These Beauty Products Still Use Formaldehyde — Here's Why You Should Care

Yes, formaldehyde in shampoo is something you should worry about — and you might want to check the label on your at-home keratin treatment, too.

brightly colored collage of beauty products that might contain formaldehyde, from left to right: hairspray, shampoo, nail polish remover, nail polish
Photo: Adobe Stock - Design: Alex Sandoval

Most people are exposed to formaldehyde — a colorless, strong-smelling gas that can be hazardous to your health — at some point in their lives, some more than others. Formaldehyde is found in cigarettes, some e-cigarettes, certain building materials, industrial cleaning products, and some beauty products, according to the National Cancer Institute. Yes, you read that right: beauty products. There's formaldehyde in shampoo, in some cases, as well as some soaps — and it's not something you want to be pressing into your skin or massaging into your hair.

Why Formaldehyde Is In Some Beauty Products

It's a pretty clear-cut answer. "Formaldehyde is a great preservative. That's why formalin (the liquid form of formaldehyde) is used to preserve cadavers that med students use in their anatomy courses," explains Papri Sarkar, M.D., a dermatologist.

"Similarly, you can make an amazing cleanser or moisturizer or beauty product, but without a preservative, it will likely only last a few weeks or months. Formaldehyde-releasers were first put into cosmetics to keep them from spoiling and causing bacterial or fungal infections and to prolong their shelf life," says Dr. Sarkar. Formaldehyde-releasers are, essentially, substances that release formaldehyde over time, keeping the product fresh.

And while many brands that once used formaldehyde as a preservative have stopped doing so thanks to the wealth of evidence that it's not so great for you (Johnson & Johnson, for example), there are plenty of manufacturers that still use the stuff to cheaply preserve their products.

To be fair, inhalation of formaldehyde in gas form is the biggest concern, notes David Pollock, an independent beauty chemist. "However, up to 60 percent of chemicals applied to your skin can be absorbed by your body," he says. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't require the formal approval of cosmetics with formaldehyde-releasing ingredients, the European Union has straight-up banned formaldehyde in beauty products because it's a known carcinogen. (

The top culprits in the beauty space? "The worst offenders are nail polishes and nail polish removers," says Dr. Sarkar. Hair products in general, as well as baby shampoo and soap, also can contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasers, says Ava Shamban, M.D., a dermatologist. So yes, formaldehyde in shampoo is a valid concern.

Old-school hair straightening products, including the old formulation of the Brazilian blowout and certain keratin treatments, also used to have a significant amount of formaldehyde, but have reportedly been improved. Again, though, since these products don't require FDA approval, some keratin treatments do still contain formaldehyde-releasers. Interestingly, the FDA reportedly once considered taking certain keratin treatments off the market after the agency's scientists deemed their formaldehyde-releasing ingredients "unsafe," according to The New York Times. Clearly, though, the FDA never actually wound up banning the products, despite those reported recommendations from its internal experts.

How to Make Sure Your Products Are Formaldehyde-Free

"My opinion is that everyone should be concerned. You are exposed to these products on a daily basis, and over time, these products can build up in fatty tissue and potentially create serious health problems," says Dr. Shamban.

That being said, it's worth noting that most of these products contain only small amounts of formaldehyde, meaning that they're not as dangerous as other sources of the chemical, such as embalming fluid used on cadavers and building materials that contain it (whew). But if you'd rather be safe than sorry, finding clean, formaldehyde-free beauty products is easier than ever. "The Environmental Working Group has a list of not only formaldehyde-containing products but also products that contain formaldehyde releasers," says Dr. Shamban.

You can also do the work yourself and check your favorite products for these ingredients, which contain and/or release formaldehyde: methylene glycol, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, quaternium 15, bronopol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3 dioxane, and hydroxymethylglycinate.

Lastly, you can always rely on retailers who specialize in clean products. "Sephora has a clean beauty label that only includes products that don't include formaldehyde, and there are now many large retailers that only stock or make products that are formaldehyde-free, such as Credo, The Detox Market, Follain, and Beauty Counter. They take the guesswork out of it," suggests Dr. Sarkar.

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