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Formaldehyde – How much of it is safe?

March 27, 2012

Five months ago, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to the manufacturer of the popular hair-straightening product Brazilian Blowout because it emitted formaldehyde gas despite being labelled “formaldehyde-free”.

While Australia, Germany, France, Ireland and Canada have banned Brazilian Blowout products from their shores, it remains uncertain if the studies will lead to stricter formaldehyde regulations in the United States.

The controversy surrounding the use of formaldehyde in hair care products continues, sparking concerns among consumers and salon workers. In June 2011, formaldehyde was added to a list of known carcinogens by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance are urging the FDA to get Brazilian Blowout and other formaldehyde-laced products off American shelves permanently.

The use of formaldehyde in cosmetics is to help protect against bacterial contamination by slowly releasing it in small amounts during storage and continued use. It is most commonly used as a water solution called formalin, rather than in its pure form. Formalin is a generic name for a substance that is made up of 0.0466% formaldehyde and mostly methylene glycol, methanol and water. It is commonly found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, hair relaxers, soaps, makeup, shampoos, lotions, and deodorants.

Formalin is now known as methylene glycol, a name manufacturers now use to label cosmetic products.

Another name for methylene glycol is methanediol and it is listed as one of the main ingredients of Brazilian Blowout marketed in the United States. When methylene glycol is heated, formaldehyde gas is released.

Opponents backed by strong scientific evidence argued that methylene glycol and formaldehyde are entirely separate chemical substances. They are often misunderstood to be synonymous. This has led to misleading, incorrect data as both methylene glycol and formaldehyde are measured as one chemical.  A “10% Formaldehyde” report would be scientifically correct if it reported 9.96% methylene glycol and 0.04% formaldehyde instead.

Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring gas made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It has a pungent smell and is highly reactive and soluble in water. Our bodies produce formaldehyde in very small amounts as part of everyday metabolism. Formaldehyde is also produced in animals and plants and is even emitted as a by-product of Shiitake mushrooms and certain vegetables such as Brussel sprouts and cabbage during cooking.

When formaldehyde is absorbed or inhaled, it is broken down by metabolism and converted to a non-toxic chemical called formate, which is filtered out by the kidneys and passed in the urine. Formate is either used as a building block chemical for the body to make more complicated, larger chemical molecules, or broken down into carbon dioxide and exhaled out of the body through the lungs. Formaldehyde is not stored in fat as it is water soluble and metabolises very quickly.

When hair-smoothing products containing formalin are heated, they can release low levels of formaldehyde gas. Studies have indicated that sensitive individuals may experience symptoms such as irritated eyes or skin, headaches, difficulty breathing, sore throat and/or nausea even within safety limits. In some cases, hair salon workers complained of nose bleeds, eye irritation, and trouble breathing after using the products.

Nail salon workers are particularly at risk for exposure as they work with products containing formalin all day every day, often in poorly ventilated spaces. Some have reported decreased attention and processing skills and increases in asthma and other breathing problems.

The good news is that some nail polish manufacturers have reformulated their products using safer chemicals. One such company is butter LONDON and they offer a complete range of hand and nail care products without the “toxic trio” (3 Free) of ingredients: dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), used for flexibility and moisturising, is a reproductive and developmental toxin that has been linked to feminising effects in baby boys. Toluene, used for suspending colour and forming a smooth finish across the nail, affects the central nervous system and can cause headaches, dizziness and fatigue. It is also a possible reproductive and developmental toxin.

Still the real issue has yet to be addressed: What are the levels of exposure for salon workers and their clients?

Safe and proper uses largely depend on the salon ventilation, as well as, product control and application procedures.
The Singapore National Environment Agency recommends that the maximum threshold level for formaldehyde should not exceed 0.1ppm (parts per million) for indoor air quality.

The FDA and the U.S Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are in the midst of investigation if hair-smoothing treatments emit unsafe levels of formaldehyde. They will be looking at results obtained by monitoring cosmetologists’ and clients’ exposure to formaldehyde gas in salon air.

Since the potential for harm is caused by prolonged and/or repeated overexposure, usually over an extended period of time, less frequent exposures are less likely to result in harm or injury.

Some consumer groups reject any use altogether. “There’s no acceptable level of formaldehyde in products,” says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “Alternatives are readily available, so there’s no reason to be exposing anybody to a known carcinogen.”

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