FORMALDEHYDE

This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!

Ingredient:

Formaldehyde

What it is:

Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound that’s colorless, flammable, extremely noxious, and toxic (1).

What it does:

Formaldehyde was first discovered in 1859 and its versatility has made it a much more common chemical ingredient since then (2). It’s used to make many types of plastics, pesticides and industrial disinfectants; to tan leather; to make resins and adhesives used in carpets and plywoods; as a textile finisher to prevent creasing; as a tissue preservative in medical labs; and as an embalming fluid in mortuaries (3). It’s also used as a preservative in some ingredients used for the manufacture of, cosmetic and personal care products, as well as household cleaners (3). Formaldehyde is all around us, every day.

Why we’re featuring it today:

Formaldehyde is included in our Honestly Free Guarantee because it poses serious risks to human health. Here’s just a small snapshot of what we know:

  • Formaldehyde is listed as a known human carcinogen in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it causes cancer of the throat, nose, and blood (leukemia).
  • Formaldehyde is a well-established neurotoxin that can cause headaches, dizziness, and sleep disorders and it affects memory, learning, and behavior (4,5,6).
  • Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde (levels common in the indoor air of new buildings and homes) can irritate and burn the eyes, nose, throat, and skin (7).
  • In women, exposure can cause reproductive issues like menstrual disorders and spontaneous abortion, as well as developmental impacts to fetuses such as chromosome and DNA damage (8,9,10).
  • People with asthma may be more sensitive to exposure to formaldehyde and studies show that exposure to formaldehyde increases the development of childhood asthma (9,11,12).
  • Skin allergies and skin sensitization following dermal exposure to formaldehyde is also well documented (9,13).

Need we say more?

Want your home to be Honestly Free of formaldehyde?

Given its widespread use, it’s highly unlikely your home will ever be totally Honestly Free of formaldehyde, but there are a few things you can do to significantly reduce your exposure.

  • Clean up indoor air. Our primary exposure to formaldehyde comes from breathing it in. You can clean up your indoor air by:
    • Choosing solid wood furnishings and avoiding pressed woods, plywoods, and particle board. Before purchasing building materials, cabinetry, and furnishings, ask the manufacturer about possible formaldehyde content.
    • Using zero-VOC paints and varnishes. There are even some paints that will block formaldehyde from off-gassing out of pressed woods and other paints that actually absorb formaldehyde – essentially turning your walls into giant air filters!
    • Cleaning chimneys and wood-burning appliances. Smoke from combustion contains formaldehyde, so prevent it from entering your home by properly maintaining anything that creates it.
    • Keeping exhaust out. Gas burning engines in cars, mowers, leaf blowers, and other equipment release exhaust that contains formaldehyde (and other risky pollutants). If you have an attached garage, make sure the door to your home is effectively sealed and use a vapor barrier on any shared walls. Also, don’t idle them outside open windows.
    • Using safe household cleaners. Since cleaning products aren’t required to have detailed ingredients lists, avoid any products that aren’t transparent about what’s inside.
    • Opening windows. It couldn’t be easier – even just a few minutes a day lets the bad air out and better air in!
  • Choose safe personal care products. Formaldehyde can be found on the ingredients labels of things like nail polish and hair straightening formulas, but other products such as baby shampoo, body wash, and soap may contain it even though you might not see it listed as an ingredient. That’s because some products contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) that – as the name implies – release small amounts of formaldehyde over time. Read labels and avoid products containing the following ingredients: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol).

References:

  1. Tox Town – Formaldehyde – Toxic chemicals and environmental health risks where you live and work – Text Version. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=14
  2. Fox, C. H., Johnson, F. B., Whiting, J., & Roller, P. P. (1985). Formaldehyde fixation. J histochem Cytochem, 33(8), 845-853.
  3. EPA. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://www2.epa.gov/formaldehyde/facts-about-formaldehyde
  4. Tulpule, K., & Dringen, R. (2013). Formaldehyde in brain: an overlooked player in neurodegeneration?. Journal of neurochemistry, 127(1), 7-21.
  5. Songur, A., Ozen, O. A., & Sarsilmaz, M. (2010). The toxic effects of formaldehyde on the nervous system. In Reviews of environmental contamination and toxicology (pp. 105-118). Springer New York.
  6. Kilburn, K. H., Warshaw, R., & Thornton, J. C. (1987). Formaldehyde impairs memory, equilibrium, and dexterity in histology technicians: effects which persist for days after exposure. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal, 42(2), 117-120.
  7. Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/formaldehyde/formaldehyde-fact-sheet
  8. Duong, A., Steinmaus, C., McHale, C. M., Vaughan, C. P., & Zhang, L. (2011). Reproductive and developmental toxicity of formaldehyde: a systematic review.Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research, 728(3), 118-138.
  9. Kim, K. H., Jahan, S. A., & Lee, J. T. (2011). Exposure to formaldehyde and its potential human health hazards. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part C, 29(4), 277-299.
  10. Thrasher, J. D., & Kilburn, K. H. (2001). Embryo toxicity and teratogenicity of formaldehyde. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal,56(4), 300-311.
  11. Krzyzanowski, M., Quackenboss, J. J., & Lebowitz, M. D. (1990). Chronic respiratory effects of indoor formaldehyde exposure. Environmental research,52(2), 117-125.
  12. McGwin Jr, G., Lienert, J., & Kennedy Jr, J. I. (2010). Formaldehyde exposure and asthma in children: a systematic review. Environmental health perspectives (Online), 118(3), 313.
  13. NIOSH Skin Notation Profiles: Formaldehyde/Formalin. Washington, DC: United States Government. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2011-145/pdfs/2011-145.pdf
  14. Broder, I., Corey, P., Brasher, P., Lipa, M., & Cole, P. (1991). Formaldehyde exposure and health status in households. Environmental health perspectives,95, 101.
  15. Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. (n.d.). Retrieved January 05, 2015, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/formaldehyde
  16. Swenberg, J. A., Moeller, B. C., Lu, K., Rager, J. E., Fry, R. C., & Starr, T. B. (2012). Formaldehyde Carcinogenicity Research 30 Years and Counting for Mode of Action, Epidemiology, and Cancer Risk Assessment. Toxicologic pathology, 0192623312466459.

This post was revised as of 10/7/2015. 

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  • Brown Feather

    Why, if it’s so toxic, would it be used in many vaccines, administered to infants, children and willing adults?

    • Great question! Here’s what the U.S. FDA has to say about it:

      “It is used to inactivate viruses so that they don’t cause disease (e.g., polio virus used to make polio vaccine) and to detoxify bacterial toxins, such as the toxin used to make diphtheria vaccine. Formaldehyde is diluted during the vaccine manufacturing process, but residual quantities of formaldehyde may be found in some current vaccines. The amount of formaldehyde present in some vaccines is so small compared to the concentration that occurs naturally in the body that it does not pose a safety concern.
      Formaldehyde is also produced naturally in the human body as a part of normal functions of the body to produce energy and build the basic materials needed for important life processes. This includes making amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins that the body needs.

      Formaldehyde is also found in the environment and is present in different ways. It is used in building materials, as a preservative in labs and to produce many household products.

      The body continuously processes formaldehyde, both from what it makes on its own and from what it has been exposed to in the environment. When the body breaks down formaldehyde, it does not distinguish between formaldehyde from vaccines and that which is naturally produced or environmental. The amount of formaldehyde in a person’s body depends on their weight; babies have lower amounts than adults. Studies have shown that for a newborn of average weight of 6 – 8 pounds, the amount of formaldehyde in their body is 50-70 times higher than the upper amount that they could receive from a single dose of a vaccine or from vaccines administered over time.”

      As we mention in the post above and as the FDA response points out, formaldehyde does indeed occur naturally in the environment at very low levels as a by-product of the metabolic processes of most living organisms. But now that we manufacture so much of it synthetically and use it in so many products, it’s become a real health risk. We believe we’re being exposed to too much of it and, for our purposes, there are safer alternatives. In the case of vaccines, the dose is extremely low and formaldehyde is performing a vital function in creating the vaccine.

      Does that help clarify things? Please let us know if you still have questions – we’re always happy to help!

  • Mandy

    I had a patch test done with my dermatologist, and one of the mega triggers was formaldehyde. i didn’t think that was a huge deal since i wasn’t planning on embalming any bodies anytime soon, but i didn’t realize it is basically in everything, particularly body products. i developed a painful, red, ITCHY, oozing rash on my entire face and every cream or ointment my doctors prescribed never helped. what’s more, the patch on my back wouldn’t heal. Finally i got a doctor that told me to stop using all the products i’d been using and swap to some without formaldehyde, and he educated me on the multiple names of formaldehyde and the releasers (ex: DMDM Hydantoin, etc). i got immediate relief from the products and over time, i’ve started using yours as well. my face is now clear and my overall body swelling and inflammation is reduced. Thank you for all you do to try to help us. Some people complain about things in the comments section of your site, but i hope they realize this is an on-going effort for your company. As more is known about different ingredients, things will improve and evolve. Thank you for your hard work and commitment to us!

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