Formaldehyde Found in Home and Body Care Products

Frizzy hair serum and wrinkle-free clothing may contain enough chemicals to preserve a dead body.

Credit: Flickr / nathalielaure

You can add formaldehyde to the list of nasty chemicals (including lead, mercury and arsenic) that we are being exposed to daily


My daughter Maia inherited my curly, verging on frizzy, hair. It’s an issue that hasn’t really bothered her much yet. But, depending on fashion trends, in a few years she might decide to try and straighten her unruly mop. Which brings me to this week’s environmental health warning: we are exposed to too much formaldehyde in our hair care products (as well as in our clothing, bath products and household linens)


Every so often these warnings catch me off guard and I end up a bit shocked that we can be so daft as to douse ourselves in poison. Like when I learned that high-fructose corn syrup is processed by using industrial chemicals and is often tainted with mercury, or that the use of Triclosan—the most common antibacterial additive found in soap—is contributing to the new strains of antibiotic-resistant “super-bugs,” the everyday use of formaldehyde also caused one of those, “gee whiz, are we trying to kill ourselves?” moments.


Carcinogenic levels of formaldehyde found in hair care products

Formaldehyde is a fungicide, germicide and disinfectant, and is used as a preservative in mortuaries—meaning it’s used on dead people. In 1987 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen “under conditions of unusually high or prolonged exposure.” And we’re throwing the stuff into everything…


The most recent warning came from Health Canada when they announced that “professional hair smoothing solutions have been found to contain levels of formaldehyde above regulated limits.”


“Formaldehyde is permitted as a preservative in cosmetics at levels of no more than 0.2 percent. Formaldehyde is a known irritant, sensitizer and is linked to cancer in humans when inhaled chronically over a long period of time,” the agency said on its website.


Health Canada also released details on the products it tested:


    • Brazilian Keratin Treatment by Marcia Teixeira: 1.8 percent


    • Advanced Brazilian Keratin Treatment by Marcia Teixeira: 1.7 percent


    • Chocolate Extreme De-Frizzing Treatment by Marcia Teixeira: 1.6 percent


    • Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy by Coppola: 1.8 percent


    • Global Keratin Taming System Strawberry: 3.0 percent


    • Global Keratin Taming System with Juvexin Strawberry Resistant: 4.4 percent


    • Global Keratin Taming System with Juvexin Strawberry Light Wave: 1.4 percent


    • Pro-Collagen RX Keratin Treatment: 2.8 percent


    • IStraight Keratin (Advanced Keratin Treatment) by IBS Beauty: 2.3 percent


    • Brazilian Thermal Reconstruction by Cadiveu: 7 percent


High formaldehyde levels found in common household products

But don’t think you’re off the hook if you have straight hair—formaldehyde shows up in just about every room of the house and is found in everything from pressed wood products to upholstery and drapes, baseball caps, personal care products and wrinkle-free clothing. That’s right—all those clothes that promise the end of ironing use formaldehyde to smooth the fibers.


And the news gets worse—there is no requirement that the label let you know which chemicals were used in manufacturing.


The US Government Accountability Office, recently studied the levels and potential health risks of formaldehyde in 180 common items. And about 5.5 percent of the items—primarily wrinkle-free shirts, pillow cases, crib sheets and a baseball hat—had levels of formaldehyde that exceeded EPA standards.


Meanwhile, over at the Environmental Working Group, 61 percent of the children’s bath products tested contained formaldehyde.


The lack of labelling laws leaves us, the consumer, with the potential for an unintentional embalming in formaldehyde—something I’d prefer to put off for a while, thanks…


What you can do now though is wash any new clothes before you wear them, skip the wrinkle-free versions altogether and live with your curls (I’ll bet they’re nice).