Formaldehyde.

Yes, the stuff they use for embalming bodies to temporarily prevent decomposition can be found in your personal care products.

Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen, skin irritant, and can bring on or worsen respiratory ailments, such as asthma.  Personal care products that contain formaldehyde expose its users to this chemical through inhaling off-gas, ingestion, or absorption through the skin.  Most studies of the link between formaldehyde and cancer deal with the inhalation of the toxin, while there are fewer studies done on absorption or ingestion.  Formaldehyde can be found in nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, and some hair gels.

But Dena, formaldehyde is found as an ingredient in only 6 products on the EWG Skin Deep Database.

Yes, however there are 3 other ways formaldehyde gets into our products.

Renaming, reformulating

One way the chemical industry has been able to claim “formaldehyde free” products by using the chemical methylene glycol.  This is misleading at best, as this chemical is basically formaldehyde mixed with water.  It’s like mixing vinegar and oil, calling it dressing and saying it is oil-free.

But Dena, methylene glycol (formaldehyde solution) is only found as an ingredient in another 6 products on the EWG Skin Deep Database.

This brings me to the next way formaldehyde gets in our products.

Formaldehyde releasing Preservatives

Certain preservatives used in personal care products release formaldehyde when they begin to break down.  These preservatives are found in over 4,000 personal care products in the Database and include everything from body wash, to baby soap, to baby wipes.  DMDM Hydantoin, Urea, quaternium-15, 2 Bromo-2 nitropane- 1,3 Diol, 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane, and Methenamine are a few of the most prevalent formaldehyde releasing products.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics states:

…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.

Now, on to the third way formaldehyde makes its way into our products.

Deception and/or omission

Some products, like household cleaners, have no requirement for manufacturers  to have a list of all of their ingredients clearly labeled on the product.  They can pretty much hide anything in them and get away with it.  For instance, EWG tested come common household cleaners with shocking findings:

Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser produced 146 air contaminants when used as directed, more than any other product tested. Comet fumes contained formaldehyde, benzene, chloroform and four other chemicals that the state of California has labeled carcinogens or reproductive toxicants.

Formaldehyde is also found in large quantities in popular hair straightening techniques used in salons and straightening products.  Some of these companies flat-out deny that their products contain formaldehyde or use names for their ingredients that only a chemist would knowis formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasing.  The Department of Health and Human Services issued a warning letter to the makers of the Brazilian Blowout that its product was “adulterated and misbranded” and gave them a month to comply.  The company still insists that they are in compliance and to my knowledge have not changed their formulations.

What can you do?

  • Check your labels.  Stop using products that contain formaldehyde, methylene glycol, or the formaldehyde releasing preservatives, DMDM Hydantoin, Urea, quaternium-15, 2 Bromo-2 nitropane- 1,3 Diol, 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane, and Methenamine.
  • Don’t assume that “natural” and “organic” products are safe.  I got an aloe vera gel from Trader Joes that burned my eyes when applied to my face, only to see it contained DMDM Hydantoin.
  • If you frequent the nail salon make sure they use formaldehyde free polish.  OPI is now proudly claiming to be formaldehyde free, but not every polish maker is following suit.  So bring your own polish!
  • Be wary of nail polish that comes in toys or with dress up clothes marketed to little girls.  Many don’t label their ingredients.
  • Skip the gel and nail hardeners if they are not formaldehyde free.
  • Check your cleaners, and if they are not labeled check if they were tested by a Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) commissioned study, or dump them.  Either use cleaners committed to safe ingredients like Seventh Generation, or make your own (later posts!)
  • Rep. Steve Israel has introduced a bill, The Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2011.  Right now it is in committee, but call these legislators and tell them you want to know what is in your cleaners!
  • Ask Congress to support the Safe Cosmetics Act!

Up Next: Toxin #11 BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole)