Cleaner Living: Toxin #10- 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)

11 thoughts on “Cleaner Living: Toxin #10- Formaldehyde

  1. As promised — some recommended reading regarding the ‘safe’ Cosmetics Act:

    Donna Maria was the attorney for the Handcrafted Soap Makers Guild when I was the manager, VP and secretary. I respect her opinion in the field of both law and cosmetics about as much as I do anyone in the industry. dM and her organization are opposed to the bill.

    This petition itself is closed but the “Universal Flaws of SCA that Impact the Entire Cosmetic Industry” are worth reading.

    “Samara Botane/Nature Intelligence opposes Safe Cosmetic Act 2011 (HR 2359).”

    Lots of worthwhile reading here (my blog linked to at the bottom of this article is offline however other links are there):

    One of the WORLD’s experts in aromatherapy and the safe use of essential oils, Robert Tisserand, speaks out in opposition here:

    And last but not least…here is a whole website full of reasons to oppose this bill:


    In summary — I don’t actually know of anyone in the cosmetics industry who has actually READ the text of the bill, who is in favor of it.

    Which begs the question, have you actually read it or are you in favor based on what others have told you the bill will do (or not do)?


    1. Thanks for your comments and the listing of more resources. I think we are both on the same page in most regards in that we want safer cosmetics and personal care products, and to be fully aware of everything we put on our bodies. I hope that though there are some who disagree with parts of the legislation, they will use their knowledge and expertise to help better craft this bill as to maintain key consumer safety language and ensure small business survival. As I said before I believe it to be a good start.

      Also, I had mistakenly written “preservative” when I meant “paraben” in my post on parabens. Thanks for pointing out the typo.

  2. Not sure where you are in CT — but the Coventry Farmers Market is a wonderful place to start finding fantastic soap makers. Many do use synthetic fragrances but the ones that know me are always willing to point out the scents made with only essential oils or other natural herbal ingredients and free from synthetic fragrances.

    Here are my two favorite CT soap makers : and

    I’ll post a separate post with more information on the ‘safe’ Cosmetics Act!


  3. Formaldehyde is a chemical found in cosmetics, household cleaners…and in our food and beverages. The problem with articles such as this is; there are real serious dangers with problems such as Brazilian Blowout and even nail polish. Not cumulatively, over time…after years of use, but which can happen instantly.

    But the amount of Formaldehyde released by the preservatives you mention is unlikely to cause harm, and unless you are a person (like me) who is allergice to it…in some cases it is safer than the alternative preservatives used by some companies.

    Thank you for bringing attention to the fact that the real ingredients in our household cleaners are being hidden from consumers under the excuse of “trade secrets”. I am a former SHAKLEE distributor. I loved the products, and liked sharing their “green message” with my customers. But then I asked the company for a list of actual ingredients. They refused. Their owner, Sloan Barnett positions herself as an “green & environmental expert” — writing articles warning consumers about the dangers of synthetic fragrances and badmouthing companies who hide ingredients under the label “fragrance” — while her company does the exact same thing! Green means whatever the company wants it to mean — and often it is nothing more than the color scheme for the company marketing.

    “Don’t assume that “natural” and “organic” products are safe” — don’t assume any product is safe…but choosing USDA Certified Organic products certainly does give you a greater chance that the products are what they say they are — actually made with USDA Certified Organic ingredients. There are many criterias for natural — it’s often just a marketing tool but that does not make the search for safe, properly formulated, natural products a waste of time…they ARE out there!

    You mention Seventh Generation — I personally am fine with that brand but many, many people within the natural and organic consumer products industry do not think that line is natural enough, or green enough. I’d love for your organization to look into this topic in greater depth.

    I strongly encourage you to reverse your position in support of the Safe Cosmetics Act.

    If this proposed legislation were to be made law, millions and millions of animals would die.

    Cruelty Free products would be illegal for decades. No company selling in the USA would be allowed to sell in the European market, because they forbid animal testing there – and this law would make it mandatory for every ingredient, every formula and every variety of cosmetic product manufactured in the USA. Ingredients that we know are safe from thousands of years of use — would have to be tested to determine “if” the present a danger to anyone. How does one prove something cannot cause a disease? You can’t prove a negative…yet this is exactly what this law would require.

    The “Safe” Cosmetics Act also would make many, if not all, natural ingredients illegal or the suppliers to go out of business, because of the increased testing requirements. Because every plant that grows — so every year’s vintage of olive oil, lavender for essential oil, shea butter for lotions and creams — would have to be tested AGAIN because of the potential for slightly different chemistry. EVERY person I know in the natural and organic cosmetics industry is opposed to this Act for these reasons and more.

    Please do not fall for the marketing of this bill…that is no different from looking at the front label of your shampoo and seeing all the fantastic claims it will do for your hair — and ever turning over the bottle and finding the toxic and hazardous ingredients hiding inside. Just like for cosmetics — this is exactly what the organizations behind this bill hope consumers will do.

    Sue Sawhill Apito
    Glastonbury, CT

    1. Thanks for your comments Sue! And I noticed you linked to us on your own blog, so a double thanks!

      I agree, formaldehyde use in products is a big hazard, especially in things like the Brazilian Blowout (though kudos to consumers for nagging the regulators to finally do their job and hold those companies accountable!), but I also have to caution people about the formaldehyde -releasing preservatives. I feel like they are very detrimental, especially when used in products we use on our kids, day in and day out. Who knows what their immature immune systems are put through because of them. There are other preservatives that are bad, but my understanding (and I could be wrong) is that many more natural companies prefer to not use harsh preservatives and opt to just shorten the shelf life of their products (instead of being able to keep it for 5 years, it’s only good for 6 months to a year). Many of these shampoos and body washes are used up well before they would expire.

      My comment about “natural” and “organic” was more from personal misstep. I tend to see organic or natural and grab it, only to look at the labels and find a whole load of junk in it, and maybe one natural or organic ingredient. I should have added that USDA certified organic, means just that, but many companies are putting, “natural” and “organic” on their labels, and people just grab and assume. Especially if they are in stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.

      I used Seventh Generation as an example, because it is a good product, can be found almost everywhere, and they have agreed to label EVERYTHING they use in their products, even down to that pesky “fragrance.” I have used them, I use other stuff now (I will blog about that later!), but for people using Comet, etc., Seventh Generation is a good place to start.

      I do support the Safe Cosmetics Act, and will continue to. I believe that it is much needed for consumers to know everything that is in their products and for SOME oversight to be placed on sompanies that manufacture products we use on our bodies. I terms of the animal testing, here is what the FAQ’s answer was for companies:

      How does the bill address animal testing?

      The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics supports uses of non-animal testing methods where available and effective, and fully supports initiatives to fund research on alternative, non-animal health and safety testing. We believe it is possible to achieve dramatic reductions in the number of animals tested, while improving protection of the health and safety of people and other animals, through more efficient and humane testing protocols, reduction or elimination of unnecessary, duplicative or archaic tests, and by developing policies to improve sharing of animal test data across companies within the chemical and personal care product industries.

      The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 works to minimize animal testing by:

      Requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to publish a list of approved non-animal testing methods;
      Requiring data-sharing, which would allow companies to use existing data (formerly proprietary) rather than having to conduct their own duplicative testing; and
      Encouraging the formation of industry consortia to further facilitate data-sharing, discuss and develop new alternative testing models, and generate other strategies to reduce animal testing.

      I am no PETA expert, and I don’t like animals suffering for our superficial cosmetics needs, but I feel that this bill is a good start, and a way to move more towards what Europe does with no animal testing (of course we are Americans and need to ease into things).

      As far as the testing on Natural ingredients and small businesses, I am not sure that they would have to be tested for every crop year etc. If you have other information I would love to know, but if they determine olive oil is safe for human consumption, then all olive oil is. This is waht they had to say for small businesses:
      What are the benefits of the Safe Cosmetics Act for small businesses?

      The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 contains specific provisions to protect and help small businesses, including:

      – Registration and fee exemptions for microbusinesses with less than $2 million in annual sales.
      – Fee exemptions for small businesses with less than $10 million in annual sales.
      – Data sharing and transparency: small businesses will benefit by having access to safety assessments conducted by other cosmetics companies and suppliers that are currently kept private, and it will encourage data sharing so all companies have easier access to the information that will help them make the best decisions about product safety.
      -“Producer right-to-know” provisions that will enable cosmetics companies to get toxicological data and safety information for cosmetic ingredients from suppliers, including a full listing of the chemicals in fragrance and preservatives.

      I really appreciate your comments on the blog, and hope you will continue to check in!

      Oh, i noticed on your resume that you did work for the Soapmakers Guild in OH. Just wondering if you know of any good soap makers in CT. We like to feature local artisans on our Freebie Friday posts, and we have yet to do some soap!

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