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Protect Yourself from Formaldehyde in Products

Written by Irina Webb

Do you feel sometimes that you need an advanced degree just to purchase some products these days?  The market is flooded with goods whose ingredients leave much to be desired.  Thus, a mere shampoo or body lotion purchase turns into an investigation that devours your precious time and energy.  All you want is to find a non-toxic product for you and your kids.  Yet, even after hours of research, you are not fully sure whether the choice is right.  And then comes rash, itchiness, swelling, blisters, and hair loss.  Oh no, not again!  I know how overwhelming it can be – I’ve been there.  And I would love to help you make safer purchasing decisions.  In this post, you will learn about formaldehyde in products and how to spot formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.  Read on to find out why formaldehyde can turn into a real health issue.

Protect Yourself from Formaldehyde in Products. A picture of a molecular formula of formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.

Why my opinion is important to you

It all began in 2012.  As I was looking for a safe baby shampoo, I stumbled across “organic” and “natural” products that nevertheless contained unpronounceable ingredients.  Wondering how natural shampoos could contain chemicals, I dove into research and have been doing it ever since.  Consequently, I have read, and researched, the ingredients of hundreds of shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, hair colors, and other skin care products and makeup.  

As a result, I have compiled e-books for shampoos and conditioners, body lotions, permanent hair color, nail polish, diapers, baby wipes, and mattresses.  They present an easy way for you to select products based on the safety of ingredients, not hype or advertisement.  

In addition to my 9-year college education and many years of work as a financial analyst, I have experience as an ingredient safety consultant for product manufacturers and online retailers.  In other words, researching ingredients has become my full-time profession.  Therefore, if you lack time to do your own research (which is so understandable!), I can read labels for you.  Nonetheless, I encourage you to learn the basics so you can easily identify harmful ingredients, such as formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.  

Formaldehyde in products

First of all, what is formaldehyde? 

It is a colorless pungent toxic gas in solution made by oxidizing methanol, a toxic, colorless, volatile flammable liquid alcohol.

Secondly, what is formaldehyde’s health impact on humans?

Depending on their level of sensitivity to this chemical, people may experience short-term and long-term health effects.  For example, some short-term effects may include watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, itching, redness, swelling, multiple small blisters and scaling.  One may also experience coughing, wheezing, nausea, and skin irritation (source).  And, in the long run, formaldehyde can even cause cancer.

The first time this substance was associated with cancer was in 1980.  In 2011, the National Toxicology Program classified it as one of the “known human carcinogens” (source).

How are we exposed to formaldehyde in products?

To begin with, as a gas, it off-gasses from products into the air, and we end up inhaling it.  There is a whole array of products that may emit formaldehyde, including:

  • pressed wood (hardwood plywood, wall paneling, particleboard, fiberboard)
  • furniture made with pressed wood
  • urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI)
  • durable press drapes
  • paints, varnishes, and floor finishes
  • Brazilian blowouts
  • nail polish (by the way, you can become a more confident consumer of nail polishes, if you download my Nail Polish Rating List e-book)

You can also be exposed to it via formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in personal care products, including even baby shampoos.  Additionally, this chemical is in tobacco smoke, vehicle exhaust, smoke from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, and finishes on wrinkle-free clothes. 

What is a safe level of exposure to formaldehyde in products?

In 1987, OSHA established a Federal standard of 1 ppm (parts per million) of formaldehyde exposure during an 8-hour workday.  They amended the standard in May 1992 and reduced the exposure limit to 0.75 ppm.  At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency describes its elevated level as 0.1 ppm. 

In 1992, California defined formaldehyde as a potent toxin.  The California Air Resource Board (CARB), a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency, regulates its emissions in composite wood.  Thus, it came up with a stricter standard, CARB II, which set forth the following limits on its emissions.  For hardwood plywood veneer core and hardwood plywood composite core it is 0.05 ppm. As for particleboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF) it is 0.09 ppm and 0.11 ppm respectively. And for thin MDF it is 0.13 ppm (source).

How can you best protect yourself from formaldehyde in products?

First, spend as much time outside as you can and ventilate your house.  Ventilation decreases indoor pollution significantly, even in cities with high levels of pollution.  Also, keep the temperature and humidity levels down in your house and maintain your fireplace in good condition.

Second, buy CARB II compliant wooden furniture and use “exterior-grade” pressed wood products.  To clarify, these are lower emitting because they contain phenol resins, not urea resins.  In addition, it is best to allow products with this chemical to air out before bringing them into your home.  Overall, buy less and get rid of the old stuff.

Third, use personal care products without formaldehyde-releasing preservatives.  On my website, I recommend only products free of harmful ingredients.  You can learn more here about ways and products to use to reduce your exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. 

Preservatives in skin care products

On the one hand, preservatives are not good for us because they are designed to kill living things (bacteria).  But on the other hand, preservatives are a must for products that have water or another liquid-based formulation.  Get the gist of research in the field of preservatives in skin care products in the WaterWipes Baby Wipes post. 

Briefly, there are different types of skin care product preservatives that protect against mold, fungus, bacteria, and rancidity.  For example, such strong ones as parabens and those that release formaldehyde protect from all three.  Essentially, they kill anything and allow for a significantly longer shelf life period.  Obviously, you do not want those on your skin and in your body.

What are formaldehyde-releasing preservatives?

Importantly, there are some ingredients in products that release formaldehyde.  However, if you were to read the label of one of these products, you would not find formaldehyde as an ingredient.  Yet, there would be formaldehyde in products.  So, watch out for the following preservatives that release formaldehyde:

  • Glyoxal
  • Methenamine
  • Quaternium-15
  • Diazolidinyl Urea
  • DMDM Hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl Urea
  • Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate
  • 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol

To clarify, they release a small amount of formaldehyde into a product over time.  The Environmental Working Group gave formaldehyde the worst score for its negative health impact.  Thus, both formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are associated with widespread allergic contact dermatitis.  Plus, the American Society of Contact Dermatitis lists the chemical as a core allergen even in concentrations as low as 1%.  

Furthermore, longer storage times and higher temperatures increase the amount of formaldehyde released.  In turn, it boosts the risk of allergic reaction, which can happen either to formaldehyde or to the preservative itself.  An example of a popular hair care line with formaldehyde in products hidden in their preservatives is DevaCurl.

Which formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are in DevaCurl shampoo?

To begin with, DevaCurl is the driving force behind the Curly Girl Method, established by the original founder Lorraine Massey.  By February 2020, there were three class action lawsuits against DevaCurl pending in New York, California, and Florida.  The allegations in the suits were that DevaCurl products had caused severe allergic reactions to the users.  For example, according to the allegations, they included scalp irritation, hair loss, thinning, breakage, and even balding.  Hence, the users alleged that DevaCurl products turned out to be nowhere near as gentle as the company claimed (source).

As of December 8, 2020, DevaCurl Low-Poo Original contained diazolidinyl urea as its preservative.  Admittedly, preservatives are necessary to protect products from the growth of bacteria, yeast, and mold.  However, because diazolidinyl urea releases small amounts of dangerous formaldehyde into a product over time, it is not as safe, in my opinion.  Thus, the EWG rates diazolidinyl urea between 3 and 5 (with 10 as most toxic).  The formaldehyde released by the preservative can cause such allergic reactions as those described above. 

Meanwhile, Deva Concepts assures its users that all of its products “meet the safety requirements of the US Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) and Health Canada” (source).  You can read more about Deva Concept and the lawsuit in my post about DevaCurl Shampoo.

Another common use of formaldehyde in products – Brazilian blowouts

In addition to formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, there are hair treatments that may cause the same problem.  For instance, hair straightening and smoothing treatments – Brazilian blowouts – have become quite popular recently.  The problem is that this product releases formaldehyde when it is heated.

In 2010, the regulators of Canada and Oregon issued warnings about Brazilian blowouts.  They resulted from numerous complaints from hairstylists of nosebleeds, breathing problems, and eye irritation.  

The manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout agreed to settle a class action lawsuit for about $4.5 million.  Also, they paid $35 per treatment to people who experienced health problems (source).  In addition, the company agreed not to market their products as “formaldehyde-free.”  So far, the FDA has issued the company two warning letters for marketing formaldehyde-emitting products as formaldehyde-free  (source).

Conclusion about formaldehyde-releasing preservatives and formaldehyde in products

In conclusion, we can be exposed to formaldehyde in so many different ways.  Do not forget to read ingredients and ask questions of manufacturers.  Do not just rely on advertisement claims.  Change is possible, and by that, I mean that when consumers ask pointed questions, companies change their formulation of products to make them safer.  I have seen it happen. 

Please know that I do not use or promote products with formaldehyde, so use my blog as a resource.  Instead, I help consumers just like you make informed decision with confidence.  For more help on that, sign up for my weekly emails.  Also, check out my shop for non-toxic products and/or book a consultation with me.

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