The popularity of natural cosmetics and home-made cosmetics is mainly based on the avoidance of harmful substances. Very dangerous substances have been used in cosmetics for decades. In general, those most difficult-to-pronounce chemicals seem to be the most harmful ones. The use of harmful chemicals has declined dramatically recently as information about the harmful effects of chemicals has spread around. One of the most harmful substances in cosmetics is formaldehyde. What is formaldehyde and why should it be avoided?
Formaldehyde has been a generally used ingredient in cosmetics
Formaldehyde is a colourless, strongly odorous gas that does catch fire easily. You can find formaldehyde in quite many places. It is used in fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing of paper and plywood products, as well as in numerous building materials.
Formaldehyde is most often used in the form of formalin. Formalin is an aqueous solution used in cosmetic preservatives. Preservatives do release formaldehyde in very small amounts at a time. This prevents bacteria and other microbes from spoiling the cosmetic product.
How the exposure to formaldehyde happens?
Formaldehyde has been identified as a carcinogen. It has been found to promote tumour growth. Formaldehyde is excreted in very small amounts from materials that release formaldehyde. You can get formaldehyde into your body
- evaporated through the air, for example when washing shampoo
- through the skin by absorption directly from the products
- by swallowing a product containing formaldehyde (lipstick)
Formaldehyde is especially dangerous if inhaled. Therefore, special care should be taken with products that are in sprayable form. Toiletries and shampoos also evaporate into the air.
Formaldehyde causes skin irritation. Formaldehyde concentrations in the products are very low. However, avoid using many products containing formaldehyde at the same time. Glyoxal and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate may cause skin irritation. However, skin irritation disappears after giving up the use of the product.
In case you are a hairdresser or beautician/cosmetologist you should be very cautious of formaldehyde releasers. You can then be exposed to dangerous level of formaldehyde on daily basis.
What cosmetic products contain formaldehyde?
You will find formaldehyde in nail polishers, mascaras, hair sprays, all colour cosmetics, soaps, creams, deodorants and shampoos. So, you can find a source of formaldehyde in just about any cosmetic product. Formaldehyde is a very effective product and therefore its popularity is guaranteed.
Formaldehyde is rarely added to products as such. The use of formaldehyde as a preservative was banned in the EU in 2016. However, its use as pre-mixed with a preservative is still permitted. You can find formaldehyde products at INCI under at least the following names:
- DMDM hydantoin
- imidazolidinyl urea
- Diazolidinyl urea
- Polyoksymethylene urea
- sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
- 3-diol (bromopoly)
These substances are the so-called formaldehyde releasers. They release small amounts of formaldehyde over time. This ensures the shelf life of the product.
Even small amounts of formaldehyde are harmful
Only really small amounts of formaldehyde are needed in the product. This alone says a lot about the effectiveness of the substance. The maximum content of formaldehyde releaser in cosmetic products should be no more than 0.2% by regulations. The formaldehyde releaser must also be clearly indicated on the package.
Just a small amount of formaldehyde is enough to affect harmfully the body’s function. Especially if the product you use every day contains a formaldehyde releaser, problems can occur. The risk is bigger because a formaldehyde releaser is added to several cosmetic products you are using every day, other chemicals, and building materials in your home.
Why are formaldehyde releasers still used as a preservative?
It is estimated that formaldehyde releasers are still used as a preservative in up to 20% of cosmetic products. So, we all may have such a product in our home.
Formaldehyde releasers are not all the same.
Quaternium-15 is a particularly sensitizing agent. It has been used because it is extremely effective preservative. There is a plan to ban Quaternium-15 because it is suspected of causing cancer. The decision has not been done yet.
DMDM hydantoin is a particularly well-tolerated preservative that is also added to baby products. It has been considered that the level of formaldehyde released from DMDM is not dangerous. We all can consider if we want any formaldehyde releasers near to our babies at all.
Glyoxal, which is found especially in nail polishes, is a quite strong skin allergen. Nowadays it’s use is limited. Still, glyoxal is found in quite many products.
How to avoid using a Formaldehyde releaser
Read all INCIs and avoid the formaldehyde releaser items listed above. Today, manufacturers are working to find alternative preservatives to replace formaldehyde releasers. Please pay attention especially to old cosmetic products. Old cosmetic products and bottles etc should be properly disposed.
There are no formaldehyde releasers in natural cosmetics
The best way to avoid formaldehyde is to get genuine natural cosmetics. The use of formaldehyde releasers is completely banned in natural cosmetics. If a cosmetic product is marked with a natural cosmetics certificate like COSMOS, ECOCERT, Cosmebio, Demeter, EcoControl and Ecogarantie, then the product is 100% natural.