Ingredient Watch: Formaldehyde in Cosmetics

Formaldehyde is common in cosmetics and is listed as a human carcinogen that can cause skin irritations and burning when inhaled.

| July/August 2017

A few types of cosmetic products use formaldehyde as an ingredient, many of them nail products. A more common problem is that some of the synthetic preservatives used to prevent microbial growth in cosmetics, shampoos, moisturizers and other personal-care products can also release formaldehyde. In either case the serious health concerns surrounding formaldehyde warrant avoiding this chemical.

Formaldehyde (the same chemical that’s used in embalming) is listed as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, among other agencies. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can also be problematic, with possible effects including skin irritation and burning when inhaled.

Although reports from the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel suggest formaldehyde should not be allowed in products at levels higher than 0.2 percent, there are no U.S. restrictions on the amount of formaldehyde allowed in any body-care product. There is also no obligation for manufacturers to inform consumers that a product is likely to contain this chemical if it doesn’t appear on the list of ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group.

To ensure you’re not slathering yourself with formaldehyde, look into the skin-care products you buy and the companies that make them. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database is a great resource to find a comprehensive list of ingredients in personal-care products, as well as a product or ingredient’s overall health risk level. The database is also a useful way to discover personal-care companies with a consistent record of using natural ingredients in their products.

It’s also surprisingly simple to make homemade products such as hand soap, body wash and moisturizer with just a few simple, natural ingredients. Find several basic recipes at Body Care Basics, and Homemade Moisturizer Recipe for more easy recipes.

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