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Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

The gist
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in many personal care products [1], particularly in shampoos and liquid baby soaps. These chemicals, which help prevent bacteria from growing in water-based products, can be absorbed through the skin and have been linked to allergic skin reactions and cancer. 

What you need to know
Found in: Nail polish, nail glue, eyelash glue, hair gel, hair-smoothing products, baby shampoo, body soap, body wash, color cosmetics
What to look for on the label: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)
Health concerns: Cancer, skin irritation
Vulnerable populations: Infants, salon workers, nail salon workers
Regulations: Banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries in Japan and Sweden [1]; in the EU, restricted in personal care products, and labeling required of products that do contain these chemicals [2]; concentration restrictions in Canada [3]

What is formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde can be added to products as an ingredient or released from formaldehyde-releasing preservatives [4,5] such as quaternium-15.

Formaldehyde is used as an ingredient in nail polish, nail glue and eyelash glue [6]. Formaldehyde is also used in hair-smoothing and straightening products.

Other personal care products such as baby shampoo, baby soap and body wash may contain formaldehyde even though it is not listed as an ingredient. That is because these products may contain formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs). FRPs are commonly used in place of formaldehyde, and release small amounts of formaldehyde over time (4,5). Quaternium-15 is the most sensitizing of these FRPs. Other formaldehyde-releasing preservatives include dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bronopol). Since low levels of formaldehyde can cause health concerns—at levels as low as 250 parts per million [7], and even lower levels in sensitized individuals [8]—the slow release of small amounts of formaldehyde are cause for concern.

What are the health concerns?
Cancer: Formaldehyde is considered a known human carcinogen by many expert and government bodies, including the United States National Toxicology Program [9] and the International Agency for Research on Cancer [10]. A 2009 review of the literature on occupational exposures and formaldehyde shows a link between formaldehyde and leukemia [11]. Most studies of the cancer potency of formaldehyde have focused on risks from inhaling it; cancer risks from ingesting formaldehyde or absorbing it through the skin are not as well studied [12]. When formaldehyde is present in personal care products, people can be exposed by inhaling the formaldehyde that is off-gassed from the product, by ingesting it or by absorbing it through the skin. Animal studies indicate that formaldehyde can be absorbed through the skin when formaldehyde-containing personal care products, including formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, are applied [13].

Irritation: Formaldehyde in cosmetics is widely understood to cause allergic skin reactions and rashes in some people [14,15,16]. Although concentrations of formaldehyde in personal care products are generally low, everyday products can contain enough formaldehyde to trigger a reaction in people with formaldehyde sensitivities [17]. Formaldehyde sensitivity may develop over time from repeated low-level exposures [18].

How can you avoid this?
Read labels and avoid products containing the following ingredients: Formaldehyde, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol). In addition, choose nail products that are labeled formaldehyde-free or “toxic-trio-free” (formaldehyde, toluene and DBP). Skip hair-smoothing products—especially those sold in salons, as salon-based products are exempt from labeling laws.

Further information including links to reports and press releases:

[1] Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. Opinion concerning a clarification on the formaldehyde and para-formaldehyde entry in Directive 76/768/EEC on cosmetic products. Opinion: European Commission. 2002. Available at Accessed October 16, 2009.
[2] Other uses of formaldehyde have different restrictions in Canada. For example, nail hardeners may contain concentrations equal to or less than 5% and oral care products may contain concentrations equal to or less than 0.1%. Formaldehyde is not permitted in aerosol cosmetics. See Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, March 2007. Accessed October 16, 2009.
[3] Amparo S and Chisvert A, editors. Analysis of Cosmetic Products. Elsevier. Amsterdam. 2007. p. 215.
[4] Moennich JN, Hanna DM, Jacob SE (2009). Formaldehyde-releasing preservative in baby and cosmetic products. Journal of the Dermatology Nurses’ Association 1:211-214.
[5] Jacob SE, Breithaupt A (2009). Environmental Exposures – A pediatric perspective on allergic contact dermatitis. Skin & Aging. July 2009: 28-36.
[6] Environmental Working Group. Skin Deep. Formaldehyde. Available online: Accessed October 16, 2013.
[7] Flyvholm MA, Hall BM, Agner T, Tiedemann E, Greenhill P, Vanderveken W, Freeberg FE, Menné T. Threshold for occluded formaldehyde patch test in formaldehyde-sensitive patients. Relationship to repeated open application test with a product containing formaldehyde releaser. Contact Dermatitis. 1997;36(1):26-33.
[8] Jordan WP Jr., Sherman WT, King SE. Threshold responses in formaldehyde-sensitive subjects. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1979;1(1):44- 8. Also confirmed by personal communication between Dr. Sharon Jacob and Stacy Malkan, February 26, 2009.
[9] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. ”Formaldehyde (Gas) CAS No. 50-00-0: Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Eleventh Report on Carcinogens. December 2002. Available at: Accessed October 16, 2009.
[10] International Agency for Research on Cancer. “IARC classifies formaldehyde as carcinogenic to humans.” Press release. June 15, 2004. Accessed January 9, 2009.
[11] Zhang et al 2009. Meta-analysis of formaldehyde and hematologic cancers in humans. Mutation Research 681: 150-168.
[12] Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Priority Existing Chemical Assessment Report No. 28: Formaldehyde. November 2006. Page 68. Available at: Accessed January 9, 2009.
[13] Bartnik FG, Gloxhuber C, Zimmermann V. Percutaneous absorption of formaldehyde in rats. Toxicol Lett. 1985;25(2):167-72. 
[14] Flyvholm MA, Menné T. Allergic contact dermatitis from formaldehyde. A case study focusing on sources of formaldehyde exposure. Contact Dermatitis. 1992 Jul;27(1):27-36.
[15] Boyvat A, Akyol A, Gürgey E. Contact sensitivity to preservatives in Turkey. Contact Dermatitis. 2005;52(6):333-337.
[16] Pratt MD, Belsito DV, DeLeo VA, Fowler JF Jr, Fransway AF, Maibach HI, Marks JG, Mathias CG, Rietschel RL, Sasseville D, Sherertz EF, Storrs FJ, Taylor JS, Zug K. North American Contact Dermatitis Group patch-test results, 2001-2002 study period. Dermatitis. 2004;15(4):176-83. Erratum in: Dermatitis. 2005;16(2):106.
[17] Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Priority Existing Chemical Assessment Report No. 28: Formaldehyde. November 2006. Page 193. Available at: Accessed January 9, 2009.
[18] Jacob SE and Steele T. Avoiding Formaldehyde Allergic Reactions In Children. Pediatric Annals 2007;36(1):55-6.