Exposing the Formaldehyde Myth

An unfortunate misunderstanding is happening globally concerning many cosmetic products, including some nail products.  Some groups are incorrectly claiming that “formaldehyde” is an ingredient in cosmetics.  Advocacy groups are even loudly proclaiming that formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and are demanding manufacturers remove this cancer-causing ingredient from cosmetics. Actually, if these groups understood formaldehyde’s basic chemistry, they would see their claims are absolutely wrong.  They’d also know that formaldehyde is not a cosmetic ingredient and never has been!

Advocacy groups incorrectly claim that formaldehyde is an ingredient found in nail hardeners, nail polish and preservatives used to prevent bacterial and fungal growth in products such as lotions, creams and shampoos.  How can I be so sure about that formaldehyde has never been a cosmetic ingredient? Because formaldehyde is a gas, not a liquid or a solid. A gas cannot be added to cosmetics as an ingredient, since it would rapidly escape from the product. Interestingly, formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas that must be kept absolutely bone dry.  In the presence of even tiny amounts of moisture, it instantly transforms into completely different substances. This is why it quickly breaks down and doesn’t accumulate in the environment.  As you can imagine, this is yet another reason why formaldehyde can’t be used in cosmetics; it wouldn’t be stable for more than 1000th of a second after contact with moisture.

How did this misunderstanding begin? Sometime in the early 1900s formaldehyde manufacturers began mixing this gas with water to create a liquid substance called “formalin”.  These manufacturers mistakenly assumed that the added formaldehyde was simply dissolving in the water, so this is how formalin was sold. They didn’t realize the truth; formaldehyde does not dissolve in water, but instead instantly reacts with the water to change into a completely new and different substance called methylene glycol. Not only is it completely different, methylene glycol belongs to an entirely separate chemical family. Formaldehyde is a gas and methylene glycol is a liquid with very different chemical properties.

Here’s what caused most of the confusion.   United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and many other countries require labeling with ingredient name listed in the “INCI Dictionary”.  INCI stands for “International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients”.  This dictionary repeated the original misinformation and required cosmetic manufacturers using formalin to put the name “formaldehyde” on product labels.  About 1.5% formalin is often in used nail hardeners and these labels carried the incorrect “formaldehyde” ingredient name for many years, even though they contain almost undetectable trace levels of true formaldehyde amounting to around 0.0010%. Manufacturers of these products had no reason for concern until it was discovered that inhaling relatively high concentrations of formaldehyde gas for long periods in rare instances may cause an unusual form of nasal cancer.  Suddenly, advocacy groups began to erroneously claim that nail hardeners, polish and other cosmetics contain a dangerous cancer causing ingredient. They obviously did not realize that the label name was incorrect.  When the Nail Manufacturer’s Council (NMC) discovered that nail technicians and their clients were being given incorrect information, we decided to clear up the situation once and for all. As Co-chair of the NMC, I worked with others in this industry group to officially correct the INCI naming error, which was finally approved in December 2008 and is now in effect.  Manufacturers using formalin in nail hardeners can now use the correct name for this ingredient, “methylene glycol”.  If you find “formaldehyde” on a cosmetic label, you will know this is an incorrect name and you can be sure that formaldehyde was NOT added to the product. You can also be sure that the formaldehyde related cancer risks claimed by these advocacy groups doesn’t apply to cosmetics.

Some advocacy groups also claim formaldehyde is a nail polish ingredient, which is also completely incorrect.  Here are the facts: a major ingredient used in nail polish is called “tosylamide formaldehyde resin”.  This resin is originally made using several substances, including formaldehyde gas, but the resin is totally different. It is very thick, sticky, doesn’t evaporate and has completely different properties from formaldehyde gas.  This resin can contain tiny trace amounts of formaldehyde residuals, but those levels are well below those found in nature. Formaldehyde is created in many naturally-occurring processes.  Yes, formaldehyde is a natural and organic substance that is normally found in many foods up to 0.0098%. Trace amounts naturally occur in even organically grown pears, apples, carrots and tomatoes.  In nail polish, the trace formaldehyde residuals are about the same as what naturally occurs in some foods. Also, scientific studies done in salons have proven that nail products don’t increase levels of formaldehyde in the salon air, so why the concern? Unless these advocacy groups think organically grown apples and carrots are also dangerous, they must be greatly over exaggerating the health risks.

The third incorrect claim is that certain preservatives used in some lotions, creams, shampoos, body washes, etc. release so much formaldehyde gas that they can cause cancer. What is the scientific truth? The most effective preservative ingredients for these types of cosmetics will very slowly release even lower amounts of formaldehyde than what is found in foods.  In general, they release about 100 times lower levels or about 0.0001%.   As you now know, this will immediately mix with water in the product and instantly convert into methylene glycol, so there’s virtually no chance of inhaling harmful levels of formaldehyde gas.  The same thing happens to the trace levels of formaldehyde that naturally occurs in food, which is why formaldehyde gas inhalation isn’t a problem with cosmetics. Remember, formaldehyde gas only rarely causes nasal cancer and when it does, these problems are only found in people who inhale significantly large dosages for long periods of time, e.g. formaldehyde manufacturing plant worker. These extremely beneficial preservatives can help ensure the safety of cosmetic products, so it’s important to not to unfairly slander them.  These preservative may occasionally cause skin irritation and allergic sensitivity in a small percentage of the population, but show no adverse effects for the overwhelming majority of people who use products protected by these important ingredients.

You can see that when the science behind this issue is examined, it becomes clear and obvious that the claims about formaldehyde in cosmetics causing cancer are not only incorrect; the entire issue has been dramatically exaggerated and overstated. Next time you hear that “formaldehyde” is a cancer causing ingredient in cosmetics, you’ll know this is NOT true!  You’ll also know that whoever made this statement doesn’t understand the facts. Please set them straight. Save this article so you can give it to them.  Educators, please share this information with your students.  It hurts the entire beauty, cosmetic and personal care industry when misinformation like this goes uncorrected. We need to set the record straight and you can help.

  • Amanda s

    I just bought a nail strengthener and on the box it clearly states “Contains formaldehyde”

    • Amanda S

      Ok so I will admit that I jumped the gun. I began reading your article and then commented. Once I posted, I finished reading your article and soon realized that I should have been more patient. So unfortunately I cannot take my originally comment back. Sorry for being so hasty. Thank you for the information!

      • http://personalcaretruth.com Lisa M. Rodgers

        Most welcome, @Amanda S. Thank you for your comments!

      • Doug_Schoon

        Hi Amanda, Sorry for the late reply. I see you already replied and now it was my turn to jump the gun… LOL.

    • Doug_Schoon

      So? Did you read my article?

      • http://www.sterlingminerals.com/ Katherine

        Hi Doug I think you missed her comment below where she admits she jumped the gun before reading the article… At the very least I admire her for returning and admitting to her faux pas. It’s all good it seems. Long time no see ya. Hope all is well with you.

  • Jude Wilkins

    Doug or Dene, I don’t mind who answers but I’d be very happy if one of you did reply, please –

    I realise that very a very small amount of formaldehyde (or more correctly, methylene glycol) is added to some nail gardeners because it changes the tertiary structure of keratin through cross-linking in the molecule, building a stronger structure. Nothing else will work so well. I’m not afraid to use such products responsibly.

    My question: Does repeated application of the methylene glycol containing nail hardener need to be applied to the entire nail or only to the newly emerging nail that grows from the nail bed? Or is the cross-linking not permanent (like cooked egg whites are)? Does repeated applications perhaps lead to nails becoming so hardened that they can become brittle much like too much handling/hardening of a metal?

    I hope you don’t think I’m asking for directions on how to use a nail hardener. Instead, I’m trying to get a better understanding of the change in the keratin structure. I know there are both α-keratins and β-keratins but no idea which, if not both types, make up our nails, or if methylene glycol can effect both structures. I’d be very grateful for any further information you can provide. And I’d like to thank you for a breath of fresh air and honesty that contains NO hype whatsoever!

    • Doug_Schoon

      These are never applied to the nail bed, they are applied to the nail plate. Once cross-linking occurs, it is generally not reversible, but the effect is surface effect only. Over use these types of products and that can lead to over hardening of the nail plate’s surface. The natural nail is composed of alpha keratin. The reactions your asking about don’t care what the structure of the keratin is, so this doesn’t matter.

  • Doug_Schoon

    Hi Keshirkey, I’m not at all surprised the EWG doesn’t
    agree. They are a fear-based advocacy group that routinely distorts the truth or facts and then cherry-picks which science and scientists they chose to believe. Anyone who disagrees with them, gets shouted down; not proven wrong.

    They are NOT a reliable source of information. Their goals
    are to frighten people so they can collect donations and then use this money to dupe well-meaning politicians into supporting silly, fear-based regulations that are not needed and are like to cause more harm than good. I’m clearly NOT a fan of these types of groups since they generate irrational fear in exchange for money and political power.

  • Dene Godfrey

    keshirkey – In addition to what Doug has said, I would add that the article actually agrees with the fundamentals of what Doug stated in his above piece – namely that formaldehyde reacts with water to form methylene glycol and that the reaction is reversible. What the EWG article didn’t make clear were the conditions under which the reaction is forced back towards free formaldehyde. Heating certainly achieves this, which is precisely why products such as the Brazilian Blowout should only ever have been used under conditions of extremely rapid ventilation (if at all). The chemist who claimed that exposure to formalin equals exposure to formaldehyde was probably used to handling the material in bulk in a production environment. When handled properly, with the appropriate precautions, it is safe.

  • Doug_Schoon

    Hi Julie, Yes, I agree. Repeated application can lead to over-crosslinking which may result in brittleness. These products should not be used on nails that are already brittle and you should discontinue use once the nail plates reach the desired rigidity. I’d let the nails grow out and when they start to become overly flexible again as the plate grows out, you can use the product again until no longer needed.

  • Doug_Schoon

    Not all chemist understand this issue. It’s complex. I’ve studied this issue for almost ten years, so I’m well versed in the chemistry.

  • Guest

    “Formaldehyde and methylene glycol may be used safely in cosmetics if
    established limits are not exceeded and are safe for use in nail
    hardeners in the present practices of use and concentration, which
    include instructions to avoid skin contact.” (Quote from study found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24335968). Formaldehyde is used in cosmetics, and it’s dangerous, but if you avoid skin contact and are only exposed to it via nail hardeners, you should be fine. This is not the same as saying it’s not formaldehyde or that it’s not dangerous. You are misleading your readers.

  • KRichards

    Hi Doug,

    I was just reading this article from the European Commission’s SCCS. They state their premise for labelling products as containing formaldehyde is due to the only defining difference (apart from chemical structure clearly) to methylene glycol and formaldehyde is the water. Essentially methylene glycol is aqueous formaldehyde, “free formaldehyde’ stabilised in its liquid form. It can quite quickly convert back to it’s gas state by the application of heat. Their studies indicated that the percentage of methylene glycol in hair products is the issue and a couple of products in their study had percentages that produced enough gas to be of concern, in the application of heat by a hair straightener.

    My question is if methylene glycol is present in nail hardener, would their be an issue with the process of shellac, where multiple layers of polish and hardener are applied to nails then put under a heat lamp to harden. Is methylene glycol present in these products and at what percentage. Is this a possible risk to overexposure to formaldehyde to the clients and the nail attendants.


  • KRichards

    Interestingly I just read this study, which concludes that the article below perhaps simplifies the comparison between PA and MG and toxicological implications the defining difference. Not perhaps the equivalent at all, but then that was the whole point of your post.