BEHIND THE LABEL: Formaldehyde

Say 'formaldehyde' to us and we think of the dissected cow that Damien Hirst decided constituted art!

But did you know that the chemical compound can also be found in some of our favourite cosmetics and beauty products?

In the next article in our series looking at the common ingredients, good and bad, that we use on our skin, we can reveal that formaldehyde is found in nail polishes and hardeners, eyelash glue, hair gels, soaps, make-up, shampoos, lotions, deodorants and many other products.

Not just for cows!

The compound is found in various forms and at room temperature is a colourless pungent-smelling, flammable substance. It is produced on a large scale worldwide mainly in the production of resins that are used as adhesives and binders for wood products, pulp, paper, glasswool and rockwool. It is also used extensively in the production of plastics and coatings, in textile finishing, and in the manufacture of industrial chemicals, as well as being a disinfectant and preservative (think said cow).

Damien Hirst's controversial art made formaldehyde famous

But just because it is so common doesn't mean we don't have to concern ourselves with it. In fact, there are very good reasons to read on.

The Department of Health and Human Services in the USA classifies formaldehyde as 'reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen'. In other words, they are linking it to cancer!

Alarming evidence

The concentration of formaldehyde in products ranges from 40%, such as in embalming and film processing solutions, to less than 0.2%, as in the majority of cosmetics and consumer products.

It is used in beauty products because it helps to prevent bacteria from growing in water-based products, and companies use water in order to make their products last longer.


The science bit - Formaldehyde's chemical composition

But there is now decent evidence to suggest that formaldehyde, in any quantity, is absorbed through the skin and can lead to sensitivities and, even, cancer.

The European Union already controls the use of formaldehyde in personal care products, and requires that products with formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients carry a label saying 'contains formaldehyde'. Canada also restricts the concentration of formaldehyde, and it is banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries in both Japan and Sweden. So this means that in the UK there is a fair chance your beauty products contain this compound.

Triggering skin problems

In terms of causing skin sensitivity, although the quantities used are low, products can contain enough to trigger skin problems, and if your skin is exposed on a daily basis, then sensitivity can build over time.

Research by Spanish scientists states: "Both formaldehyde itself and substances that can release it are a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. This condition often becomes chronic, given that these allergens are found nearly everywhere and it is difficult for patients to avoid them completely."

Poisons in our skincare?

And the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, released a statement as long ago as 2004 claiming links to more serious illnesses, including cancers.

It states: "Previous evaluations, based on the smaller number of studies available at that time, had concluded that formaldehyde was probably carcinogenic to humans, but new information from studies of persons exposed to formaldehyde has increased the overall weight of the evidence.

"Based on this new information, the expert working group has determined that there is now sufficient evidence that formaldehyde causes nasopharyngeal cancer in humans, a rare cancer in developed countries."

Researching the chemical effects

The working group also found limited evidence for cancer of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses and 'strong but not sufficient evidence' for leukaemia.

Be cautious

So, what to do? While there is no undeniable evidence to drive a ban on the use of formaldehyde, the advice is to be cautious. Where possible, avoid products that say 'contains formaldehyde'. If using products that do contain the substance, ensure there is plenty of ventilation to reduce exposure.

As ever, though, there are fabulous cruelty-free beauty companies that are taking the lead in eliminating formaldehyde from their products - not an easy task by the way! These include SpaRitual, Beauty Without Cruelty, Arbonne, and Tisserand.

To download a copy of this feature and others from our library, click here.

The information given in this feature (ie the cruelty-free status of the brands, product information and prices) is correct at the time of publication (August 2013). For an up-to-date list of cruelty-free brands and their contact details, please see our Where To Shop Guide