There's no denying that there's an ever-increasing awareness and discussion about the ingredients used in beauty products, more specifically potentially-questionable ingredients and chemicals. And among the sulfates and parabens and phthalates of the world, there's another, seemingly much scarier player, that has people talking: formaldehyde. Unlike many of its counterparts, it's not an ingredient exclusive to the beauty industry; it's used during the embalming process, after all—and that's exactly what has people (understandably) concerned. Ahead, board-certified dermatologists Robyn Gmyrek, MD and Corey L. Hartman, MD, as well as cosmetic biochemist Stacey Steinmetz weigh in on the use of formaldehyde in beauty products... and whether or not the fear surrounding it is warranted or overblown.
Meet the Expert
- Robyn Gmyrek, MD is a board-certified dermatologist at Park View Laser Dermatology in New York City. She specializes in cosmetic and general dermatology and has lectured nationally on techniques including laser surgery, Botox injections, sclerotherapy for leg vein removal and filler injections for correction of wrinkles.
- Corey L. Hartman, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL. He is assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.
- Stacey Steinmetz is a cosmetic biochemist and founder of StimuNail. Prior to founding her company, she worked at major beauty brands such as L'Oréal and Shiseido.
What is Formaldehyde?
Fact: Formaldehyde isn't an artificial chemical. "It's a naturally-occurring, organic compound that's produced in living organisms, including in the human body as part of the cell metabolism process," explains Steinmetz. It's a gas and doesn't accumulate in the body, however, since the formaldehyde we naturally produce is ultimately converted to carbon dioxide and exhaled, explains Gmyrek. She adds that it's also naturally found in fruits and veggies, such as apples, pears, peas, carrots, and bananas.
So, if it's already in our bodies (and the food we're eating), what's the problem? For starters, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxicology Program classify formaldehyde as a human carcinogen; it's associated with an increased risk of nasopharyngeal and sinonasal cancers, as well as a type of leukemia, says Gmyrek. However, it's important to note that it's a known carcinogen when its fumes are inhaled, a key point when talking about formaldehyde in beauty products.
Which Products Contain Formaldehyde?
"In beauty products, formaldehyde is used as a preservative to prolong shelf life and prevent bacterial contamination," says Steinmetz. But here's where it gets a little tricky and tough to simply read ingredient labels and avoid it: it's often disguised in formulations by other names, she adds. Remember, formaldehyde is a gas, so rather than using pure formaldehyde—and listing it as such—cosmetic companies often use formaldehyde releasers (one notable exception being hair straightening treatments… more on those in a minute). These are ingredients that decompose slowly over time to form molecules of formaldehyde, explains Gmyrek. "This slow release process limits the amount of formaldehyde in the product at any one time and maintains a fairly constant level of preservative prolonging the shelf life," she adds. Common formaldehyde releasers that you are likely to see in a product include: DMDM hydantoin, methylene glycol, quaternium 15, and 3 dioxane, just to name a few. These can be found in all types of skincare products. Some nail products, such as polish and remover, can have high concentrations of formaldehyde in their formulations and release vapors that we can potentially inhale, says Steinmetz. (Nail hardeners may also contain the liquid version of formaldehyde, known as formalin, points out Gmyrek.)
What Are the Risks of Formaldehyde Exposure?
As mentioned, the biggest concern is inhaling formaldehyde fumes. The good news is that, because of the way it's formulated in beauty products, that risk is fairly low, with one notable exception. "The highest risk of exposure cosmetically is in formaldehyde-containing hair straightening formulations used in some Brazilian blowouts or keratin treatments," explains Gmyrek. "When the solution is heated, the formaldehyde in the products is released into the air as a gas. If the salon isn't properly ventilated, both the salon professionals and their clients are at risk of inhaling the released formaldehyde," she says.
Again, inhalation can also be an issue from nail products, but Gmyrek says that that scenario poses less of a cancer risk. The issue there is what Hartman says is the most common side effect of formaldehyde: irritant contact dermatitis (a fancy term for skin irritation). "Even though levels are low in most cosmetic products, many people are highly sensitive to formaldehyde, and it can cause redness, itching, and scaling of the skin, as well as irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat," he explains. You can also be allergic to formaldehyde, which manifests in similar ways, including redness, itching, swelling, inflammation, and blisters, adds Gmyrek. You might even be using a product with formaldehyde releasers for a long time and then suddenly develop an allergy. The only way to tell whether formaldehyde is irritating your skin or if you're actually allergic to it is via a patch test at your dermatologist; though, it's estimated that less than 3% of the US population has some type of sensitivity to formaldehyde, according to Gmyrek.
There are some very real health concerns associated with formaldehyde. It gets dicey because the FDA doesn't regulate the use of formaldehyde in skincare, says Hartman. "It recommends that it not be included at all in aerosols, and that other products contain no more than .2 percent. But those are merely recommendations and companies aren't obligated to comply," he points out. In short, it falls on you to be an educated consumer and do your due diligence if you're concerned about formaldehyde and/or if it's causing skin allergies or irritation. In that case, go ahead and simply avoid even those aforementioned formaldehyde releasers; shopping from brands and/or retailers that have clear lists of banned ingredients is a good start, as those will definitely be on their "no" lists.
The good news is that with most products, the levels of formaldehyde released into the air—because, again, it's most dangerous when inhaled—are very low. A 2012 study found that the amount of formaldehyde inhaled from the use of face moisturizer, foundation, shower gel, shampoo, deodorant, conditioner, gel, and body lotion (all of which contained formaldehyde-releasing agents) was too minimal to pose a risk to human health. Hair straightening treatments undoubtedly pose the biggest potential risk, so make sure to do your homework. "There are formaldehyde-free formulations available, and it's also a good idea to ask your stylist to see the ingredient list," suggest Gmyrek, who adds that it's important to check the ingredient list of in-salon straightening treatments, too.
At the end of the day, there's good reason why formaldehyde has a certain stigma around it. For most of us, it's nothing to worry over, particularly if you take the time to educate yourself and shop smart.
National Cancer Institute. Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. Updated June 10, 2011.
American Cancer Society. Formaldehyde. Updated May 23, 2014.
United States Department of Labor. Hair Salons — Formaldehyde in Your Products.
Lefebvre MA, Meuling WJ, Engel R, et al. Consumer inhalation exposure to formaldehyde from the use of personal care products/cosmetics. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2012;63(1):171-176. doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2012.02.011