Why Beauty is Abandoning the F-Word: Goodbye, Formaldehyde
Once so widespread you’d be hard put to find a formula free of it, formaldehyde is quickly becoming the F-word of the cosmetics world because of its known links to cancer and skin sensitivity. Today, beauty brands big and small are ditching the F-bomb and making sure their customers know it. But just how risky is formaldehyde? After all, your body produces it naturally...can it really be all that bad? Yes. And no. We’re not about scare tactics, but we’re also not about sugarcoating ingredients that don’t belong in skincare.
First, Define Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas most easily recognized by its distinct and pungent, new-furniture-with-a-side-of-pickles odor. As one of the oldest chemicals formed and used in cells way back at the Start of Carbon-Based Life, formaldehyde is naturally produced by plants, animals and our bodies as part of the process to form amino acids (the building blocks of protein essential to our existence in the flesh).
But in true human form, we’ve copped nature’s style to use formaldehyde in basically everything. Fertilizer. Paper. Plywood. Resin. Antiseptics. Shampoo. Soap. Nail polish. And it’s a gaseous byproduct of other things — like cigarettes, unvented gas stoves, auto exhaust — belching into the air we breathe.
So imagine scientists collective oh s**** moment when a 1978 study (and plenty thereafter) concretely linked formaldehyde inhalation to cancer in rats. Other studies as recent at 2018 (including one that the EPA dragged its feet on releasing) have linked formaldehyde, even at lower doses, to leukemia. (1, 2, 3, 4)
But Why Is Formaldehyde Used in Skincare?
To prevent spoilage. Skincare formulas, like food, do go bad if not preserved. And the last time I checked, no one is into the idea of using a moldy moisturizer or rancid retinol. Then again, no one is into the idea of using potential cancer-causing creams, either. Spotting the suspicious gas on labels is easier said than done, however, because it rarely spelled f-o-r-m-a-l-d-e-h-y-d-e. Most manufacturers use one or several formaldehyde-releasing ingredients instead because they act as a sort of time-release capsule that keeps a level of the preservative in the mix to prolong the products shelf life and hold off the growth of molds, yeasts, and bacteria. (5, 6)
(Spoiler alert: you can find a long list of formaldehyde releasers at the end of this post.)
Does Formaldehyde in Skincare Actually Cause Cancer?
This is where the water gets a little murky. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen when inhaled. Indoor air, especially workplaces in industries that use and produce a lot of formaldehyde, like resin, poses the greatest risk. Formaldehyde is less present in outdoor air.
As a preservative in personal care products and cosmetics, we’re absorbing it more than ingesting or inhaling. And, just as our bodies naturally produce formaldehyde, they also break it down pretty effectively and efficiently. Some evidence does suggest that personal care products can off-gas formaldehyde into the air we breathe but at such low levels that the risk of harm is inconclusive. (7, 8)
However, there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that formaldehyde is a potent skin sensitizer and prevalent skin allergen. So prevalent that the American Contact Dermatitis Society name formaldehyde the Contact Allergen of the Year in 2015. Congrats! (9)
Your Skin Sensitivity Might Actually Be a Formaldehyde Allergy
At high concentrations, formaldehyde is toxic enough to the touch to cause chemical burns. However, it would take a lot of formaldehyde to generate such a strong reactions. Concentrations of formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers in skincare and haircare products are restricted by both the FDA, Health Canada and the Cosmetics Directive of the EU to a max level of 0.2% — but even a little can trigger an allergic reaction. (10, 11, 12)
A lot of folks are allergic to formaldehyde -- upwards of 12% and more when highly reactive formaldehyde releasers like quaternium-15 are considered. As one of the most widespread allergens that we come into contact with daily in everything from dish soap to paint and moisturizers to masks, it’s no wonder that so many of us experience skin sensitivity, irritation and skin redness at high rates. But the beauty industry is cleaning up its act. (13)
What to Look for on the Label to Avoid Formaldehyde
If you suspect you have a formaldehyde allergy, make sure to check all your labels (home products as much as personal care) for the following super-hard-pronounce (and spell) formaldehyde forms and releasers:
- Dmdm Hydantoin
- Diazolidinyl Urea
- Imidazolidinyl Urea
- Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin
- Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate
- Bronopol (2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol)
- Polyoxymethylene Urea
- 5-Bromo-5-Nitro-1,3 Dioxane
There Are Alternative Preservatives to Formaldehyde
The amount of formaldehyde in cosmetics is teeny, tiny and the cancer risks are considered slight-to-none. But our world is so steeped in formaldehyde that exposure to it is hard, if not impossible, to escape in some form. Keeping it around in our skincare products adds another (and avoidable) layer of exposure to a chemical that’s clearly dangerous when inhaled, and likely irritating when applied too liberally. (15)
More and more skincare brands and major retailers are promising formaldehyde-free formulas. Safer substitutes, like sodium benzoate or natural antimicrobial and antioxidants, are on the rise. This growing shift to steer clear of sensitizers like formaldehyde demonstrates just how powerful the wellness and clean beauty movement have become in determining a new, health-focused beauty standard. And I haven’t heard any reports or complaints (yet) of mold taking over people’s skincare routines. Good riddance, formaldehyde. We don’t need ya!