Formaldehyde graphicWhat It Is

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas most often associated with embalming fluid, as it’s used as a preservative in medical labs and mortuaries.[1] It’s also common in pressed wood products like particleboard, furniture, and cabinets.[2] It’s also a common ingredient in baby care products, personal care products,[3] nail polish,[4] and other salon products.[5]

In personal care, formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are most often found in shampoos and liquid baby soaps.[6] In salon products, it’s found in nail polish, nail hardener, nail glue, and eyelash glue. It’s also common in many hair straighteners, [7] when it’s released with high heat during the application process.[8]

The Health Concern

Short-term health impacts linked to formaldehyde include irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, and many studies show it causes allergic skin reactions and skin rashes.[9] It was awarded 2105 Contact Allergen of the Year by American Contact Dermatitis Society.[10]

Long-term impacts are more serious. Formaldehyde is listed as a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program[11] and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.[12] Given that formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are commonly found in salon products, salon workers (both nail technicians and stylists) are highly exposed to formaldehyde and thus more impacted.

How to Avoid It

  • Read labels for formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives like quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, quaternium-15, hydroxymethylglyconate and bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1-3-diol). [13]
  • Look for nail polishes labeled “three-free, which means they don’t contain the “toxic trio” of formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene (although some tests have shown that some of these polishes making this claim still contain these chemicals, using “three-free” polishes is still widely considered a good step).
  • For babies: choose simple products without preservatives that use ingredients that you can pronounce and recognize as safe.
  • Given the prevalence of formaldehyde in chemical hair straighteners and smoothers, it’s best to avoid these altogether and opt for a hot iron.[14]
  • Be aware of formaldehyde in pressed wood, MDF (Medium-Density Fiberboard) and other hard woods that can make up furniture.[15]
  • Instead of wallpaper, which may require formaldehyde glues and toxic paints, use No VOC paints which are highly available now.[16]
  • Look for the MADE SAFE seal on certified products.

[1] National Toxicology Program: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/formaldehyde_508.pdf

[2] National Toxicology Program: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/formaldehyde_508.pdf

[3] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/formaldehyde/

[4] Women’s Voices for the Earth, Glossed Over: http://www.womensvoices.org/safe-salons/glossed-over/

[5] Women’s Voices for the Earth, Beauty and Its Beast: http://www.womensvoices.org/safe-salons/beauty-and-its-beast

[6] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/formaldehyde/

[7] Women’s Voices for the Earth, Toxic Chemicals in Salon Products: http://www.womensvoices.org/avoid-toxic-chemicals/salon-products/toxic-chemicals-in-salon-products-workers/

[8] Women’s Voices for the Earth, The Blowup On Blowouts: http://www.womensvoices.org/safe-salons/brazilian-blowout/the-blow-up-on-blowouts/

[9] Women’s Voices for the Earth, The Blowup On Blowouts: http://www.womensvoices.org/safe-salons/brazilian-blowout/the-blow-up-on-blowouts/

[10] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/formaldehyde/#_edn24

[11] National Toxicology Program: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/formaldehyde_508.pdf

[12] International Agency for Research on Cancer. “IARC classifies formaldehyde as carcinogenic to humans.” https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2004/pr153.html

[13] Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/formaldehyde/

[14] Women’s Voices for the Earth, The Blowup On Blowouts: http://www.womensvoices.org/safe-salons/brazilian-blowout/the-blow-up-on-blowouts/

[15] Consumer Product Safety Commission, An Update on Formaldehyde: https://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/121919/AN%20UPDATE%20ON%20FORMALDEHYDE%20final%200113.pdf

[16] Consumer Product Safety Commission, An Update on Formaldehyde: https://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/121919/AN%20UPDATE%20ON%20FORMALDEHYDE%20final%200113.pdf