Sensationalism is defined as the use of shocking language at the expense of accuracy to provoke interest. For example, the article I recently stumbled upon from an online women’s health magazine entitled: “Do your cosmetics contain cancer-causing formaldehyde?”
Let’s take a dive into this to learn what it is and why it is in your cosmetics. And, to explore the link between formaldehyde and cancer, if any.
What is formaldehyde?
First of all, formaldehyde is a natural substance. Every living organism produces it, including the human body. It is, in fact, present in every breath we exhale.
Formaldehyde is also present in fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and many beverages including alcoholic beverages and coffee.
At room temperature, it is a strong-smelling flammable gas.
How is formaldehyde used?
Formaldehyde-based products are used in many different industries. For example:
- Formaldehyde-based resins are used to manufacture wood products, flooring, and many other household furnishings.
- It is extensively used in the car industry to make both interior car components and parts for under-the-hood that need to withstand high temperatures.
- Formaldehyde is used to make bonding glues.
- It is used to inactivate certain viruses, so they are unable to cause disease when making the flu vaccine
- It is also used to manufacture antibiotics and other drug capsules.
- And yes, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are used in the skincare industry. It is allowed in restricted concentrations in the European Union, Canada, and the United States.
Is there formaldehyde in my cosmetics?
Formaldehyde gas is never used in cosmetics. And, you would be hard-pressed to find formalin, formaldehyde dissolved in water, on skincare aisles as well.
What you might find are formaldehyde-releasing ingredients that are commonly used as preservatives. These ingredients release a minuscule amount of formaldehyde which is chemically identical to the formaldehyde produced naturally in humans, plants, and animals.
These ingredients ensure the safety of skincare products protecting them from spoilage, as the products are stored and used by the consumer. These products are extremely effective preservatives that prevent the contamination of water-based products from bacteria, mold, and fungus.
Formaldehyde-releasing ingredients in cosmetics include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
- DMDM hydantoin
- imidazolidinyl urea
- Diazolidinyl urea
How much formaldehyde is allowed in cosmetics?
In the United States and in the European Union, legislation allows for a concentration of up to 0.2% (2000ppm) of free formaldehyde to be present in cosmetics and other household products. Further, if the concentration of released formaldehyde exceeds 0.05% in the finished product it must be labeled “contains formaldehyde.”
Formaldehyde is a well-studied compound. And its uses are highly regulated by multiple governmental agencies, including these US organizations:
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)
- The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
- The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
More content by this author:
Dispelling Misconceptions About the Regulation of Cosmetics in the U.S.
Does formaldehyde cause cancer?
Yes and no. Formaldehyde is on the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Group 1 Agents carcinogenic list along with sunshine, alcohol, and processed meats like ham and hot dogs.
The decision to add formaldehyde to the Group 1 carcinogenic list was made based on studies where significant amounts of formaldehyde gas were inhaled. Certain occupations, such as embalmers and pathologists, where formaldehyde gas exposure is significant, have indeed experienced a slight increase in nasal cavity cancer rates.
However, there are no studies showing an increase in cancer at much lower gas concentrations. Nor are there any double-blind studies proving contact with formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing compounds cause cancer.
The World Health Organization’s carcinogenic list describes a level of evidence that a particular agent may cause cancer. But it does not include information on how likely it will be to do so in any given individual.
That would depend on genetics, the type of exposure (whether the agent is ingested versus touched), and of course, the amount of exposure. In addition, even though a substance is suspected to cause cancer that does not mean that the substance should be avoided at all costs. For example, it would be both inadvisable and impractical to completely avoid sunshine.
Related content by this author:
Skin Cancer Increases the Risk of Other Types of Cancer
It’s the dose makes some chemicals toxic
There is a dose of any chemical (listed below) in which no adverse effect or harm can occur. And there is a dose of many chemicals at which the benefits of limited exposure outweigh the risk of exposure. Formaldehyde is no exception.
Botulinum toxin (aka Botox)
Botulism is a potentially deadly disease caused by a toxin that is produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. This very same toxin, used in small doses is injected into people’s faces over a million times a year.
Inject 50 units of botulism toxin into your forehead and you can remove all expression and, yes, some wrinkles. Inject 3000 units and you can be paralyzed and potentially die from botulism.
In terms of the sensationalism pointed out at the beginning of his article, don’t you wonder why we don’t see articles entitled: Can your anti-wrinkle injections kill you?
Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol)
Almost $400 million dollars of Tylenol was sold in 2019. Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is one of the most common causes of both intentional and unintentional poisoning in the United States. It causes almost 500 deaths annually.
A single 500 mg extra strength capsule can relieve your headache. Ingesting 15 extra strength capsules can be fatal. A mere 7.5 grams of acetaminophen (15 extra strength capsules) can cause liver failure and possible death.
And to think this drug is sold in bottles of 100 – a total of 50 grams or enough to potentially kill almost 7 people! Is anyone suggesting that we take Tylenol off the shelves? Do we see articles in the media that read: Is your migraine medicine killing you?
These types of preservatives are found in many over-the-counter skincare products, like shampoos and liquid soaps. The concentration of these formaldehyde-releasing preservatives is less than 1% which does not expose the consumer to concentrations of formaldehyde above the 0.2% limit.
The amount of formaldehyde released when shampooing your hair is about the same amount of formaldehyde present in a medium-sized apple or pear.
Are there any concerns about formaldehyde-releasing preservatives?
The biggest concern with formaldehyde-releasing preservatives is their ability to cause skin irritation and allergy with prolonged contact. A recent 10-year review study of contact dermatitis in Europe found the incidence of contact allergy to formaldehyde-releasing preservatives to be about 2%. The incidence of contact allergy in the United States is probably a bit higher but not as high as nickel (17%), the most common contact allergen.
The bottom line
Do not allow the constant barrage of fear-mongering articles in your health and beauty magazines cautioning you about cancer-causing ingredients in your personal care product to influence your buying decisions.
The benefit of formulating cosmetics with formaldehyde-releasing preservatives is substantial. However, sensationalism sells. So, don’t panic when you see articles grasping at your emotions. Instead, rely on your knowledge of chemical principles and common sense. And, by the way, enjoy your apples and pears.
Fayne Frey, MD
Fayne Frey, M.D., is a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York, where she specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. She is a nationally recognized expert in the effectiveness and formulation of over-the-counter skincare products.
She is a frequent speaker in many venues where she captivates audiences with her wry observations regarding the skincare industry. She has consulted for numerous media outlets, including NBC, USA Today, and, the Huffington Post. and has also shared her expertise on both cable and major TV outlets.
Dr. Frey is the Founder of FryFace.com, an educational skincare information and product selection service website that clarifies and simplifies the overwhelming choice of effective, safe and affordable products encountered in the skincare aisles.
Dr. Frey is a graduate of the Weill Cornell Medical College and is a fellow of both the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.