It happens to me, too. When the word comes up out of context, I think first of dead things. The frogs and fetal pigs I dissected in seventh grade, open-casket funeral viewings … the word formaldehyde quickly conjures up eerie images.
Formaldehyde is often paired with another ominous term—cancer. So perhaps it’s not surprising that people freak out a bit when they hear that formaldehyde is in baby shampoo, hand lotion, or vaccines. The Environmental Working Group raised concerns several years ago about a formaldehyde-releasing preservative called quaternium-15 in Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo and other personal care products. The company sprang into action, promising to introduce reformulated products without the preservative by the end of 2013. And deliver it did.
But did it really need to? Before we dig into that question, keep two thoughts in mind. First, high enough doses of inhaled formaldehyde can cause cancer, leading OSHA and the EPA to set limits for safe exposures.
Second, every minute of every day on every inch of this planet, formaldehyde is all around you and inside you. Always.
Yet we’re not all dropping dead from cancer. That’s thanks to one of the most fundamental principles of toxicology: The dose makes the poison. “Unfortunately, all molecules are potentially toxic,” says American University chemist Matthew Hartings. “Toxicity is not just about the molecule but is about both the molecule and its concentration.”
The concern about formaldehyde in personal care products reveals a bit of chemophobia, which Dartmouth chemistry professor Gordon Gribble defines as “an irrational fear of chemicals based on ignorance of the facts.” He says, “people don’t know how small molecules are, and they believe that single molecules of some chemical pose a health threat.”
That’s exactly the concern EWG expressed. “The actual molecule formaldehyde itself is the carcinogen,” says Johanna Congleton, toxicologist and senior scientist at EWG. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in a liquid or if you’re inhaling particles with formaldehyde.”
In fact, the only studies that link formaldehyde to cancer are related to humans inhaling it, and inhaling large amounts of it. Funeral industry professionals with more than 34 years of experience or who had performed more than 500 embalmings and factory workers who spent years working around formaldehyde before the 1990s had higher risks for leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The amount of exposure required to cause cancer is so high that other studies of factory workers have been inconclusive.
Formaldehyde occurs naturally in common fruits and vegetables (even organic ones). “Unless people calling for removal of quaternium-15 are also keeping their children from eating apples and french fries,” Hartings says, “I think their activism might be misplaced.”
Our own bodies create formaldehyde as a normal byproduct during amino acid synthesis and overall metabolism, including breaking down antibiotics and other medications. It’s also in drinking water and the air we breathe. Homer Swei, a scientist at Johnson & Johnson, points out that 90 percent of the formaldehyde around us is naturally occurring, with 60 percent of that coming from plants and trees, yet it’s still perfectly fine to walk through the woods. Further, the formaldehyde in synthetic or manufactured products is no different in terms of chemical structure than naturally occurring formaldehyde—it’s all CH2O.
Yet the presence of formaldehyde all around us is also part of EWG’s argument against its use in personal care products. “Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and we’re concerned about exposure over time,” says Heather White, executive director of EWG. “We feel that when there are safe alternatives available, we should be pushing the market in that direction. ‘When in doubt, take it out’ should be the mantra for companies.”
But is there actually any doubt regarding the safety of formaldehyde levels found in personal care products?
Since cosmetics do not require Food and Drug Administration approval before going on the market, companies follow the guidelines of the independent Cosmetic Ingredient Review. CIR requires that free formaldehyde (including that released by preservatives) make up less than 0.2 percent of a product’s total ingredients. These low levels of formaldehyde meet even the most conservative consumer notification standards in the nation, those of California’s Proposition 65. According to Swei, who says Johnson & Johnson adheres to CIR guidelines, “It would take more than 40 million baby shampoo baths in a single day to reach the formaldehyde levels set by California’s Proposition 65.”