its website that many of these treatments contain higher levels of formaldehyde than what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers safe. This means that those who work in salons where these treatments are administered have a higher rate of exposure than those just visiting the salon.
There’s no way to completely avoid formaldehyde — it’s also released into the environment from refineries — but if you’re chemically sensitive, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure. While it takes a little more vigilance, it’s worth it in the long run.
Toxic Chemical Glossary:What is Formaldehyde: Chemical Free Living
What is formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a commonly used preservative. It can be aded directly or instead released by other preservatives. It is a flammable, colorless gas with a strong and distinctive smell . It’s a common indoor air pollutant because of its use in home construction materials as well as a byproduct of chemical reactions that take place in cleaning products .
What products is formaldehyde in?
Formaldehyde is in lots of products, including those as seemingly safe as baby washes and shampoos. It is found in cosmetics, cleaning products, air fresheners, glues, paints, hair straighteners, and detergents as well as certain pressed-wood construction products like cabinets, furnishings, plywood or particleboard and laminate flooring. Certain permanent press fabrics may also contain formaldehyde . Personal care products may become contaminated with formaldehyde over time when common preservatives chemically react with Quaternium-15 .
How to tell if a product has formaldehyde
Formaldehyde may also be called formalin, urea formaldehyde, or phenol formaldehyde but sometimes it isn’t listed on the ingredients label because it wasn’t actually added to the product. Rather, formaldehyde may be a byproduct of chemical reactions with formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like bronopol .
Risks associated with formaldehyde
Ongoing exposure to formaldehyde in the home as a result of construction materials can cause toxic effects in children as well as adults. Short term exposure, however, is also an issue. Short term exposure to formaldehyde can cause skin and mucous membrane allergies, asthma, flu-like symptoms, cancer . Low-level but ongoing exposure can cause eye, nose, skin, and throat irritation as well as asthma .
How to avoid formaldehyde
There is a long lost of chemicals that could fall within this group, so look for the words “formaldehyde- free” and/or avoid these chemicals if noted: formaldehyde, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (most commonly known as bronopol). In cleaning products, where manufacturers aren’t required to list all their ingredients on product labels, choose toxic chemical free alternatives with safe natural ingredients. Also remember that there are no federal criteria dictating standards for what makes something a “natural” cleaner, so avoid cleaners with fragrances & preservatives.
Most homes today are constructed with materials that emit formaldehyde. Rather than removing the offending materials, it is possible to diminish formaldehyde emissions to near non-existent levels over time .
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These Beauty Products Still Use Formaldehyde—Here’s Why You Should Care
Photo: Charles Chua / Getty Images
In early July, news broke that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a government agency, was delaying the release of a new study on formaldehyde. The EPA already acknowledges formaldehyde as a probable carcinogen, but the new study is said to specifically link the chemical to leukemia for the first time. Yikes.
Why is that a big deal? Well, most people are exposed to formaldehyde at some point in their lives-some more than others. Formaldehyde is found in cigarettes, some e-cigarettes, certain building materials, industrial cleaning products, and some beauty products, according to the National Cancer Institute. Yup, beauty products.
Wait, there’s formaldehyde in beauty products?!
Yup. “Formaldehyde is a great preservative,” explains Papri Sarkar, M.D., a dermatologist. “That’s why formalin (the liquid form of formaldehyde) is used to preserve cadavers that med students use in their anatomy courses,” she says.
“Similarly, you can make an amazing cleanser or moisturizer or beauty product, but without a preservative, it will likely only last a few weeks or months,” says Dr. Sarkar. Formaldehyde releasers were first put into cosmetics to keep them from spoiling and causing bacterial or fungal infections and to prolong their shelf life.” Formaldehyde releasers are, essentially, substances that release formaldehyde over time, keeping the product fresh. (BTW, here’s the difference between clean and natural beauty products.)
And while many brands that once used formaldehyde as a preservative have stopped doing so thanks to the wealth of evidence that it’s not-so-great for you (Johnson & Johnson, for example), there are plenty of manufacturers that still use the stuff to cheaply preserve their products.
To be fair, inhalation of formaldehyde in gas form is the biggest concern, according to David Pollock, an independent beauty chemist. “However, up to 60 percent of chemicals applied to your skin can be absorbed by your body,” he says. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not regulated formaldehyde-releasing ingredients, the European Union has put a limit on how much formaldehyde a product can contatin (specifically, no topical formulations exceeding 2,000 parts per million of free formaldehyde in a product), says Pollock. (Related: How to Make the Switch to a Clean, Nontoxic Beauty Regimen)
The top culprits in the beauty space? “The worst offenders are nail polishes and nail polish removers,” says Dr. Sarkar. Hair products in general, as well as baby shampoo and soap, also can contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasers, says Ava Shamban, M.D. Old-school hair straightening products like the old formulation of the Brazilian blowout also used to have a significant amount of formaldehyde, but have reportedly been improved.
So…what should you do?
“My opinion is that everyone should be concerned,” says Dr. Shamban. “You are exposed to these products on a daily basis and over time, these products can build up in fatty tissue and potentially create serious health problems.”
That being said, it’s worth noting that most of these products contain only small amounts of formaldehyde, meaning that they’re not as dangerous as other sources of the chemical, like embalming fluid used on cadavers and building materials that contain it.
But if you’d rather be safe than sorry, finding clean beauty products, which are formaldehyde-free, is easier than ever. “The Environmental Working Group has a list of not only formaldehyde-containing products but also products that contain formaldehyde releasers,” says Dr. Shamban.
You can check your favorite products for these ingredients, which contain and/or release formaldehyde: DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium 15, bronopol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3 dioxane, and hydroxymethylglycinate. (Related: The Best Clean Beauty Products You Can Buy at Sephora)
Lastly, you can always rely on retailers who specialize in clean products. “Sephora has a clean beauty label that only includes products that don’t include formaldehydes, and there are now many large retailers that only stock or make products that are formaldehyde free such as Credo, The Detox Market, Follain, and Beauty Counter,” says Dr. Sarkar. “They take the guesswork out of it.”
Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in making building materials and many household products. It is used in pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard; glues and adhesives; permanent-press fabrics; paper product coatings; and certain insulation materials. It is also used to make other chemicals.
Formaldehyde is quickly broken down in the air – generally within hours. It dissolves easily in water, but does not last long there, either.
When dissolved in water it is called formalin, which is commonly used as an industrial disinfectant, and as a preservative in funeral homes and medical labs. It can also be used as a preservative in some foods and in products, such as antiseptics, medicines, and cosmetics. Sometimes, although formaldehyde is not used, substances that release formaldehyde are. These have been found in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, lotions and sunscreens, and cleaning products.
Formaldehyde can be added as a preservative to food, but it can also be produced as the result of cooking and smoking.
Formaldehyde also occurs naturally in the environment. Humans and most other living organisms make small amounts as part of normal metabolic processes.
How are people exposed to formaldehyde?
The main way people are exposed to formaldehyde is by inhaling it. The liquid form can be absorbed through the skin. People can also be exposed to small amounts by eating foods or drinking liquids containing formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is normally made in the body. Enzymes in the body break down formaldehyde into formate (formic acid), which can be further broken down into carbon dioxide. Most inhaled formaldehyde is broken down by the cells lining the mouth, nose, throat, and airways, so that less than a third is absorbed into the blood.
According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, formaldehyde is normally present at low levels (less than 0.03 parts per million) in both indoor and outdoor air. Materials containing formaldehyde can release it as a gas or vapor into the air. Automobile exhaust is a major source of formaldehyde in outdoor air.
During the 1970s, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) was used in many homes. But few homes are now insulated with UFFI. Homes in which UFFI was installed many years ago are not likely to have high formaldehyde levels now.
Pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde resins are often a source of formaldehyde in homes. Using unvented fuel-burning appliances, such as gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, and kerosene heaters can also raise formaldehyde levels indoors.
Formaldehyde is also a component of tobacco smoke and both smokers and those breathing secondhand smoke are exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde. One study found much higher levels of formaldehyde bound to DNA in the white blood cells of smokers compared to non-smokers.
Formaldehyde and other chemicals that release formaldehyde are sometimes used in low concentrations in cosmetics and other personal care products like lotions, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, and some fingernail polishes. These may raise the concentration of formaldehyde in the air inside the room for a short time, but the levels reached are far below what is considered to be hazardous.
Professional keratin hair smoothing treatments can contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasing chemicals. Using these can raise indoor air concentrations of formaldehyde to levels that could be a potential hazard.
Workers in industries that make formaldehyde or formaldehyde-containing products, lab technicians, some health care professionals, and funeral home employees may be exposed to higher levels of formaldehyde than the general public. Exposure occurs mainly by inhaling formaldehyde gas or vapor from the air or by absorbing liquids containing formaldehyde through the skin. In one large study of workers in industries that make or use formaldehyde, the average level of formaldehyde exposure was 0.45 parts per million (ppm) overall, with less than 3% of workers experiencing more than 2 ppm on average.
Can formaldehyde cause cancer?
Exposure to formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory test animals. Exposure to relatively high amounts of formaldehyde in medical and occupational settings has been linked to some types of cancer in humans, but the effect of exposure to small amounts is less clear.
Studies in the lab
In rats, inhaled formaldehyde was linked to cancers of the nasal cavity and leukemia. In one study of rats given drinking water containing formaldehyde there was an increase in stomach tumors, while another showed no increase in any kind of tumor or cancer.
In mice, applying a 10% solution of formaldehyde to the skin was linked to quicker development of cancers caused by another chemical.
Studies in people
In one study, inhaling formaldehyde at levels at a concentration of 1.9 parts per million (ppm) for 40 minutes did not increase blood levels of formaldehyde.
Several epidemiology studies of people exposed to formaldehyde in the workplace have reported a link between formaldehyde exposure and cancer of the nasopharynx (the uppermost part of the throat), but this outcome has not been observed in other studies. These studies looked at workers in occupational setting that use or make formaldehyde and formaldehyde resins, as well as at people who work as embalmers.
Studies of people exposed to formaldehyde in the workplace have also found a possible link to cancer of the nasal sinuses.
Several studies have found that embalmers and medical professionals that use formaldehyde have an increased risk of leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia. Some studies of industrial workers exposed to formaldehyde have also found increased risks of leukemia, but not all studies have shown an increased risk.
Studies looking at the link between workplace exposure to formaldehyde and other types of cancer have not found a consistent link.
One study found that workers exposed to formaldehyde had higher than normal levels of chromosome changes in early white blood cells in their bone marrow. This finding supports the possible link between formaldehyde exposure and leukemia.
What expert agencies say
Several agencies (national and international) study different substances in the environment to determine if they can cause cancer. (A substance that causes cancer or helps cancer grow is called a carcinogen.) The American Cancer Society looks to these organizations to evaluate the risks based on evidence from laboratory, animal, and human research studies.
Based on the available evidence, some of these expert agencies have evaluated the cancer-causing potential of formaldehyde.
The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is formed from parts of several different US government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The NTP lists formaldehyde as “known to be a human carcinogen.”
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its major goal is to identify causes of cancer. IARC has concluded that formaldehyde is “carcinogenic to humans” based on higher risks of nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), an electronic database that contains information on human health effects from exposure to various substances in the environment. The EPA has classified formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen.”
National Cancer Institute researchers have concluded that, based on data from studies in people and from lab research, exposure to formaldehyde may cause leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia, in humans.
(For more information on the classification systems used by some of these agencies, see Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.)
Does formaldehyde cause any other health problems?
When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels higher than 0.1 parts per million (ppm), some people may have health effects, such as:
- watery eyes
- burning sensations of the eyes, nose, and throat
- skin irritation
Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde, but others have no reaction to the same level of exposure.
Formaldehyde in consumer products such as cosmetics and lotions can cause an allergic reaction in the skin (allergic contact dermatitis), which can lead to an itchy, red rash which may become raised or develop blisters.
How can I limit my exposure to formaldehyde?
In the home
The EPA recommends using “exterior-grade” pressed-wood products to limit formaldehyde exposure in the home. These products give off less formaldehyde because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins. Before buying pressed-wood products, including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture, buyers should ask about the formaldehyde content of these products.
Formaldehyde levels in homes can also be reduced by not allowing smoking inside and by ensuring adequate ventilation (use your stove vent fan for example), moderate temperatures, and reduced humidity levels through the use of air conditioners and dehumidifiers.
People who are concerned about formaldehyde exposure from personal care products and cosmetics can avoid using products that contain or release formaldehyde. Still, because the amount of formaldehyde released from these products is low, it isn’t clear that this will provide any health benefit.
Formaldehyde can be listed on a product label by other names, such as:
- Formic aldehyde
- Methyl aldehyde
- Methylene glycol
- Methylene oxide
Some chemicals that are used as preservatives can release formaldehyde, such as:
In the workplace
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established limits for the amount of formaldehyde that workers can be exposed to at their place of work. At present the limit is at 0.75 ppm on average over an 8 hour workday. The highest concentration that a worker can be exposed to is 2 ppm, and that can only occur over 15 minutes. Employers must monitor formaldehyde levels and provide respirators and protective clothing as needed to limit exposure. This includes workers in any workplace where formaldehyde exposure is likely, including hair salons that use commercial hair smoothing products that release formaldehyde.
Producers are tricky, and their business sometimes involves tricking consumers. They trick us into buying very handy products for cleaning, deodorizing, softening, smoothing, and beautifying that often contain dangerous chemicals.
If the word “formaldehyde” doesn’t remind you of an embalmed body on a cold steel table, it should!
Formaldehyde has been used for decades to embalm dead bodies for open casket burials. It is a preservation fluid that replaces the blood, it is a recognized cancer causing agent (carcinogen) by the National Cancer Institute, and oh, by the way, it is in most of the products you buy and use around your home, even the materials your home was built with!
Is My Home Embalmed?
It might surprise you to know that much of the shelving, furniture, wall finishes, carpet, cabinetry and flooring in your home could contain this dangerous chemical. Formaldehyde can also be found in these building materials:
- Timber Paneling
What Other Products May Contain Formaldehyde?
Many personal cleansing and beauty products contain formaldehyde, think about that before you put them on your skin, your largest organ. Here are some of the personal products that might contain this toxin:
- Soap Bars
- Body Wash
- Baby Wipes
- Bubble Bath
Am I Cleaning My Home With Formaldehyde?
The short answer is… probably.
Are you reading every single label? If not, chances are that you are probably using some fairly toxic chemicals in your house cleaning regime. The best rule of thumb is to look for products that say things like “Non-toxic to humans and aquatic life,” or “readily biodegradable.”
I’ve read my product labels, and they don’t say I’m using formaldehyde containing products.
While it’s great you’re reading product labels, you must be aware that those tricky manufacturers often use synonyms that don’t usually create attention in their consumers. Synonyms and chemicals that “act like” formaldehyde are often used on ingredient lists. Be wary of products containing the following ingredients:
- Quaternium 15
- Methylene Oxide
- Formic Aldehyde
- Oxomethane Formalin
- Phenol Formaldehyde
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Safety provides a quick reference list of some products known to contain formaldehyde . I’m appalled at the number of baby and kid products on the list, as these little angels usually have no say in whether they’re being exposed or not .
The Dangers of Using Products Containing Formaldehyde
Watery, burning eyes, nose and throat, asthmatic attacks, skin irritation, headaches and nausea are all possible short term side effects of formaldehyde exposure . Long term effects include cancer and possibly leukemia.
Most products contain only very small amounts of harmful chemicals. The danger lies in our modern habits of using many of these products, and for a long time. As you surround yourself with more and more formaldehyde-containing products your exposure level increases. Similarly, the longer you expose yourself to these products the more exposure you are getting.
Precautions You Can Take to Avoid Formaldehyde Exposure
The first step is getting these chemicals out of your home. Cleaning and personal care products can be easily replaced with natural alternatives (remember to look for products that are “readily biodegradable” and “non toxic to humans and aquatic life”).
Other things, like particle board or pressed wood, may take longer to replace, but should be replaced as soon as practical. Or you can use an organic clay paint to absorb any potential out-gassing the next time you paint your walls. In time, you can greatly reduce your exposure to formaldehyde just by knowing what to look for and what to avoid.
And isn’t it worth this small change now to avoid the potential long term health impacts on you and those you care about?
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Household Products Database U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
- Lyndsey Layton. Probable carcinogens found in baby toiletries. The Washington Post. 2009 March 13.
- Drugs.com. Formaldehyde Side Effects.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.
Formaldehyde And Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in many personal care products, particularly in shampoos and liquid baby soaps. These chemicals, which help prevent microbes from growing in water-based products, can be absorbed through the skin and have been linked to cancer and allergic skin reactions.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol) and glyoxal.
WHAT IS FORMALDEHYDE? Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in a wide range of industries and products including building materials, walls, cabinets furniture and personal care products.
WHAT ARE FORMALDEHYDE-RELEASING PRESERVATIVES AND WHERE ARE THEY FOUND? In personal care products, formaldehyde can be added directly, or more often, it can be released from preservatives such as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, bromopol and glyoxal. MORE…These preservatives release small amounts of formaldehyde over time.Since low levels of formaldehyde can cause health concerns—at levels as low as 250 parts per million and even lower levels in sensitized individuals—the slow release of small amounts of formaldehyde are cause for concern. A 2015 study determined that longer storage time and higher temperature increase the amount of formaldehyde released from FRPs and could ultimately lead to more severe health concerns.
Quaternium-15 is the most sensitizing of these FRPs and is found in blush, mascara, lotion and shampoo.
DMDM Hydantoin is found in lotion, sunscreen and make-up remover and is one of the least sensitizing of the FRPs.
Imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, and polyoxymethylene urea, are found in shampoo, conditioner, blush, eye shadow, and lotion and are all known human allergens. Imidazolidinyl urea is one of the most common antimicrobial agents used in personal care products and is often combined with parabens to provide a broad spectrum preservative system. Diazolidinyl urea releases the most formaldehyde of any FRP.
Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate is found in shampoo, moisturizer, conditioner, and lotion. Animal studies have shown that sodium hydroxymethylglycinate has the potential for sensitization and dermatitis.
Bromopol is found in nail polish, makeup remover, moisturizer and body wash. Bromopol is considered safe in concentrations less than 0.1%, but cannot be found in formulations with the FRP amine. Mixing bromopol and amines produce nitrosamines (Link to same chemical in nitrosamines) which have been found to penetrate the skin and cause cancer.
Glyoxal is found in conditioner, lotion, nail polish and nail treatment. CIR Expert Panel has declared that glyoxal is a skin allergen.
HEALTH CONCERNS: Cancer, skin irritation MORE…
Cancer: Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by many expert and government bodies, including the United States National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. A 2009 review of the literature on occupational exposures and formaldehyde shows a link between formaldehyde and leukemia. A 2014 study found that formaldehyde initiates and promotes tumor formation. When formaldehyde is present in personal care products, people can be exposed by inhaling the formaldehyde that is off-gassed from the product, by ingesting it or by absorbing it through the skin. Most studies of the cancer potency of formaldehyde have focused on risks from inhaling it; cancer risks from ingesting formaldehyde or absorbing it through the skin are not as well studied. Animal studies indicate that formaldehyde can be absorbed through the skin when formaldehyde-containing personal care products, including formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, are applied.
The formaldehyde released from FRPs has been linked to cancer, but there is little evidence that FRPs directly cause cancer. However, a mixture of the FRP bromopol and amines, which form nitrosamines, has been found to penetrate skin and cause cancer.
Irritation: Formaldehyde is the 2015 American Contact Dermatitis Society Contact Allergen of the Year. At high concentrations formaldehyde can cause chemical burns, however, this is mostly an occupational hazard. Formaldehyde in cosmetics is widely understood to cause allergic skin reactions and rashes in some people. Although concentrations of formaldehyde in personal care products are generally low, everyday products can contain enough formaldehyde to trigger a reaction in people with formaldehyde sensitivities. A 2015 study determined that up to 11.9% of the population is allergic to formaldehyde when exposed to a 2.0% formaldehyde patch test. Formaldehyde sensitivity may develop over time from repeated low-level exposures.
Most irritation from FRPs is in response to formaldehyde being released; however some of the FRPs can trigger a reaction on their own. Quanternium-15 is the most sensitizing of the FRPs. A retrospective study by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group (NACDG) revealed an increase in the incidence of allergic reactions to Quaternium-15 over time. Patch tests of Quaternium-15 revealed that about 22.3% of consumers are allergic to Quaternium-15. Glyoxal and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate are known skin allergen. Animal studies have shown that sodium hydroxymethylglycinate may cause sensitization and dermatitis. Irritation has gone away when products containing sodium hydroxymethylglycinate are avoided.
VULNERABLE POPULATIONS: Infants, hair salon workers, nail salon workers.
REGULATIONS: Banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries in Japan and Sweden; in the EU, restricted in personal care products, and labeling is required in products that do contain these chemicals; concentration restrictions in Canada. The EU allows the use of Quaternium-15 up to 0.2% as a preservative in cosmetic products.
HOW TO AVOID: Read labels and avoid products containing the following ingredients: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol). In addition, choose nail products that are labeled formaldehyde-free or “toxic-trio-free” (formaldehyde, toluene and DBP). Skip hair-smoothing products—especially those sold in salons, as salon-based products are exempt from labeling laws. Don’t use expired cosmetic products or store cosmetic products in the sun because this can cause more formaldehyde to be released.
Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. Opinion concerning a clarification on the formaldehyde and para-formaldehyde entry in Directive 76/768/EEC on cosmetic products. Opinion: European Commission. 2002. Available Online: . Accessed Online October 16, 2009.
Jacob SE, Breithaupt A (2009). Environmental Exposures-A pediatric perspective in baby and cosmetic products. Journal of the Dermatology Nurses’ Association 1:211-214.
Flyvholm MA, Hall BM, Agner T, Tiedemann E, Greenhill P, Vanderveken W, Freeberg FE, Menne T. Threshold for occluded formaldehyde patch test in formaldehyde-sensitive patients. Relationship to repeated open application test with a product containing formaldehyde releaser. Contact Dermatitis. 1997;36(1):26-33.
Russell, K., & Jacob, S. E. (2010). Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. Dermatitis, 21(2), 109-110.
Nitrosamines available online: http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/nitrosamines. Accessed September 23, 2015.
Zhang et al 2009. Meta-analysis of formaldehyde and hematologic cancers in humans. Mutation Research 681: 150-168.
Bartnik FG, Gloxhuber C, Zimmerman V. (1985). Percutaneous absorption of formaldehyde in rats. Toxicol Lett, 25(2):167-172.
Nitrosamines available online: http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/nitrosamines. Accessed September 23, 2015.
Pontén, A., & Bruze, M. (2015). Formaldehyde. Dermatitis, 26(1), 3-6.
Pontén, A., & Bruze, M. (2015). Formaldehyde. Dermatitis, 26(1), 3-6.
Boyvat A, Akyol A, Gurgey E (2005). Contact sensitivity to preservatives in Turkey. Contact Dermatitis, 52(6):333-337.
Pontén, A., & Bruze, M. (2015). Formaldehyde. Dermatitis, 26(1), 3-6.
Jacob SE and Steele T (2007). Avoid Formaldehyde Allergic Reactions in Children. Pediatric Annals, 36(1):55-56.
Russell, K., & Jacob, S. E. (2010). Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. Dermatitis, 21(2), 109-110.
Russell, K., & Jacob, S. E. (2010). Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. Dermatitis, 21(2), 109-110.
Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. Opinion concerning a clarification on the formaldehyde and para-formaldehyde entry in Directive 76/768/EEC on cosmetic products. Opinion: European Commission. 2002. Available Online: . Accessed Online October 16, 2009.
Amparo S and Chisvert A (2007). Analysis of Cosmetic Products. Elsevier. Amsterdam, p. 215.
That new beautiful couch that you just purchased has finally been delivered to your home, it looks perfect, but smells…strong! Many new products will have a strong odor that one may associate with that ‘new’ smell. However, that ‘new’ smell that fills your nose will linger for quite a while after your purchase. The result of this odor is a combination of chemicals that were used in the construction of your new product and formaldehyde is one of the main chemicals at play. Formaldehyde is a chemical that can lead to health issues for many that are sensitive to the chemical compound and in recent years has been found to be highly toxic in large quantities and long exposure time for public health. Therefore, understanding the dangers associated with exposure to formaldehyde and learning what household products contain this potentially toxic chemical can help you to minimize the chemical in your home. And you won’t believe what common household products in your home contain or produce formaldehyde!
Formaldehyde and Its Uses
Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that is produced and used in the construction of building materials and household products. This common chemical can be emitted from a number of products in your home which can create high or low levels of formaldehyde. The level of formaldehyde in your home can vary as a higher level of formaldehyde will usually be found in newer homes or homes with new construction. Over time the levels will decrease but air flow and humidity can majorly impact this reduction of this chemical. The United States government classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen but, yet the use of formaldehyde continues to increase as one of the most common uses of this chemical is in the manufacturing of particleboard which is ever present in many household products and building materials.
Dangers of Formaldehyde Exposure
Formaldehyde has among the largest overall health impacts of chemical air pollutants in US residences. Some people are more sensitive to formaldehyde than others, so depending on the person the health effects can vary significantly. Formaldehyde can contain many dangers including the fact that it is a known cause of cancer. Scientific research has not yet identified a certain level of formaldehyde exposure that can cause cancer. However, the larger the quantity and the longer the exposure, the greater the chance of developing cancer.
Formaldehyde exposure can also be more hazardous depending on your age and health standing. Children and the elderly are especially at risk during formaldehyde exposure. In children, formaldehyde exposure can exacerbate illness and can cause health problems, whereas, the elderly may be less tolerable to formaldehyde exposure.
Symptoms of Exposure to Formaldehyde
When you are exposed to formaldehyde, an irritation of the airways can occur. Those with asthma, bronchitis, or other breathing conditions can be especially sensitive to formaldehyde. Symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest pains, and bronchitis are likely to occur from exposure.
5 Products that Create Formaldehyde in Your Home
Formaldehyde is often times hiding in many places that you simply don’t suspect. Often times we are simply unaware of the different products in our home that could contain harmful chemicals like formaldehyde in its construction. After doing further research on what products in the home that produce and contain formaldehyde, you will not believe what products are composed of this potentially harmful chemical.
1.) Laundry Detergent:
Laundry detergent is composed of a long list of chemicals and an alarming chemical found in many detergents is formaldehyde, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The chemical 1,4-dioxane which is commonly used in many detergents was found to have trace amounts of formaldehyde which will collect on your clothing. This can lead to long exposure time as we wear clothes every day and can be breathed in, as well as be absorbed through your skin. Therefore, looking for natural laundry detergents that contain no harmful or toxic chemicals is critical for minimizing formaldehyde exposure.
2.) Bath Soap:
The United States Department of Health and Human Services contains a number of soaps and body washes on their formaldehyde list. Soaps and body wash come in a variety of colors and fragrances, therefore making you question the means to accomplish these modifications. Chemicals are the likely answer to the smell and color of your body soap. Certain chemicals are used in the creation of body soap to help give it its cleaning power, its smell, and its ability to moisturize. However, some of these chemicals can be extremely harmful to human health including formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a common chemical used in soaps, so being sure to use a formaldehyde-free body soap can be important for eliminating the use of formaldehyde on your body.
Formaldehyde is typically found in plastics, particleboard, plywood, fiberboard, and more products. A popular culprit of formaldehyde in your home is likely from furniture, as formaldehyde is used as an adhesive in most furniture. If you purchase a new piece of furniture, ensure that the product does not contain formaldehyde. However, if the furniture you purchased does, you will want to place it in an area that it can air out like out on your porch or in your garage where ventilation is high, and air can quickly work to remove the formaldehyde off-gassing.
4.) New Homes:
People who purchase a new home may be surprised to learn that their air quality is significantly compromised. Many of the building materials used in the construction of your new home contain the harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde. Studies have even found that new homes often times contain 2 to 5 times the level of outdoor air pollution. Therefore, having in place an air purifier to remove formaldehyde from the air will significantly help to reduce the level of hazard and eliminate formaldehyde from the environment.
5.) Gas Stoves:
A seemingly safe and unprovoking act such as cooking can possibly release toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde into the air. Gas stoves, particularly, emit nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde. This can lead to an increase in various respiratory and other health ailments.
Food Safety Focus (6th Issue, January 2007) – Incident in Focus
Formaldehyde in Food
Reported by Mr. Arthur YAU, Scientific Officer,
Risk Communication Section, Centre for Food Safety
In the wake of recent public concerns over formaldehyde found in Bombay-duck (a kind of marine fish), this article provides an overview on formaldehyde and discusses its food safety risk.
What is Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a chemical commonly used in industry for the manufacturing of plastic resins that can be used in wood, paper and textile industry. Formalin, which is a solution of about 37% formaldehyde, serves as disinfectant and preservative for household products.
Formaldehyde is ubiquitous in the environment, as it is produced from both natural and manmade sources. It exists at low levels in most living organisms as a metabolic intermediate. Major manmade source of formaldehyde includes combustions (e.g., engine exhaust, wood burning, power plant, waste incineration etc.), building materials and tobacco smoke.
Excluding occupational exposure in industrial settings, major exposure route for formaldehyde in the general population is through inhalation of air, especially indoor air. Formaldehyde can come from recently installed building materials and furnishings. Tobacco smoke can also contribute up to 10 to 25 percent (0.1-1 mg/day) of the exposure from indoor air. Other sources of exposure through gas and dermal contact in the general population include: smog, gas cookers, open fireplace, wood products, textiles, paper, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals etc.
Formaldehyde exists in many animal and plant species as a product of their normal metabolism. Ingestion of a small amount of formaldehyde is unlikely to cause acute effect, but ingestion of a large amount of formaldehyde can generally cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, coma, renal injury and possible death. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “the general population is exposed to formaldehyde mainly by inhalation.”
The main health concern of formaldehyde is its cancer causing ability. The International Agency for Research on Cancer of the WHO classified formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans”, with consideration that there was sufficient evidence for causing nasopharyngeal cancer in humans, strong but not sufficient evidence between leukaemia and occupational exposure. The WHO, on the other hand, considered that the evidence indicated that formaldehyde was not carcinogenic upon ingestion.
Why Formaldehyde is Present in Food?
As a product of normal metabolism, formaldehyde has been documented to be naturally present in many common food items, including fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, crustacea and dried mushrooms etc., at a wide range of levels (Table 1). In some seafood species, formaldehyde is a natural breakdown product of a chemical known as trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) that exists in their bodies. Trimethylamine oxide breaks down into formaldehyde and dimethylamine in equal parts after the animal dies. The level of formaldehyde can accumulate in certain marine fish during frozen storage and crustacea after death. Its levels were reported to be up to 400 mg/kg in Bombay-duck after cold storage. The detection of dimethylamine in Bombay-duck was used to distinguish whether formaldehyde had been added deliberately.
Table 1: Examples of Foods Known to Contain Naturally Occurring Formaldehyde
Since there have been no extensive studies on the levels of naturally occurring formaldehyde in foods, data may not be available for every food. There have been reports of abusive use of formaldehyde in mung bean vermicelli, soya bean sticks and hydrated food (e.g. tripe) previously. Of the over 250 food samples analysed for formaldehyde between 2004 and September 2006, all the results were satisfactory. There is no cause for undue concern over formaldehyde exposure from food so long as you maintain a balanced diet.
s formaldehyde is water soluble, it is recommended, as a good risk reduction measure, that dried food should be thoroughly soaked during preparation (soaking water discarded). Food should also be washed and cooked thoroughly before consumption as a precautionary measure.
Illustration: Examples of food which contain naturally occuring formaldehyde (Top to bottom): fresh shiitake mushrooms and Bombay-duck
Advice to the Consumers
- Wash all food thoroughly with running tap water, as formaldehyde is soluble in water and washing can aid the removal of formaldehyde.
- Soak dry groceries like dried mushrooms thoroughly in clean water before cooking and discard the water.
- Cook all food thoroughly to an internal temperature of 75°C or above, as heat from cooking can also aid the removal of formaldehyde. For fish, check the flesh to see whether it has turned opaque and can be separated easily.
Advice to the Trade
- Source food products from credible sources.
- Do not add formaldehyde to food.
Readers may obtain further information on formaldehyde in food from the following websites:
- The CFS Press Release
- The CFS Food Alert
- The CFS Risk in Brief on Formaldehyde in Food
CIR Safety Review:
The CIR Expert Panel noted that Formaldehyde is normal metabolite of all mammals. Formaldehyde is a highly reactive compound. It is this reactivity that makes it useful as a preservative, but it also is responsible for its irritant activity. The CIR Expert Panel indicated that the toxic effects of Formaldehyde are all concentration and time dependent. Formaldehyde can be employed usefully at concentrations that are not irritating.
The CIR Expert Panel concluded that Formaldehyde in cosmetics and personal care products was safe to the great majority of consumers. Because of the skin sensitivity of some individuals to this agent, the formulation and manufacture of a cosmetics and personal care product should be such as to ensure use at the minimal effective concentration of Formaldehyde, 0.074% or less. The CIR Expert Panel recommended that Formaldehyde should not be used in cosmetics and personal care products intended to be aerosolized.
Link to FDA Code of Federal Regulations for Formaldehyde
- Defoaming Agents
Formaldehyde is listed in the Cosmetics Directive of the European Union and may be used at maximum concentration of 0.2% (free Formaldehyde), and a maximum concentration of 0.1% in oral hygiene products. It is not permitted for use in aerosol products (see Annex VI), and aerosol dispensers. Finished products must be labeled with a warning “contains Formaldehyde” if Formaldehyde concentrations exceed the a value of 0.05% (Preamble of Annex VI). Nail hardener products may contain up to 5% Formaldehyde (see Annex III).
Health Canada permits the use of Formaldehyde in non-aerosol cosmetics at concentrations of 0.2% or less, except in nail hardeners where the concentrations can be up to 5%, and in oral care products where concentrations limited to 0.1% or less. Nail hardeners containing Formaldehyde must be sold with nail shields, directions for use, and a caution regarding sensitization potential.
Formaldehyde, or methanal, is a gas with a distinctive sharp odour. This aldehyde is widely used as disinfectant and biocide, embalming agent, and tissue fixative. Moreover, formaldehyde is found in aminoplastics and phenolic resins, various glues, and textiles.
The CA method for qualitative formaldehyde determination was first described in 1959 by Blohm . This method is now an internationally recognized reference method to detect formaldehyde, and it is widely used due to its simplicity and high sensitivity. The method was modified by researchers in the department of Occupational Dermatology in Lund, Sweden to make it a semi-quantitative analysis by comparing the intensity of the violet colour of the reagents with that of 4 standard solutions of varying concentrations. It allows detection of small concentrations of free formaldehyde in the range 2.5 – 40 mg/ml . However, the method may give false-negative results due to discoloration of the reagent solution . Other substances present in the sample (e.g., isopropanol) may react with CA and give discoloration, and it can also mask the violet colour.
Formaldehyde was found in polyethylene glycols (carbowaxes and macrogol) and their derivatives contained in creams due to auto-oxidation and degradation of these substances producing formaldehyde . Surfactants used as emulsifiers in oil-in-water products can also generate formaldehyde due to oxidation during storage and long-term handling of these products .
As mentioned, isopropanol can be the cause of discoloration in the CA assay. Other substances, such as isopropyl palmitate or myristate, hydrolyze to isopropanol in the presence of water. However, in our study, only in 1 out of 7 products that gave discoloration of the CA, had isopropyl palmitate labelled. Studies on products that showed yellow discolouration in the CA assay have shown that no formaldehyde can be detected using more sensitive methods such as HPLC. Another source of formaldehyde contamination may be the plastic packaging. Water-based products (e.g., lotions, creams) in plastic tubes coated with melamine- or carbamide-formaldehyde resin can take up formaldehyde . In our study, 40 products were in plastic packages and only 2 in glass jars.
Our study has shown that formaldehyde-releasers are not frequently used in cosmetic products made in Lithuania. It is found that around 20% of cosmetics in the USA and up to 30% in Denmark and Sweden contain formaldehyde-releasers . One study in Sweden showed that 70% of rinse-off and 48% of leave-on products in which free formaldehyde was found were not labelled to contain any formaldehyde-releasers . Most of these products released more that 40 ppm formaldehyde, which is a significant level for formaldehyde-allergic individuals.
According to legislation in the USA and the European Union, free formaldehyde content up to 0.2% (2000 ppm) is allowed to be present in cosmetics and household products . However, this concentration is sufficient to provoke ACD in those allergic to formaldehyde and using these products on healthy skin . It was also shown that these allergic individuals cannot safely use products with low amounts (10–40 ppm) of formaldehyde if they have irritant contact dermatitis, as their dermatitis deteriorates .
According to the European Cosmetic Directive, all products containing formaldehyde or its releasers must be labelled “contains formaldehyde” when the concentration of formaldehyde in the finished product exceeds 0.05% (500 ppm) .
The threshold concentration for a positive patch test reaction in occluded patch testing to formaldehyde on healthy skin in formaldehyde-sensitive patients has been reported to be 250 ppm . Auto-oxidation of surfactants possibly can generate higher than 500 ppm concentration of formaldehyde . In our study, formaldehyde was detected in the product which was not labelled to contain formaldehyde or its releaser. It could be intentionally added but may also appear in the final product due to contaminated raw material, due to degradation of surfactants in the final product or due to migration of formaldehyde from the plastic package.
It is impossible to detect contact allergy to formaldehyde based solely on clinical findings. Usually contact allergy to formaldehyde manifests as chronic ACD, because contact with this substance is very frequent. Surfactants present in rinse-off products have irritating properties, which may help promote sensitisation to contact allergens. Low concentrations of formaldehyde (10–20 ppm) probably have no effect on sensitisation or elicitation of ACD when used on healthy skin, but when used on already compromised skin may provoke or maintain ACD . This is in line with a study on 2500 patients with atopic dermatitis, which was shown to be a risk factor for becoming allergic to formaldehyde . It is possible to recommend that cosmetics containing formaldehyde or formaldehyde releaser should not be used on damaged skin because of compromised barrier function and persons suffering from formaldehyde allergy should use cosmetics packaged in glass but not plastic jars. At present, there are no available spot tests for the consumers to detect formaldehyde in the cosmetics.
The most prevalent preservative in our study was methylisothiazolinone or its mixture with methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI/MI). MCI/MI or MI was declared in 20 (48%) products, and MI alone in 7 products, of which 6 of these were creams. This poses a high risk for sensitization to MI. In the past few years, the prevalence of contact allergy to MI and MCI/MI has increased worldwide . According to a study in Denmark, the prevalence of MI and MCI/MI contact allergy increased significantly from 2010 to 2012, from 2.0% to 3.7% for MI (n=2766), and from 1.0% to 2.4% for MCI/MI (n=2802) . In 5,881 consecutively tested dermatitis patients in Malmö, the contact allergy rate for MI varied between 0.5 and 6.5%, with a marked increase in recent years . One of the main reasons for this is probably more frequent use of MI only and that legislation allows the use of much higher concentrations of MI than previously .
On 24 February, a jury in Missouri awarded $72m to the family of Jacqueline Fox, a woman who died of ovarian cancer at age 62. Lawyers for the Fox family brought a civil suit against personal care product giant Johnson & Johnson, stating that Fox used their baby powder as a feminine hygiene product for years. Her lawyers alleged that these products were the cause of her cancer and the jury agreed, holding Johnson & Johnson liable for counts of fraud, negligence and conspiracy.
One of the most troubling pieces of evidence presented to the court was an internal memo from a Johnson & Johnson medical consultant which stated, “anybody who denies risks” between “hygienic” talc use and ovarian cancer would be publicly perceived in the same light as those who denied a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer: “Denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”
It’s a stark reminder to consumers of just how disconnected we are from what we’re putting in, and on, our bodies. Think of the dozens of shampoos, lotions, serums and scrubs that you use on a daily basis – and add makeup to the list. Do you know what makes your body wash foam, or what gives your lipstick that deep red hue?
Reading the product label will give a breakdown of individual ingredients, but even this information is pretty useless unless you know offhand what penthenol or dimethalymine are (I certainly don’t). Companies don’t make it any easier by cramming 84 ingredients into one tiny 8pt paragraph, slapping words like “natural” on their products when they are anything but.
So – let’s say you’ve been suitably horrified by this story and desperately want to give your bathroom a makeover to avoid death by beauty product. Where do you begin?
First, trim the fat. Stop buying useless crap – the stuff flashy multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns convince you to buy. Perfumed body wash, razors with strange aloe strips surrounding the blades, toners, astringents and a different soap for your hands, body and face – you don’t need most of it. Reducing the amount of beauty products you use means less shopping, less cost, less packaging waste, fewer thrown-out plastic bottles, and fewer questionable chemical compounds being absorbed into your skin.
Next, for the stuff you do need, try to make as much of it as you can. In previous columns, I’ve provided recipes for body lotion, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner and even some sweet, simple scrubs. Maybe now’s the time to give them a shot. Creating your own products ensures you have almost complete control over the ingredient and the manufacturing and packaging process.
For the stuff you can’t make (or for those of you well-intentioned folks who just know there’s no way you’ll ever be found whipping up a batch of homemade body cream) there’s a wonderful gold mine of a site called Cosmetics Database. This non-profit site, run by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an absolute warehouse of information.
EWG staff scientists take the ingredients found in more than 75,000 popular health and beauty products and cross-reference them with information found in more than 60 toxicity and regulatory databases. EWG then comes up with a 0-10 safety rating for each product and provides links between individual ingredients and studies which have proven possible organ toxicity, reproductive issues or carcinogenic effects.
To use the site, simply type in the name of your product and you’ll be redirected to a product page which lists each ingredient, along with any potential health concerns and a score between 0-10. A score of 0 indicates a pretty innocuous product with little to no proven health concerns, while a score of 10 indicates something you most likely do not want to be slathering all over your skin anytime soon. It’s one way to educate yourself about the products you’re using, and also a great way to demystify the process of buying “safe” products.
As for Johnson & Johnson, many are saying that the $72m verdict is unlikely to stand in appeals court, and cancer experts state that the link between talc use and ovarian cancer is tenuous at best. Regardless of the outcome, Johnson & Johnson may have already begun moving toward creating healthier products. In 2012, the company bowed to consumer demand and promised to remove potentially toxic and carcinogenic components from its product line, including removing formaldehyde-releasing ingredients, limiting parabens, and completely eliminating triclosan from their product line.
It’s never too late to do better.Formaldehyde in hair products