What's Up With Formaldehyde? 

In Depth
What's Up With Formaldehyde? 

The first time I saw formaldehyde, it was the murky amber liquid surrounding a frog in a jar. The image of the frog, distorted by the liquid and the curved glass, seemed an exaggeration of its former self. The next time I saw formaldehyde it was pooling in the veins of my father-in-law as he lay in his coffin. Like the frog, he too seemed an exaggeration. Almost too lifelike for life. And yet, that’s exactly what made me realize they were both dead.

Formaldehyde is the ferryman between our life and our death. It preserves our death. It animates our life. It is used as a binder and a filler and protector. You can find it in glue, nail strengthener, varnish, particle board, perm solutions, hair conditioners, bubble baths, manicure basecoats and undercoats, the list goes on. All in all, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) lists 77 personal care uses.

Formaldehyde also appears naturally in us and other living organisms (like Brussels sprouts), because it’s the by-product of our metabolic process—how our bodies create energy. A report done by the CIR notes that we have a level of formaldehyde in our blood of 0.1 millimolar. A mole is a unit that measures the concentration of a substance per liter. A millimolar is even smaller than that. Imagine a toothpick with a tiny drop of red food dye on it and then you shake that toothpick over a full bathtub. That’s a small (and not really precise) picture of the concentration of formaldehyde in us.

And formaldehyde isn’t just in you, it’s all around you. Formaldehyde is created by the exhaust fumes of your car. In your home, formaldehyde is released from resins and pressed wood. Recently, “60 Minutes” did a story about formaldehyde levels in laminate flooring sold by Lumber Liquidators. According to a 1997 Consumer Product Safety Commission report, formaldehyde is present in our indoor and outdoor air at .03 parts of formaldehyde per million parts of air (ppm). To help you understand, many people have problems breathing when formaldehyde levels exceed 0.1ppm.

Considering its uses, it is fitting that chemically, formaldehyde is also an intermediary. It’s the go-between that is created when one chemical changes and evolves. This means when you light a log on fire, formaldehyde is released in the air. When methane combusts, formaldehyde is created. And although it is used to stabilize and strengthen, formaldehyde is a volatile gas.

Formaldehyde gas isn’t used in your products. Not exactly. It’s a form of formaldehyde called formalin, which is basically the gas made liquid. Methanol and steam combine with formaldehyde gas. The steam is cooled and then water is added and, you have methylene glycol. Make that methylene glycol more watery, or if you want to sound sciency, “aqueous” and you have formalin. Please, methalyne glycol to its friends. That’s what it prefers to go by in ingredient lists.

But just because formaldehyde has been changed into methylene glycol, doesn’t mean it can’t turn back into formaldehyde. If methylene glycol dries up in any way, it can release formaldehyde gas. I am over simplifying things, of course. Formaldehyde is complicated. In its pure form, formaldehyde is unstable. In its stable form of methalyne glycol, it can easily go back to being unstable. Just a little bit of heat or dehydration and there is that gas. Formaldehyde is that crazy person who goes off in a huff whenever things get heated.

That’s what it does in your products. But what it does to you? Well, for you, formaldehyde is a skin irritant. That’s why when you buy certain nail hardeners they provide you with a nail shield and recommend only applying on your tips. If inhaled at levels higher than .1ppm, formaldehyde can cause coughing, wheezing, burning sensations in your eyes and nose and even nausea. Levels of formaldehyde in nail hardener are regulated to no more than 5% and less than 2% in a cosmetic applied to skin. There have been cases of products like a Brazilian Blowout that release formaldehyde at toxic levels. That product wasn’t banned because OSHA and the FDA don’t have the ability to do that, but it’s an example of the industry self-regulating, to an extent. All in all, few people dispute formaldehyde as an irritant. Cancer though?

Formaldehyde’s volatile nature doesn’t just extend to its chemical state, it also extends to the controversy as a carcinogen. Ask any scientist and you will get a different answer—formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. No, wait, it’s a possible carcinogen. Talk to the National Institute of Health and Environmental Sciences, and you get a very clear link between formaldehyde and cancer. But, if you take your questions to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, they state, “Although several possible modes of action have been postulated to explain associations between LHP cancers and formaldehyde exposure in epidemiological studies, little scientific evidence supports these hypotheses, and there is some recent evidence against them. Thus, these proposals remains speculative and continue to represent a highly controversial topic in the scientific community.”

I reached out to the FDA to get some answers. The FDA does not oversee regulation of cosmetics, but Dr. Linda Katz of the FDA is a panel liaison member for the CIR. Additionally, the FDA has had a supportive role in the CIR’s creation. When I asked why the FDA and the CIR cast doubt on formaldehyde’s link to cancer, I was told that the FDA doesn’t decide terminology and was referred to an NIEHS website that claimed a clear link to formaldehyde and cancer. Are you confused? Me too.

Of course, technically, the FDA doesn’t have a clear stance on the issue. They don’t need to, it’s out of their jurisdiction. So, their website points you to the CIR.

But, of course, they hedge that they might differ from the CIR. But what that difference may look like when it comes to formaldehyde? Good question. I’m still waiting on an answer from the FDA.

When I reached out to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a watch-dog group, which is housed by the Breast Cancer Fund, they pointed out that the CIR is an industry-run and voluntary program. And they aren’t wrong. While many panel voting members are scientists from universities, the company is funded by an industry trade group. Of course, what those finances look like who can say? They don’t file Form 990s, showing revenues and expenses.

But let’s not just pick on the CIR. The International Agency for Research on Cancer calls formaldehyde a “probable carcinogen” and the Environmental Protection Agency does as well. Of course, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the previously stated NIEHS, disagree. For them, formaldehyde is a “known carcinogen.”

These groups also quibble over whether formaldehyde is a “threshold” or “non-threshold” event for cancer. If you believe formaldehyde is a “non-threshold event,” you believe concentrations must chronically get above a certain level to cause illness. If you think formaldehyde is a “threshold event,” you think any chronic exposure could cause illness. And bad news, there is a lot of smart research to support either side.

So, what does this mean? It means we live and die in these gray spaces of definition.

It means that finding a clear and objective answer is as volatile as the gas and twice as combustible. And it’s even more complicated right now, because in early March, two congressmen introduced legislation to update the Toxic Substances Control Act. First passed in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act mandates that the EPA protects the public from the sale and use of chemicals. But since 1976, the EPA has been under funded and unable to adequately perform this job. Because of that, states have become the watchdogs on the sale and distribution for chemicals. Fifty different states. Fifty different rules. You can imagine how the industry feels about this: not great.

The legislation introduced last week updates all of this and hands more power back to the FDA. To make the life of industry so much easier. You can imagine how consumer groups feel about this: not great.

So, what does this have to do with formaldehyde and those cracked nails on your fingers eagerly awaiting an answer? Well, everything.

Its 50 shades of formaldehyde. What is determined “safe” for you right now is caught up in the winds of industry, overworked government scientists, lobbyists and politicians. And at some point all of this contradictory data and energy is plotted on a graph in a board room, where men analyze how much risk there is that someone will die from their product and the likelihood of a lawsuit. Then, they compare that to the cost of changing how they make their products. What’s it worth to elongate your slowly fading life? That’s not rhetorical. Somewhere, someone is figuring out that answer and adjusting their supply chain.

Of course, on the other side, life is risk. Everything is risky and whatever line you draw will always be arbitrary. I don’t like it when my kids drink juice, but I’m okay with my four-year-old playing in the backyard alone. I limit their intake of high-fructose corn syrup, but I let them jump on the couch. I know someone who goes base jumping, but thinks me putting vaccines in my kids is a death sentence. (PS: There is also formaldehyde in vaccines, but dear god, let’s just focus on nail hardeners right now.) The risk factors will never be zero. But who decides what that number is? Where the risk is? What’s okay risk and what isn’t? Well, I know your nails want an answer, but I have none.

I have nothing invested in products with formaldehyde. I have terrible nails and I don’t care much that they are terrible. I don’t use hair straighteners. Even my home, which is old, doesn’t have much resins or pressed wood. I went into this topic looking to be swayed toward the truth. That’s the dream isn’t it? Uncovering the truth. But all I have now, at the end, is a few communications people at various agencies who don’t like me much and gobs of competing research and the sinking feeling that there is a whole universe between a “known carcinogen” and a “possible carcinogen” between a “threshold event” and a “non-threshold event.” And we have to live here or die here. I’m not sure.

We all want to believe that in our world of shifting perspectives there is one absolute: science. But when that absolute fails us, when what we rely on for stability turns out to be just as volatile as the gas it regulates, where do we go from there?

Bottom line: I don’t know.

I will tell you this, I will probably still get my pedicures once every three months. But I am taking precautions with my other products. But of course, who am I? Just the lady who lets her kids jump on the couch.

Here is some information I found. The sources here are as solid as they can be. You can peruse them and make your best guess:

Previously: Plastic Microbeads.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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