Five Products That Contain Formaldehyde: Is Your Health at Risk?

formaldehyde in nail polish may pose health risksTo the average consumer, formaldehyde may be best known as an embalming agent. But this naturally occurring chemical is a major industrial staple, used in many consumer goods, including cleaning products, cosmetics and building supplies.

Its presence in our everyday lives can have a huge health impact, warn experts. In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency classified the chemical as a probable carcinogen after unusually high or prolonged exposure. Subsequent studies have linked formaldehyde to cancers like leukemia. As a result, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

For some of us, even low-level exposure can result in burning eyes, eczema and trouble breathing.Here are five popular products with formaldehyde and what consumers need to know about them:

Wrinkle-Free Fabric

To help clothes, upholstery and bedding stay wrinkle free, they are often treated with a formaldehyde-based resin. But the worst consumers can expect is an allergic skin reaction, like a rash, blisters or even eczema, according to an August report from the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Of the 180 items the GAO tested, most "had formaldehyde levels that were below the most stringent of these industry-identified regulatory limits ... Moreover, government studies we reviewed showed a decline in the formaldehyde levels in clothing since the 1980s."

Critics of the GAO study say more research needs to be done because that study did not examine textiles like upholstery, and the effects of long-term exposure, body temperature and sweat may have on the resin. "Given a clothing item may be in contact with large and/or more sensitive areas of the skin, dermal exposure to formaldehyde can be very significant, particularly for sensitive people," Vince Daliessio, industrial hygiene project manager for testing lab EMSL Analytical, told WalletPop in an email interview.

Because clothing labels do not tell consumers if the fabric has been treated with formaldehyde, some experts recommend washing or dry cleaning all clothes before wearing it for the first time to reduce exposure to the chemical. Daliessio also suggested consumers buy clothing produced in countries, such as Japan, that have strict formaldehyde guidelines.

Brazilian Blowout

This version of the Brazilian keratin hair straightening technique quickly grew in popularity because the manufacturer, GIB, claimed that unlike its competitors, it smoothed out curly hair for as long as three months without formaldehyde.

That claim, however, proved to be all hot air when Oregon's Department of Consumer and Business Services, Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSHA) issued an alert in October, warning salon owners of the high levels of formaldehyde discovered in the Brazilian Blowout and other hair smoothing solutions.

The agency conducted the tests after receiving complaints from some salon workers and owners of itchy eyes and skin and respiratory problems. Of the 100 samples the agency tested, 37 came from bottles of Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution and were labeled "formaldehyde free."

California went one step further: In November, the state Attorney General's office filed a suit against the maker of the Brazilian Blowout for failing to inform consumers about the formaldehyde in its products. Meanwhile, in Canada, the nation's health agency banned its sale and that of other hair smoothing solutions that contain formaldehyde.

California-based GIB is not taking this lying down. It sued the Oregon OSHA earlier this month, demanding that the agency stop saying its product contains unsafe levels of formaldehyde.

Furniture and Building Materials

To keep costs low, many manufacturers and builders use inexpensive particle board, plywood, MDF and oriented strand board, comprised of bits of wood compressed and bound together with urea-formaldehyde resins. Chic, lacquered pieces get another coating of urea-formaldehyde resin. As a result, warned Daliessio, "a significant slow release of formaldehyde gas can occur over extended periods of time due to poor quality control, elevated temperatures and humidity."

Although most consumers aren't exposed to cancer-causing high levels, as workers may be, they can experience symptoms like an allergic reaction, nausea, burning eyes, headaches and respiratory irritation.

"Avoid bringing composite wood items into the home unless the label states that they are manufactured with no-added formaldehyde based resins (NAF) or ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) resins," recommended Daliessio. "So don't be afraid to ask. Building products are a tough case, however. Visit the development if you can or ask your builder or contractor if the wood products they use are APA exterior grade. But purchasers of existing homes built in the last 40 years may be buying a proverbial pig in a poke, from a formaldehyde standpoint."


Nail polishes, nail polish removers and hair-styling products contain the most formaldehyde, up to 5% as formalin in some cases. But the chemical is also used as a preservative in skincare and baby products, even natural and organic ones, said Julie Gabriel, author of The Green Beauty Guide, in an email interview.

"No matter what the label says and how natural the product smells and looks," said Gabriel, founder of skincare line Petite Marie Organics, "always check the ingredients list and put the product away if you see any of these formaldehyde donors: diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (most commonly known as bronopol), and sodium hydroxylmethylglycinate."

Mobile Homes

These compact homes on wheels can be filled with formaldehyde. Just ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This government agency bought some 120,000 trailers and mobile homes to house displaced Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita survivors in 2005. Soon after, residents started complaining of respiratory problems, headaches, nosebleeds, burning eyes and irritated throats.

The culprit? Formaldehyde in unacceptably high levels due to poor ventilation and the inexpensive wood composites used to build the trailers and mobile homes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2008 that formaldehyde levels inside the trailers were five times higher than normal.

"Long-term exposure to levels in this range can be linked to an increased risk of cancer, and as levels rise above this range, there can also be a risk of respiratory illness," a CDC statement said.

Existing federal, state and local regulations are outdated and "do not sufficiently protect the public's health from formaldehyde emissions," Ruth Winter, author of A Consumer's Dictionary of Household Yard and Office Chemicals, told WalletPop in an email interview. Consumers should not "buy or rent a FEMA trailer that had been used for Katrina. The trailers were found to be very high in formaldehyde contamination and supposedly taken out of service."

Winter warned that the very same trailers "were sent to workers cleaning up the BP oil spill. People were not supposed to live in the trailers, but many did and reported respiratory effects presumably from formaldehyde. Some of these trailers are reportedly on the market, being sold to unsuspecting consumers. Before you spend the money for a trailer, have it inspected for formaldehyde."
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