The number of skin cancer cases has escalated since the 1970s. Normally, the blame falls on thinner ozone layer in combination with changed behavior such as increased sunbathing. But is this really the whole truth? We ask ourselves if formaldehyde in skin-care products could be contributing to the dramatic rise in skin cancer.
It is undisputed that high concentrations of formaldehyde can damage DNA and cause cancer, while low levels of formaldehyde are considered harmless. However, recent research has shown that low concentrations of formaldehyde might also contribute to cancer development. Low levels of formaldehyde may not directly cause DNA damage but interfere with the repair of DNA damaged by for example solar UV-light. The concentrations in question are far below the allowed limits in skin-care products and cosmetics within the EU.
Formaldehyde is common as a preservative in skin-care products to prohibit growth of bacteria and fungi. About 20-25% of all skin-care products contain low levels of formaldehyde. Another 25% of skin-care products are for various reasons contaminated with formaldehyde. Considering the amount of personal care products each person uses every day, it is reasonable to conclude that a large portion of the general public is exposed to formaldehyde daily.
Nowadays, it is rarely pure formaldehyde that is added as preservative but so-called formaldehyde releasers. Chemicals that slowly decompose into formaldehyde over time, resulting in a long-term preservative effect. Formaldehyde releasers are not that simple to recognize in the content list. Their names have no clear connection to formaldehyde and the same chemical may have several names. In the table we list the most common formaldehyde releasers that we think you should avoid completely in your personal care products.
Besides products containing formaldehyde releasers as preservatives, small amounts of formaldehyde can be present in products without being present in the content list. Analysis have shown that about one third of all skin creams contain formaldehyde, even though it not declared in the list of ingredients.
To make things easier for the consumers we call for a new labeling of products that are free from all sorts of formaldehyde. All serious skin-care and cosmetics brands, label your products with "Formaldehyde Free"!
- To Avoid -
Liquid Germall Plus
Formaldehyde is Irritating, Allergenic and a Classified Carcinogen
Formaldehyde is a highly reactive molecule  that are both irritating for the skin and one of the most allergenic substances used in skin-care products [2-5]. At high doses, formaldehyde causes DNA-damage that can lead to cancer development. . Formaldehyde is classified as a carcinogen and inhalation increases the risk to develop nasopharynx cancer and most possibly also leukemia [6-8].
Formaldehyde is Still Approved at up to 0,2% in Skin-care Products within EU
Low levels of formaldehyde iare onsidered harmless. Both the European SCCS and the CIR-group maintain their position that the low concentrations of formaldehyde that you find in cosmetics and skin-care products are completely without risk [7,9]. An argument often brought forward is that our body produces small amounts of formaldehyde as a by-product in certain reactions. However, this formaldehyde is taken care of and deactivated very quickly by special detoxifying systems and only minute amounts remain in the blood [1,8].
In January 2016 the European Commission Regulation listed formaldehyde as a CMR-substance (carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic), class 1B. A recent formal proposal from the Commission Regulation suggests that, since the industry has not been able to show that no suitable alternative substances are available, formaldehyde and Quaternium-15, one of the formaldehyde releasers, should be removed from the allowed substances in cosmetic products. However, since this proposal is not yet officially published, for now formaldehyde is still allowed in skin-care products up to 0,2%. In fact, even when the new regulation comes through, all the other formaldehyde releasers will still be allowed to use. So in reality the new regulation will not lead to any great change when it comes to the presence of formaldehyde in skin-care products.
Formaldehyde Impairs the Ability of the Cells to Repair DNA-damage
Several research groups have shown that low doses of formaldehyde perturb the cells DNA repair system [10-12]. In 2014, researchers from Berlin and Zürich showed that skin cells treated for 18 hours with a low dose of formaldehyde (about 900 times lower than the maximum concentration allowed in EU) and thereafter irradiated with UV-light, needed significantly longer time to repair the DNA damage caused by the irradiation . More specifically, formaldehyde impairs the ability of the repair systems to recognize the damage, which delays the reparation process. Damaged DNA that is not repaired increases the risk for tumour development. In another experiment, rats were treated on the skin with formaldehyde. The results were very clear, formaldehyde alone did not cause skin cancer, but when the rats in addition were subjected to a known carcinogen, the speed at which tumours developed increased dramatically .
Up to 3 Times More Common With Skin Cancer in Embalmers
Embalmers use formaldehyde to prevent decay of the body before the funeral service. An epidemiological study on the causes of death in embalmers working at funeral homes in New York during the 20th century, found a significant increase (2,2 times) in the number of skin cancer cases, compared to average in New York at the same period . Among those who had worked more than 35 years in the business, the difference was even more pronounced. 3 times more embalmers died in skin cancer than average in New York. This indicates that long-time exposure to formaldehyde increases the risk for developing skin cancer.
Formaldehyde Releasing Substances Used as Preservatives in skin-care Products and Cosmetics
In spite of these research reports, formaldehyde is still considered safe when used in low amounts. Since it is approved and considered without risk, formaldehyde is commonly added as a preservative in skin-care products and cosmetics to avoid the growth of bacteria and fungi. Nowadays it is rarely pure formaldehyde that is added as preservative, but substances that continuously release small amounts of formaldehyde, so-called formaldehyde releasers [9,15]. In this way, a low level of formaldehyde can be maintained for a long time to prolong the shelf life of the product.
Hidden Causes to Formaldehyde in Skin-Care Products
It has been revealed that many skin-care products contain formaldehyde even if it is not included in the list of ingredients. A Danish study found that 51 out of 100 investigated skin creams contained either formaldehyde or formaldehyde releasers, but that only 18 of them listed it among the ingredients . There are several hidden causes as to why a product can contain formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is sometimes used as a preservative of the raw ingredients in the product and for sterilizing preparation containers and packaging material, which will result in contamination the final product . Another reason for contamination of skin-care products with formaldehyde can also be caused by spontaneous oxidation of ethoxylated surfactants, especially if they are subjected to heat [17,18]. In addition, tests on skin-care products from both Sweden and Denmark have shown inaccurate content lists regarding the preservatives on 17-23% of all products [16,19].
On Average We Use 1-2 Products per Day Containing Formaldehyde Releasers
Two studies done in 2010 on skin-care products in Sweden, USA and the Netherlands found that about 20-25% of them contained formaldehyde releasers [15,20]. According to a survey done by EWG (Environmental Working Group) in 2004, we use on average about 9 different skin-care products per day . Therefore, if we do not consciously choose to avoid products containing formaldehyde, it is highly probable that we use at least 1-2 products per day containing formaldehyde, which results in a life-long exposure.
Investigate the Connection Between Low Doses of Formaldehyde and Skin Cancer
The number of skin cancer cases has increased substantially since the 1970s , in spite of an elevated awareness of the risks of UV-light and an increased use of sunscreen products. We think that it is about time that the studies that show that formaldehyde impairs reparation of UV induced DNA damage is taken more seriously and we hope to see in the near future a study that investigates if daily exposure to low levels of formaldehyde is related to the increase in skin cancer cases.
”Formaldehyde Free”-Labeling Wanted
According to the EU regulation the Cosmetic Directive, all products containing more than 0,05% formaldehyde should be labeled with a warning that states ”Contains formaldehyde” . However, 0,05% is about 200 times higher than low levels of formaldehyde shown to impair the cells' ability to repair damaged DNA  and also 17 times higher than the lowest concentration that causes contact allergies (0,003%) . Since it is difficult to recognize the names of formaldehyde releasers and considering that there are many hidden causes to formaldehyde, we hope that conscious producers of skin-care products start to label their products "Formaldehyde Free".
- Kalasz, H., Biological role of formaldehyde, and cycles related to methylation, demethylation, and formaldehyde production. Mini Rev Med Chem, 2003. 3(3): 175-92.
- de Groot, A.C. et al., Formaldehyde-releasers: relationship to formaldehyde contact allergy. Contact allergy to formaldehyde and inventory of formaldehyde-releasers. Contact Dermatitis, 2009. 61(2): 63-85.
- Yim, E. et al., Contact dermatitis caused by preservatives. Dermatitis, 2014. 25(5): 215-31.
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- Boyer, I.J. et al., Amended safety assessment of formaldehyde and methylene glycol as used in cosmetics. Int J Toxicol, 2013. 32(6 Suppl): 5S-32S.
- World Health Organization (WHO), Air quality guidelines for Europe, 2nd ed., 2000.
- The Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers (SCCS), Opinion Concerning Determination of certain formaldehyde releaser in cosmetic products, 2002.
- Emri, G. et al., Low concentrations of formaldehyde induce DNA damage and delay DNA repair after UV irradiation in human skin cells. Exp Dermatol, 2004. 13(5): 305-15.
- Grafstrom, R.C. et al., Formaldehyde damage to DNA and inhibition of DNA repair in human bronchial cells. Science, 1983. 220(4593): 216-8.
- Luch, A. et al., Low-dose formaldehyde delays DNA damage recognition and DNA excision repair in human cells. PLoS One, 2014. 9(4): e94149.
- Iversen, O.H., Formaldehyde and skin carcinogenesis. Environment International, 1986. 12(5): 541-544.
- Walrath, J. and Fraumeni, J.F., Jr., Mortality patterns among embalmers. Int J Cancer, 1983. 31(4): 407-11.
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- Bergh, M. et al., Formation of formaldehyde and peroxides by air oxidation of high purity polyoxyethylene surfactants. Contact Dermatitis, 1998. 39(1): 14-20.
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- Yazar, K. et al., Preservatives and fragrances in selected consumer-available cosmetics and detergents. Contact Dermatitis, 2011. 64(5): 265-72.
- EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, Exposures add up – Survey results. 2004 (Last update; 2004); Available at: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/2004/06/15/exposures-add-up-survey-results/ [Accessed; October 2016]
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