Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The How and Why of Formaldehyde

I had the pleasure of attending America's Beauty Show and FACE and BODY in Chicago a couple weekends ago. I had a blast! While I was there, I engaged in an interesting conversation with someone regarding formaldehyde. The conversation was spun from the fact there are now at least 10-15 different Brazilian/keratin hair straightening products and one main ingredient is formaldehyde. So the question was: Why is formaldehyde in cosmetics and why would anyone put it there?

Brazilian Keratin Treatments

I can guarantee you that your hair will not be blown straight just from keratin. We've discussed keratin a bit before, but let's revisit briefly. Keratin is a major protein in skin, hair, nails and teeth. Keratin in the skin is flexible and soft, yet it is hard in hair, nails and teeth. Although the keratin in the straightening treatment does not do the straightening, it does improve the strength and appearance of the hair. I'm reluctant to also say it improves the overall health of the hair because technically hair outside of the follicle is "dead"... but you get my drift. Formaldehyde (in keratin treatments that contain it), is the ingredient that causes the hair to relax. There are keratin treatments that do not use formaldehyde as the straightening agent, however keratin is certainly not the ingredient doing the grunt work. Let's face it, a keratin treatment is a lot more marketable than a formaldehyde treatment :-/

Formaldehyde in other cosmetics

In most other cosmetic applications, formaldehyde is not added directly to the formula. Instead, it is a by-product, so to speak, that increases the effectiveness of certain preservatives. These preservatives work because they release small amounts of formaldehyde over time. [Think: formaldehyde = embalming fluid = preservative] This slow release of formaldehyde means that a product has an ongoing stream of protection from harmful microbes and bacteria. One cosmetic that uses formaldehyde directly is/was nail polish. Formaldehyde is used in nail hardening polishes, not really in the polishes that are more for show than functionality. When you see nail polishes that claim formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin FREE it's largely due to marketability as opposed to an actual difference in the product formula.

Dangers of Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is certainly a dangerous chemical, but not so much in cosmetics. The FDA has approved the use of formaldehyde in cosmetic applications for hair and skin at no more than 0.2 percent of a formula. Products that contain formaldehyde releasing preservatives have no problem meeting this restriction. Formaldehyde in nail polish products can lawfully be present at 5% of the formula. Studies show most nail hardeners that contain formaldehyde come in well below 5%. Unfortunately, there have been some keratin treatments that have been found to contain 10 times the legal amount of formaldehyde.

When inhaled, formaldehyde can cause respiratory irritation like a burning sensation in the nose and throat. It can also cause sensitivity in the eyes. When I was in undergrad, I worked with formaldehyde (formalin) in large quantities daily. I can say from experience that acute formaldehyde exposure is no joke! Long term inhalation of formaldehyde has been linked to some forms of nasal and lung cancer... and therein lies the problem.

While formaldehyde is not inhaled when from products that use formaldehyde releasing preservatives, it can be inhaled from nail applications and the controversial keratin treatments. From the perspective of both a scientist and a consumer, nail hardeners do not cause me any worry... but the unregulated amounts of formaldehyde in keratin treatments paired with high temps used to make the treatment work cause me great concern.

and with that... Be Glam responsibly!


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