For most people, the word formaldehyde conjures up memories of grade 10 biology and the pungent scent of preserved frogs. It has a toxic reputation and lurks in some fairly dodgy places – smog, car fumes, tobacco smoke and embalming fluids. Formaldehyde is commercially produced from petroleum and used in the manufacturing of many items: crease-resistant fabrics, automobiles, plywood, carpet, sanitary paper products, paints, insulation, antiseptics, vaccines and medications. What was once used exclusively as an antiseptic or animal preservative has become a billion dollar industry finding uses in thousands of products.
Formaldehyde is a human toxin, allergen and carcinogen, according to several government bodies and agencies including the International Agency for Research on Cancer, Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The health impacts associated with formaldehyde come in many shapes and forms. If ingested, it can injure the digestive system and even cause death. If inhaled, it can damage the respiratory system and cause headaches. People who have been exposed to elevated levels of formaldehyde in building materials, such as in the New Orleans FEMA trailers, have experienced respiratory problems such as bronchitis, burning eyes, noses, and throats. There are even studies linking formaldehyde exposure to Alzheimer’s disease and reproductive issues in women.
Formaldehyde exists in the personal care industry in two different forms. It is added directly to products such as nail hardeners and hair straighteners but is strongly regulated in Canada and the European Union and banned in both Sweden and Japan. Formaldehyde is more frequently found as a contaminant that enters a product by way of antimicrobial preservatives called formaldehyde-releasers, which, as the name suggests, release formaldehyde over time through chemical reactions. These substances are a popular addition to water-based products like lotions and shampoos and can even be found in many baby products on the market. The most common formaldehyde-releasers are quaternium-15, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinly urea and DMDM hydantoin. They are one of the main causes of allergic contact dermatitis from personal care products and, unlike formaldehyde, remain unrestricted and do not have to be tested for any levels of contamination.
It is unclear how formaldehyde affects our bodies when it is absorbed through our skin from personal care products because there is not enough research available. What we do know is that it is a carcinogen, toxin and allergen and should not be applied to our bodies on a regular basis, especially when there are numerous safer options available. Unfortunately, for many people who routinely use conventional products in the bathroom, formaldehyde is a regular part of their day.
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