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Everything You Need to Know About Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Everything you need to know about formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, including what they are, how they’re used, possible negative health impacts, and the simple swaps you can make to clean your beauty routine!
Aug 11, 2022 | Joy McCarthy

Over the past two weeks I’ve looked at the not-so-health-promoting common skincare ingredients, synthetic fragrances and petroleum-based ingredients. Today, I want to finish up my series with a closer look at formaldehyde-releasing preservatives–FRPs for short. My hope with this series is that you’ll become an educated and empowered shopper who is able to decipher labels and buy beauty products that are safe for you and the environment.

FRPs are used as preservatives in many beauty and personal care products from hair care to nail polishes, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe or good for your glow. I know I’ve said this before, but I think it’s such an important fact that it bears repeating: The American Journal of Public Health found that the skin can absorb between 64% and 100% of the chemicals in your skincare products. The amount that gets absorbed depends on whether you have any broken skin, the size of the molecule, or if you have compromised skin barrier function due to conditions such as acne, eczema, and rosacea.

One of the major issues with the beauty industry is that there is often a huge lack in data and information on the health effects of ingredients such as FRPs, petroleum-based ingredients, and synthetic fragrances. This is because the industry is unregulated so manufacturers and companies can choose to add chemicals to their products based on cost and availability, as opposed to the potential side effects or possible harm.

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives can have harmful effects on the body and since they aren’t super well-studied we don’t know the full extent of their effects. That’s why I’m writing this post, so you can be well-informed on the products that are best for your skin and the planet.

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Below, I’ll outline everything you need to know about formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, including what they are, how they’re used, possible negative health impacts, and the simple swaps you can make to clean your beauty routine!

What Are Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives?

Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas that is most often associated with embalming and producing fertilizers, paper, some plastic products, and plywood. While there are low levels of formaldehyde that occur naturally in the environment, the industrial production of this chemical adds up to more than 21 million tons a YEAR!

Most cosmetic and beauty products no longer contain pure formaldehyde since it is a very well-known contact allergen, which affects up to 8-9% of the population in the US. However, many preservatives used in the beauty industry slowly release formaldehyde when in the presence of water such as in shampoos, liquid foundations, and anti-wrinkle creams. According to the EWG about 20% of beauty and cosmetic products contain FRPs - this is a lot! As we’ll see below, these ingredients are not the safest for promoting joyous health in the long term.

How Are They Used In Beauty Products?

Like many chemicals and preservatives used in personal care products, the cheap price and widespread availability make formaldehyde-releasing preservatives an attractive option for companies who are looking for long shelf lives and low costs. This means that you’ll find them in everything from shampoos to nail polishes to body washes, cosmetics, and even in baby lotions and washes. Babies’ skin is so delicate that using these kinds of chemicals on them could impact the skin microbiome [read more here!], thanks to the antibacterial effects of FRPs. We just don’t have the studies to know how these kinds of chemicals can impact the skin barrier and skin microbiome, so I always prefer to err on the side of caution and use the gentlest possible beauty products on all skin types, whether an adult or a baby!

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are used in beauty products in order to extend their shelf life since they are known antimicrobials. The compounds break down slowly over time to release a consistent amount of formaldehyde in the product.

They’re cheap and long-lasting, which makes them attractive to manufacturers and many use them in place of parabens so they can call their product “paraben-free.”

This is a great example of companies “health-washing” their products by swapping out ingredients customers have learned about and want to avoid without actually making their products any safer. Replacing one chemical with another doesn’t make a product any healthier or safer for your skin, it just serves to confuse customers. You can learn more about the dirty secrets of the beauty industry in this interview with the founder of Green Beaver company.

It’s important to remember that even high end products or brands that claim to be natural may still use these formaldehyde-releasing preservatives to increase product shelf life. That’s why it’s so important to make sure to read your labels, especially if you have sensitive skin, so that you can avoid these chemicals. I'll share the names to look out for below so that you can become a savvy shopper.

Why Are They Harmful?

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives aren’t added to beauty and personal care products due to their supposed beauty benefits. They are added to help extend the shelf life of products by preventing the growth of bacteria in products with any water content.

Fact: Did you know we don’t add water to any joyous health skincare products, just pure plant botanicals!

You might be thinking, but I want to prevent mold or bacteria growing in my skincare! Yes of course, but that’s what expiry dates are for and better quality ingredients that don’t contain a host of fillers (like water) don’t provide the perfect environment for bacteria to grow. Companies add these chemicals for one reason: profit. They want to make products that can last several months or years on the shelf. And, yes there are more natural preservatives like vitamin E (prevents oils from going rancid), grapefruit seed extract, benzoic acid (sourced from strawberries or cayenne), essential oils such as rosemary oil and more, but of course, they are more costly.

Just like petroleum-based ingredients, the David Suzuki Foundation also classifies FRPs as one of its Dirty Dozen Cosmetic Chemicals to Avoid.

In fact, they have been banned from use in cosmetics and beauty products in both Japan and Sweden, while the EU requires products that contain more than a 0.05% concentration to have a label that states “contains formaldehyde.” While Canada does restrict the concentration of formaldehyde in cosmetics to 0.2%, there is no restriction on the amount of formaldehyde that can be released from the FRPs nor on the use of these ingredients themselves.

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Formaldehyde-releasing ingredients are well-known contact allergens, in fact they are one of the most common allergens for children with contact dermatitis and they are often found in baby soaps and wipes. They can:

  • Cause skin irritation or redness
  • Cause contact dermatitis
  • Cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Cause blisters and skin burns in severe cases

When it comes to other health effects, formaldehyde and FRPs:

It’s also been noted that formaldehyde allergy can develop from repeated low-level exposure, such as what you would get by using products that contain these chemicals daily. Something else to note is that even if the amount of formaldehyde is restricted within individual products, most of us are using more than 1 product every day. If it’s found in your shampoo and conditioner, body lotions, cosmetics, nail polishes, and more, that exposure can add up over time and cause sensitivity. That’s why it’s best to just avoid products with FRPs as much as possible. Your skin will thank you in the long run!

What To Look For on Labels

Being educated on the different names for formaldehyde-releasing preservatives helps you make sure that you’re purchasing products that are healthy for your body and the planet. They can often be found in personal care products under the following names:

  • Formaldehyde and paraformaldehyde
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • Methylene glycol
  • Quaternium 15
  • 3 dioxane
  • Benzyl Hemiformal
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Polyoxymethylene urea
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)
  • Glyoxal

By taking a few moments to check your labels you’ll be able to see whether your favourite beauty brands are all-natural and safe for sensitive skin, or possibly loaded with irritating formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Luckily, consumers are becoming more educated and aware of the health effects of these ingredients and companies are starting to formulate products that are pure and gentle for all skin types.

Non-Toxic Skin-Loving Alternatives

While natural products may not last quite as long without toxic chemical preservatives, I suggest buying fewer products and using what you have so you don’t let any products go to waste. Below are some of my favourite all-natural products that use the power of plants to protect and nourish even the most sensitive skin.

  • Natural Lavender Shampoo: Instead of inhaling FRPs, enjoy the beautiful lavender scent from essential oils in our all natural shampoo!
  • Citrus & Lavender Deodorants: Free of FRPs and aluminum, our deodorants are naturally scented with essential oils including lavender and bergamot oil, along with sage oil to keep your pits healthy & stink-free!
  • Hella Hydrating Serum: We use an airless pump bottle to prevent contamination and keep this beauty booster fresh and chemical free! You’ll only find 2 skin nourishing ingredients here: organic cold-pressed rosehip oil and hyaluronic acid.
  • Body Butter: You won’t find any preservatives in our best-selling Body Butter! Nothing but skin-loving ingredients to help you GLOW from head to toe!

I hope this educational series has opened your eyes to the prevalence of not so joyous chemicals found in personal care products and cosmetics. The first step to making a change to your routine is learning about what these ingredients are, what they do, and how to spot them so that you can make healthier swaps to your beauty routine. To get started, explore Shop Joyous Health to find all-natural, plant-powered skincare, hair care, and body care products!

Be sure to check out other articles on this important topic:

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