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Why You Should Avoid Formaldehyde in Beauty Products and Cosmetics

Why You Should Avoid Formaldehyde in Beauty Products and Cosmetics

We have to be honest.

The beauty industry, as glamorous as it seems, has a bit of a dark side. Truth be told, there are probably some super gross ingredients that can be used to make your cosmetics—anything from insects to dangerous chemicals

As part of our mission to deliver clean, safe beauty to you, we’re going to give you the most up-to-date info on what you should watch out for when it comes to ingredients in your makeup. Today’s topic? Formaldehyde

Now, formaldehyde in the beauty industry isn’t a new thing. But it hasn’t gone anywhere, either. And we’re wondering why (and after you read this article, we’re sure you’ll be wondering that, too).

So, we’re gonna give you the full story on formaldehyde and why you should be avoiding it at all costs.

What is formaldehyde and why is it used in cosmetics?

Let’s go back to basics for a second. What is formaldehyde, anyway?

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas. Believe it or not, our bodies actually produce it (it leaves our bodies as part of our CO2 output). Fruits, plants, fish, bacteria, and other animals produce it, too. 

But what is its role as an ingredient? 

As you can imagine, using gas in products isn’t really feasible. Usually, formaldehyde is distilled in water to create a liquid called formalin—which is one of the main ingredients in embalming fluid. 

Needless to say, it’s a great preservative.

That’s actually the main reason formaldehyde is so popular in cosmetics—a small amount of the stuff can significantly extend the shelf life of a product. It’s very effective in preventing the growth of fungi, mold, and other dangerous bacteria.

Because of the risks (which we’ll get into later), restrictions on the use of formaldehyde are super tight. It's even flat-out banned in some states. So, products these days usually include formaldehyde-releasers as opposed to straight formaldehyde or formalin. 

Releasers allow formaldehyde to be, well, released in small increments over time. Generally speaking, formaldehyde-releasers are either synthesized directly from formaldehyde or composed of a substance that releases formaldehyde through decomposition. 

Formaldehyde-releasers don’t have as many restrictions as pure formaldehyde and formalin, especially in the US, and they can be used in any quantity (although they’re usually used in very small amounts).

Because of its preserving properties, formaldehyde is also used in glue, paint, dishwashing detergent, fabric softener, fertilizer, pesticides, and air fresheners. So chances are formaldehyde is hiding in at least one of the products in your home. 

When it comes to cosmetics, it’s less common than it used to be. But formaldehyde still manages to find its way into a range of personal care products because it's so effective as a preservative.

Where is formaldehyde found in the beauty industry?

At this point, it would be pretty hard to find a beauty product that contains straight formaldehyde or formalin—but it’s not impossible

Some nail products, like gel polish and hardening solutions, contain basic formaldehyde as opposed to releasers. There’s a limit on how much can be used, but it’s pretty high, sitting at 5% for nail hardeners and 0.5% for regular polish. 

Psst—try one of these formaldehyde and cruelty-free nail polishes instead!

But usually, outside of nail products, formaldehyde comes from those slow releasers we mentioned earlier. Some common releasers are:

  • Benzylhemiformal
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Formaldehyde
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Methenamine
  • Paraformaldehyde
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • Quaternium-15

These are just releasers that are considered cosmetic-grade. The full list, including those found in non-cosmetic products, covers about 30+ different chemicals. 

Formaldehyde’s main alternative, phenoxyethanol, is and has been on the rise. But some brands still use formaldehyde-releasers in products like shampoo, conditioner, other hair products (like blowout and keratin treatments), eyelash glue, lotion, and deodorant because it has proven to be so effective at preserving products.

Just so you know who to watch out for in case you decide to avoid formaldehyde, here are some brands that are still consistently using it in their products:

  • Bumble and bumble
  • Aveda
  • Clinique
  • OGX Beauty
  • Neutrogena
  • Tresemme
  • Suave
  • Dove

At this point, the easiest (and surest) way to check for formaldehyde is by scanning the ingredients list yourself.

Kinder Beauty has a bit of a bone to pick with formaldehyde, despite the limits and legal restrictions. Honestly, we don’t think the stuff belongs anywhere near your personal care products. 

Why should you avoid formaldehyde?

Let's start with the number one reason: it's a known carcinogen.

That's right. Brands out there are still using an ingredient that's known to cause cancer (but why should we be surprised? They still use talc, too!). 

Since formaldehyde’s main form is gas, the big worry here is inhalation. But, there’s also a chance it can be absorbed through your skin. Either way, using products with formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasers can cause a whole host of health issues.

Here are some other formaldehyde side effects to watch out for:

  • Skin irritation
  • Burning and watery eyes
  • Wheezing
  • Respiratory issues
  • Rash
  • Blisters
  • Redness
  • Itching 

Note that some people are very sensitive to it, so these side effects could end up being pretty severe.

Another potential side effect is hair loss, which is an issue OGX Beauty has been under fire for. Some of their products contain DMDM hydantoin, and thousands of customers have complained and/or sued the company due to scalp irritation and hair loss. Although Johnson&Johnson (OGX’s parent company) stated they would remove the ingredient from all of their products by 2015, they still have yet to do so.

The FDA has even commented on the use of formaldehyde in hair products, warning consumers about the potential dangers that come with exposure. And although use of the ingredient is heavily regulated by the FDA, California completely banned formaldehyde in 2020 because they deemed the risks too high.

Basically what we’re trying to say is this stuff is not to be messed with. And you would think, as it’s a carcinogen, everyone would agree. But unfortunately, we’re not totally there yet.

As for us, we absolutely do not allow formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasers in any of the products you’ll find in our monthly boxes or marketplace. Our customer’s safety is our top priority, and we would never put you or your health at risk.

So although formaldehyde seems to be sticking around, here at Kinder Beauty you can consider it a thing of the past.

Ashley Webb is a professional copywriter for the clean, vegan, and cruelty-free beauty industry. Using SEO and consumer research, she writes blogs, webpage copy, product descriptions, and emails for beauty brands that are committed to making a difference. Adopting her two kitties, Ivy and Binx, started her journey to advocacy for animal rights, and even led her to go vegan! Learn more about her and her work at ashleywebbagency.com.

Sources: 

The Dirty Dozen: Formaldehyde Releasers | David Suzuki Foundation

Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk | National Institutes of Health

Formaldehyde in Hair Smoothing Products: What You Need to Know | Food and Drug Administration

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