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Formaldehyde is an organic compound that exists naturally in a variety of substances. But, it is also created synthetically and altered into different forms for multiple purposes. A common use for formaldehyde is to be used as a preservative in your cosmetic and personal care products. This requires formaldehyde to be dissolved into the water which creates a new compound known as formalin. Consequently, due to formaldehyde’s link to cancer and various health risks controversy regarding its use has increased. Many believe that this ingredient causes more harm than good. Hence, the rise of the clean beauty movement demands the safety and efficacy of cosmetic and personal care products.

This involves manufacturers creating products that don’t contain potentially harmful ingredients that pose health risks. There is an in-depth list of ingredients that the clean beauty movement encourages you, the consumer to avoid. And formaldehyde is one of those ingredients. Yet, how exactly does it impact health and well-being, and is it something that you should avoid using?


The Purpose of Formaldehyde

Why exactly do we use formaldehyde in personal care products, to begin with? The short answer to this is that it protects us from bacterial growth and increases product longevity. Think of it like this, when you purchase fruit or vegetables from the supermarket you have to consume them quickly or they will spoil and go bad. Indeed, the same thing is true of the products that we use. The consequence of not using preservatives in products will result in the overgrowth of bacteria, fungus, and mold. This prevents full enjoyment and full use of the product before it spoils and becomes no good. Using preservatives in products prevents this from occurring and allows us to benefit from a product and get our money’s worth.

So, preservatives aren’t the bad guys, they are necessary and important for health and safety reasons. The purpose of using preservatives in personal care products isn’t inherently wrong. The issue comes with the type of preservatives that are being chosen and used in the majority of personal care products. Especially, when the preservative of choice is formaldehyde.

Direct versus Indirect Exposure

There are different formulations of formaldehyde used in personal care products. Your exposure can come from direct or indirect contact. Direct contact is when a product contains the actual compound within a water-soluble product in the form of formalin. When you use the product it is absorbed into your skin. Whereas, indirect contact involves an altered form of formaldehyde which releases its fumes into the air.  As these products sit on your shelf they release small amounts of the compound in which you inhale. Hence, why these ingredients are referred to as formaldehyde-releasing ingredients.


Health Risks Associated with Formaldehyde

Concerns regarding formaldehyde use in personal care products are due to the fact that it increases

  • Irritation
  • Allergies
  • Occupational Hazards
  • Cancer Risk

Products with this ingredient can cause irritation in the skin, eyes, and lungs. This is especially true if you are a person with allergies, skin sensitivities, or an inflammatory condition. In general, only 2% of formaldehyde is allowed in personal care products by law. It’s important to note that there is no research to evaluate how small amounts of exposure affect health and well-being. Additionally, you have to consider the fact that you’re likely using multiple products that contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. So, these tiny bits of exposure add up quickly.

It’s also known to be an occupational hazard for hair stylists and nail techs. Primarily, this is due to the overuse of products such as nail polish and hair sprays that contain this ingredient. Continual exposure and daily usage elevate your risk of overexposure as well as cancer.

Sensitivities to this ingredient can develop when exposed to large quantities (levels exceeding 1PPM, or Parts per Million) of this ingredient you may experience

  • Watery eyes
  • Burning sensation in the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea
  • Skin irritation


So, Is Formaldehyde the Bad Guy?

In short, while I don’t believe it is a safe ingredient that should be used in cosmetics and personal care products. I don’t believe it should be labeled as the “bad guy” or lumped into the evil category. After all, this is a compound that occurs naturally in nature. You can find it in apples, fish, coffee even your very own breath. So, it obviously isn’t harmful when produced naturally within the body and within the environment. As long as we’re exposed to low levels of it. Furthermore, there are many people that have used products that contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients without adverse effects.

Yet, for those that have pre-existing conditions, allergies, inflammatory skin concerns, immunocompromised, or have a higher risk for cancer you should consider passing on this ingredient. Seeking products that use sodium benzoate or other “safe” preservatives can be beneficial for these types of people. Also, increasing consumer awareness regarding proper storage, use, and longevity of a product are essential. This will decrease the necessity for such harsh preservatives and increase the use of more gentle preservatives since they typically offer a shorter shelf life.

As always take my opinion with a grain of salt. You be the judge. What are your thoughts on the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics and personal care products?


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