It wasn't too long ago that I bought beauty products without giving the label a second thought. I would dab, rub, and spritz myself with foundations, serums, mists, and more without being bothered that I couldn't pronounce half of the ingredients correctly. However, as I became more aware about what specific ingredients do to our skin, I realized I needed to be more selective.
Many beauty brands now offer formulas free of sulfates, parabens, and phthalates, but there's one scary-sounding ingredient that continues to be in many of our favorite products: formaldehyde. To understand why formaldehyde is in our beauty products and if we should be scared of it, HelloGiggles spoke to two cosmetic chemists, a leading dermatologist, and a clean beauty expert.
What is formaldehyde?
"Formaldehyde is a colorless gas with a strong smell used in building materials, household products, preservatives in beauty products, fungicide, germicide, and disinfectant. However, it does occur naturally in fruits, veggies, and meats and is part of most living organisms' metabolic process," explains Krupa Koestline, a clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, who says that it's also essential to our bodies and other bodily functions, such as the production of amino acids.
While formaldehyde naturally and safely occurs within our bodies and in some food, "it's important to note that it could lead to health problems, from skin irritation to cancer, if inhaled in excess. Therefore, it's still "recognized as a carcinogen, especially through repeated fume inhalation exposure," she says.
However, you won't experience these health issues by eating your favorite fruits or using your go-to shampoo due to the current regulations on formaldehyde in consumer goods. Additionally, Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist at BeautyStat.com, explains that the body can easily break formaldehyde down through an internal detoxification system, which converts formaldehyde to formate—a safer and useful molecule.
What are formaldehyde releasers?
"Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers are used in about 20% of beauty and personal care products to extend the shelf life of products and prevent contamination from bacteria and fungus," shares Dendy Engelman, M.D., a Manhattan-based board-certified dermatologist. You won't easily find formaldehyde listed as an ingredient, though, as formaldehyde is the result of a mix of ingredients. On beauty product labels, she says it's commonly listed as methenamine, methanediol, methylene glycol, paraformaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, and bronopol.
What types of beauty products contain formaldehyde releasers?
One look at your vanity or inside your bathroom cabinet, and you'll find a product that contains formaldehyde releasers. "From the worst offenders—nail polish and removers to hair treatments, eyelash glue, creams, shampoos, and more—all contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers that eventually break down to release vapors that can be inhaled and cause health issues," says Dr. Engelman. "The amount of chemical released depends on different factors such as storage time, storage temperature, and type of product."
What are the risks of formaldehyde exposure?
The biggest risk is prolonged exposure, where vapors and fumes are inhaled. There are threshold limits surrounding formaldehyde-releasers, particularly in Canada and the European Union, so the good news is that most beauty products that contain releasers pose a pretty low risk. But, keratin hair treatments are another story.
The danger of these treatments is that once it's heated, the formaldehyde releases into the air as a gas. So, if the salon is "poorly ventilated, it can cause serious skin irritation, cancer, and respiratory troubles to the staff and customer," explains Sarah Biggers-Stewart, CLOVE + HALLOW founder & CEO.
Despite keratin treatments entering the scene twenty-plus years ago and companies knowing the risks these treatments can cause, a few brands, Brazilian Blowout, Cadiveu, and Marcia Teixeira, unfortunately still have been identified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to contain formaldehyde or cause fume inhalation above OSHA's permissible limits, and some even go as far as mislabeling the amount contained in their products.
All salons and beauty schools must follow the requirements set by OSHA, which is 0.75 parts formaldehyde per million parts in the air per eight hours. However, if salons don't abide by these standards, OSHA will issue a Hazard Alert. This alert explains the violations and states that the salon owner needs to notify OSHA of its progress to protect its employees and avoid further formaldehyde exposure violations.
When it comes to formaldehyde in beauty products, Dr. Engelman says that the main concerns are discomfort and damage to the skin as contact with formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers may cause irritation and rashes, known as dermatitis. It's important to remember that sensitivity to formaldehyde varies between individuals and how much they're exposed to it, so check your skin after using your products to see if it's having a reaction. "It's generally understood that levels of 200 to 300 parts per million (ppm) or more of formaldehyde in beauty products can cause irritation or rashes on normal skin after short-term use, whereas less than 200 to 300 ppm may go unnoticed by most people," explains Dr. Engelman.
The bottom line on formaldehyde in beauty products:
There are real health concerns related to formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers when inhaled. However, with the current regulations from the FDA in place, "cosmetics and household products are only allowed to contain up to 0.2 percent," explains Dr. Engelman. So, while it's important to be extra diligent about what you're slathering and applying to your body, especially if you have sensitive skin, studies prove that most of these products contain such small amounts that the risk to the average person is relatively low.
If you'd rather be as safe as possible, start with reading the ingredient labels and report brands that don't disclose their ingredient lists, but don't jump to conclusions. "Formaldehyde is a great example of the false equivalence of natural and inherently safe—there are many instances when a synthetic ingredient is actually safer or less irritating [than others]," explains Biggers-Stewart.
You can also eliminate all formaldehyde products and look for products that use other ingredients that can effectively boost a preservative system including, "vitamin E, certain essential oils, and antioxidants," notes Dr. Engelman. So, brands saying that only formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers can prevent contamination and extend shelf life isn't necessarily accurate. Brands can also explore airless packaging like "Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Capsules, which are stored in biodegradable, one-use capsules that keep the product inside fresh without the need for added preservatives," says Dr. Engelman.