by Dr. Irene Reyzis






Formaldehyde shows up in cosmetics and personal care products in different forms. According to the National Toxicology Program (NTP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and other health authorities, formaldehyde is a human carcinogen based on evidence from human research studies and supporting lab data. There are other groups who classify formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen like the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the EPA through their Integrated Risk Information System. The types of cancers of highest concern when it comes to formaldehyde are those of the nasal cavity and upper airways, and bone marrow cancers like leukemia.


Exposure to formaldehyde fumes can cause a range of short-term health issues such as eye irritation, headache, burning in the throat, labored breathing, and asthma attacks in some individuals. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that formaldehyde is a sensitizing agent that can trigger various responses of the immune system including allergies. They say it is highly irritating to the eyes, nose and throat, and may lead to asthma-like respiratory problems and dermatitis with long-term exposure.


Formaldehyde can act as a skin allergen and has a high likelihood to cause skin reactions. Skin absorption of formaldehyde does occur, and according to the American Cancer Society (ACS) formaldehyde can cause an allergic skin rash (contact dermatitis) that is itchy, red, and may become raised or develop blisters.


Although formaldehyde can cause cancer and many other health issues, it is still allowed in consumer products, including cosmetics like nail polish and salon hair smoothing treatments. It is permitted to include formaldehyde in cosmetics as an ingredient, but it may also enter products through carrier ingredients like methylene glycol, formaldehyde resins and the formaldehyde-producing preservatives: DMDM hydantoin, Quaternium-15, Imidazolidinyl Urea, and Diazolidinyl Urea.


Most carrier ingredients do not have the word “formaldehyde” in their name, so most consumers would not recognize them as sources simply from reading the label. This is why it helps to be knowledgeable about the names of specific formaldehyde-producing ingredients.


The FDA places no restrictions on formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients in cosmetics or personal care products. Yet Japan and Sweden ban their use in such products, and use levels are limited in Europe. The state of Minnesota has banned in-state sales of children’s personal care products containing formaldehyde.




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