One study measured the amount of formaldehyde released into the air when six people in one room applied massive amounts of facial moisturizer, foundation, shower gel, shampoo, deodorant, hair conditioner, hair styling gel, or body lotion containing formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. The results revealed the levels to be below what was naturally in the air and within the range found in human breath.
So why did Johnson & Johnson remove quaternium-15 if it’s safe? The consumers asked it to. The company’s job is not to combat misconceptions in the public; it’s to sell products.
Concerns about formaldehyde have cropped up before, though. One of the many disproven arguments of the anti-vaccine movement is that formaldehyde poses a danger. But again, the amount of formaldehyde in vaccines is dwarfed by the comparatively huge amounts in everyday food. The formaldehyde “added” to an infant’s body through vaccines is equivalent to adding a slice of American cheese to the top of a stack of 35 Hummers.
So what is it with formaldehyde? Why do we worry about it when it’s in the air and our food, and our exposures are so tiny as to be harmless?
Of course, it doesn’t help that EWG’s campaign used messages such as “baby’s tub is still toxic” and called attention to “cancer-causing formaldehyde in your cosmetics.” EWG’s own site does not list quaternium-15 as a carcinogen, and their risk rating for formaldehyde does not take into account dosage. If the amount of formaldehyde released in personal care products can cause cancer, then so can eating bananas or just breathing.
But once fear is established, it’s hard to overcome. Mike Mackert, a University of Texas professor who studies health literacy, points out: “Once people latch onto a particular belief, sometimes hearing contradictory, though correct, information only strengthens an incorrect belief.”
People’s sense of control influences how they respond to a perceived risk. If they feel their health could be threatened (such as from a car accident while driving), but there are effective ways to protect themselves (such as wearing a seatbelt), then they are more likely to respond to the risk logically. If people don’t have a good way to protect themselves or their loved ones, they are “more likely to respond to the threat less rationally,” says Anthony Dudo, a UT professor who studies science communication and public perceptions. The perceived lack of control ratchets up the perception of the threat, perhaps explaining why flying may seem scarier than driving despite the greater risk of a car accident than a plane crash.
With baby shampoo, consumers’ fears about formaldehyde may escalate to extreme levels because, short of boycotting the product, they feel helpless to do anything about it. The same principle helps explain vaccine fears about formaldehyde.
The mental shortcuts we use to process risks can also distort our perceptions. These filters rely on our values, ideologies, levels of trust in science, past experiences, and other factors to help us sort and evaluate information quickly. “It’s likely that individuals’ opinions are largely formed from broader established predispositions they have about health, consumer products, large companies, etc.,” Dudo says, “and not any sort of detailed scientific consideration of the potential danger posed by formaldehyde.”
In other words, the problem runs deeper than a simple misunderstanding of science or specific chemicals. Since media coverage can contribute to these factors—and we live in a media landscape which allows us to select only news sources that confirm our beliefs—then chemophobia’s proliferation is less surprising. Of course, real threats from chemicals and industry practices, such as the recent West Virginia chemical spill, don’t help. There are real risks, and blowing small risks out of proportion can prevent us from understanding the significant ones.
The question is how to reverse chemophobia and encourage more rational ways of assessing the safety of chemicals in us and around us. Ultimately it’s up to individuals to overcome their own fears and use evidence to assess risks. When it comes to formaldehyde, at least, it’s time to take a deep breath and just chill a bit.