Sunday, November 13, 2011

Formaldehyde - Spotlight on Preservatives

I’m writing this because I have sensitive skin and allergies and so many hair and skin products are “off-limits” to me because they contain preservatives which make my skin itch, burn, turn bright red, break out in a rash. Actually, I'm writing it because 3 more products I love have started to make my skin itch and that annoys me because now I have to come up with new homemade recipes or search for something non-itchy and not-expensive.©Science-y Hair Blog 2013

One of the best-known skin offenders are preservatives related to formaldehyde. You know, a part of the recipe for embalming fluid. Yep, it’s that nasty.

I’m not going to mention the formaldehyde in hair smoothing or straightening products (except that I just did)! These are sources of formaldehyde which are not only skin-contact problems, but also unhealthy to breathe for the person having their hair straightened and for the stylist doing the work.
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
You won’t find pure formaldehyde in your hair (or skin) products (except maybe for nail polish), you’ll find formaldehyde-releasing preservatives instead. Why? Because they’re some of the most effective preservatives out there for preventing the product from playing host to bacteria and fungi which would break it down, reduce shelf life and could introduce dangerous microbes to the body.
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
Your greatest exposure to formaldehyde in life is actually from building materials, carpets, foam insulation and other man made materials (for example, plywood or fiberboard is partly manmade whereas solid wood planks are not – and have become far more expensive than the former). And the risk is that the formaldehyde is released as a gas which you breathe and at high concentrations this can cause cancer (people who consistently breathe such high concentrations include morticians and some biologists).

In cosmetics and hair products, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives can be skin irritants or allergens. If you use a product and immediately – or even over time, begin to experience itching, redness, burning, a rash or outbreak of acne, you may want to consider these preservatives as possible causes:
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
Imidazolidinyl urea
Diazolidinyl urea
dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM) hydantoin
Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

A small number of people have a sensitivity to formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (3% to 9%). Imidazolidinyl urea and Diazolidinyl urea may be less irritating than DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, but all release formaldehyde. These preservatives are officially  listed as “probable carcinogens,” although the greatest risk comes from inhaling the gasses. Less research has been done on transdermal (though-the-skin) absorption, although the formaldehyde released appears to have the potential to be absorbed through the skin. The National Academy of Sciences is disputing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s position on formaldehydes as possible carcinogens in cosmetics. In science, you need very clear proof of cause and effect which can be produced and reproduced in clinical tests – especially when you are declaring a useful product to be dangerous (because the bacteria controlled by formaldehydes can also be extremely dangerous). Meanwhile these preservatives are still widely used, particularly as alternatives to paraben preservatives which were very weakly associated with breast cancer (see this post for more), even though parabens are not as likely to cause skin reactions (in one study, only 0.6% of people tested had a skin reaction to paraben preservatives – compared to 3-9% for formaldehyde-releasing preservatives) and unlikely to be related to breast cancer unless well-designed research can demonstrate a link.
©Science-y Hair Blog 2013
Avoid formaldehyde-relseasing preservatives if you suspect they cause you any skin reactions. And be aware that you can use a product for months (even years) before you experience a problem, or it can appear right away – like a skin medication I used which caused my face to turn bright red and burn for 6 hours after application, and I used it for weeks before I realized it was a problem with the preservative and not the intentional effect of the medication! Live and learn.

Another tip: Open your windows whenever you can, even if just for a short while – let the wind in and out. Especially in a new house or when you have new carpet or new furnishings. You don’t want to breathe all the formaldehyde which is gassing off these products.

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