The Facts About Formaldehyde

by Valerie Bisharat

What is formaldehyde?

You might be wondering why formaldehyde is surfacing on a clean beauty website. Well, the truth is, formaldehyde is in a variety of popular cosmetics today. We wanted to share the facts, so you can know what to look out for in the future.

What exactly is formaldehyde? 

Formaldehyde is a colorless chemical that’s used in a variety of industries for different purposes, including as a disinfectant, preservative, and fixative. It’s used as a sterilizer in medical settings, in the production of home wood-based products, and dissolved in water as a preservative in consumer products like makeup.

Although it’s ubiquitous, formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ agency called the National Toxicology Program [1].

How does formaldehyde affect our health?

Formaldehyde – and other volatile organic compounds like it – can cause cancer [2], respiratory distress [3], and dermatitis [4] or inflammation of the skin [5].

Formaldehyde has also been implicated in upper airway and mucous membrane irritation [6], headaches [7], impaired memory [8], irritability [9], nausea [10], and drowsiness [11].

Researchers suspect that formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds might trigger mitochondrial dysfunction and neurodegenerative disorders [12], but these links haven’t been proven yet.

How much formaldehyde is in makeup?

When it comes to makeup, “formaldehyde” isn’t typically listed on the label, because the gas itself isn’t used in cosmetics products. However, it can be present in a few ways:

  • Dissolved in water, creating “formalin”
  • Released by the degradation of chemicals that are used as preservatives
  • In formaldehyde containing polymers, or compounds that have formaldehyde bound to the polymer

If you’re interested, we share how you can avoid all forms of formaldehyde below.

According to a study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012, about one in five cosmetics products contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers, including nail polishes, pressed powders, and hair smoothing products [13]. While regulations have decreased the number of products containing formaldehyde, it still is in use in certain cosmetics.

How do I get exposed to formaldehyde and how much is harmful?

When it comes to formaldehyde-based chemicals in cosmetics, we’re exposed through three main routes: skin absorption (when we apply products topically), inhalation (mostly when we spray products), and ingestion (which can happen in trace amounts when we spray product).

Like with eating fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides, we don’t know exactly how much exposure triggers either an acute or chronic negative health impact. We do know that we’re exposed to many chemicals in our environments that can accumulate in the body, and reducing exposure from personal care products is one way we can lessen the impact.

Research shows that your body registers any changes very quickly: reducing personal care products with toxins lowers levels of chemicals in the body in a few short days.

So, should I avoid formaldehyde?

Many women prefer the peace of mind that can come with using products formulated without formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. 

How can I tell if a product is formulated without formaldehyde?

The simplest way is to use clean beauty products made by companies who do the work for you. Clean refers to products that are formulated without known or suspected toxins. Clean is different from “organic” or “natural” products – more on the distinction here.

You can also go the route of playing detective, reading product labels for “formalin” and ingredients that act as formaldehyde releasers. There are dozens of names for formaldehyde releasers, but some of the most common ones are:

  • Quaternium-15
  • Dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)

Since formaldehyde is commonly used in nail polish, choose polish bottles that are labeled “formaldehyde-free.” Also, avoid hair straightening products and treatments like keratin – they often contain formaldehyde, and there have even been reports of salon workers getting nosebleeds reportedly from exposure to the product.

Doesn’t the FDA regulate formaldehyde and other known or suspected toxins?

Despite the potential risks associated with certain chemicals like formaldehyde, the FDA has only restricted a short list of 30 other problematic ingredients in cosmetics.

On the other hand, the E.U. has banned the use of over 1,300 known or suspected toxins from use in cosmetics.

NakedPoppy bottom line: we avoid formaldehyde

To play it on the safe side, we like to use products formulated without formaldehyde of any kind and want to make it easier for you do the same. That’s why NakedPoppy products are formulated without formaldehyde in any of its forms.

This article has been reviewed for accuracy by two scientists: Tim McCraw, PhD chemist and CEO of Skin Science Advisors, and Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., neurologist and PhD in Environmental Toxicology. 

Let us know in the comments: what are your questions and thoughts about formaldehyde?


[1] Formaldehyde is classified as a known human carcinogen:

[2] Can cause cancer:

[3] Can cause respiratory distress:

[4] Can cause dermatitis:

[5] Can cause inflammation of the skin:

[6] Has been implicated in upper airway and mucous membrane irritation:

[7] Has been implicated in headaches:

[8] Implicated in impairing memory:

[9] Implicated in irritability:

[10] Implicated in nausea:

[11] Implicated in drowsiness:

[12] Might trigger mitochondrial dysfunction and neurodegenerative disorders:

[13] As of 2012, one in five cosmetics contained formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers:

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