That stinky chemical that kept your frog intact in high-school science class may be a preservative in your home, found in some of your family’s cosmetics and other personal care products.
There’s little debate that formaldehyde can pose health risks. Short-term exposure can cause skin irritation from physical contact or wheezing, watery eyes, and burning in the nose when inhaled.
The long-term effects of formaldehyde exposure are less certain. After research found that formaldehyde exposure caused cancer in rats, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the chemical as a “probable carcinogen.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.
But the amount of formaldehyde used in grooming products and cosmetics is much smaller than the amounts tested in most studies, making it hard to draw firm conclusions about risk.
Formaldehyde limits for personal care products are set by the Consumer Ingredient Review -- an independent scientific review group funded by the personal care products industry and supported by the FDA and the Consumer Federation of America. The CIR set healthy product limits in 1984 and then revisited them in 2002.
“There was a wealth of new literature all repeating the same studies that high levels of formaldehyde caused cancer,” says CIR Director F. Alan Andersen, PhD, who spent 22 years with the FDA as a regulatory scientist. “So we’re pretty comfortable that we know how the industry is using it and they’re below the levels we’ve established.”
However, if you want to keep your kids from all personal care products containing formaldehyde, you may have difficulty. A recent study commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in conjunction with the Environmental Working Group, found formaldehyde in baby lotion, baby bubble bath, and baby shampoo. The chemical was not an intentional ingredient but was a byproduct of the manufacturing process.
Parabens are some of the most commonly used preservatives in cosmetics such as moisturizers, shampoos and conditioners, and many types of makeup. In the Environmental Working Group study of teenage girls, all 20 participants tested positive for two parabens: methylparaben and propylparaben.