Sunday, May 25, 2008

Are you wearing formaldehyde? Part 2: Preservatives in Cosmetics

In order for cosmetic formulations to be safe and stable (assured "shelf life"), preservatives need to be added. Preservatives act as antimicrobials as these prohibit or retard the growth of microbes. Preservatives can also function as antioxidants as it protects formulations against damage and degradation caused by exposure to oxygen. Antioxidants prevents browning or black spots from forming. However, preservatives are in the science community's watchlist for containing or having the tendency to release formaldehyde.

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced formaldehyde as a chemical currently considered a probable human carcinogen (Class 3) by the World Heath Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) but, classified as a carcinogen by California Proposition 65. According to the California Proposition, formaldehyde starts to become a health risk at 40 micrograms/day of release. When available in low doses as a preservative for fabrics, leather and food; it can cause irritation of the eyes, skin and throat.

Formaldehyde mixes easily with water but not with oil nor grease. It is commonly used as a preservative in aqueous cosmetic formulations such as shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, liquid handwash and bubble bath. Like certain fragrances, it can irritate sensitive skin. It can destroy the skin's natural protective oils, causing dryness, flaking, cracking and dermatitis (skin rash). Furthermore, persons who are dermally sensitive to formaldehyde can have allergic reactions such redness, itching, hives or blisters. It is therefore one of the chemicals used in an allergy patch test.

Formaldehyde has been banned in Europe and Japan. The European Union's EU Cosmetic Directive (76/768/EC) currently restricts the presence of formaldehyde in aerosol sprays. Oral hygiene products such as mouthwashes must not contain 0.1% of formaldehyde while externally applied cosmetics and toiletries must not contain more than 0.2%. In nail hardeners, the restriction is more lenient as the EU permits up to 5.0% of formaldehyde . But products that contain more than 0.05% of formaldehyde in the finished state must carry a label that states that the product "contains formaldehyde."

The Cosmetic Industry in the United Sates reports that their resulting formulations comply with the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) requirements with regards to labeling, in cases where safety of the product has not been determined. In 1976, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) established the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR) with support of the US Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Federation of America. The CIR's laboratory studies ingredients used in cosmetic formulations and issues safety assessments of these ingredients as either:
S: Safe in present practice of use and concentration
SQ: Safe with Qualifications
I: Insufficient data
U: Unsafe
Formaldehyde is rated "Safe with qualifications" by the CIR.

The following compounds in cosmetic formulations have been the subject of debates due to it's ability to function as preservatives while having the ability to release formaldehyde in very small amounts over time: Quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea and diazolidinyl urea. The cosmetic industry claims that low levels of these compounds are sufficient to retard micorbial growth while ensuring that the actual level of free formaldehyde released does not exceed the permissible maximum level of 0.2%. According to the CIR, Quaternium-15, a preservative and an antistatic agent; can be dermally absorbed but there are no known developmental effects that can occur when applied dermally. It is reported to be a dermal irritant only when present in more than 5.0% of the product's total composition. The allowable maximum concentration of this quaternary ammonium salt is 0.2% when used in cosmetics and personal care products. The maximum allowable concentration for diazolidinyl urea is 0.5% while the most commonly used preservative, imidazolidinyl urea can be used to a maximum concentration of 0.6%.

Should one choose to be cautious with cosmetics used for personal cleanliness or physical enhancements, the Cosmetic Ingredients Review presents a list of commonly used ingredients, its functions and their respective safety assessment ratings. Read labels in cosmetic packaging and identify the preservatives. Should the label indicate "contains formaldehyde," this means that the free formaldehyde released from the product exceeds 0.05%. Though this is not an exact indication of the potential for total free formaldehyde to exceed 0.2% during normal use of the product, stop using the product should dermal irritation occur.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Straight to the mouth...


There's a good reason why toys, garments and other childcare articles are labeled with a specific age range of a child. "Age-grading" is intended to guide consumers to select products that are appropriate for the child's stage of mental development.

The psychologist Jean Piaget developed his Theory of Cognitive Development to describe the stages in which children are able to develop awareness of their environment. Piaget's theory of Cognitive Thinking describes a child's ability to make decisions as these relate to persons and objects within their field of vision. The development of cognitive thinking occurs in stages and the first stage which starts from birth through the age of two is called the Sensorimotor period.

An infant's first 6 weeks (Reflexive stage) is a period of "sensing." An infant learns of his environment by sucking almost everything within his reach or upon discovery, his own hand. As the infant becomes aware of people and nearby objects, he reaches, grabs and sucks on these as part of his "learning process." Such actions are repetitive ("Circular reactions") in infants between 2 and 4 months old. It is therefore extremely important that objects within an infant's field of vision are made larger than an infant's mouth or the diameter of it's throat to avoid the potential for swallowing and/or choking on found objects. For the same reason, such objects cannot have sharp edges and points.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission advises that objects more than 2 inches in diameter are less likely to be swallowed. The Commission developed a "small parts cylinder" or "choke tube" which has an opening similar to the diameter of a 2-year old's throat. Objects that fit within the tube's opening would be considered a "small part" and therefore should not be given to infants.

It should also be noted that when an infant discovers an object that it cannot readily suck, it will continually touch and rotate the object within it's hand. This finger-twirling action, common among those betwen the ages of 4 through 8 months; suggests that the infant has found a toy. Such small parts which now have "play value" need to be firmly attached to it's larger part or else it can detach and potentially becomes a choking hazard. Should it be necessary for large toys or garments to contain "small parts" like buttons, bows and zipper pulls for functional reasons; such "small parts" need to withstand at least 15 pounds of pulling force held for at least 10 seconds. This is the pulling strength of a toddler.

The period that children place objects in their mouth extends through the age of 3 years then gradually diminishes and ends at about the age of 5. It is very important that small parts are either avoided or firmly attached to larger objects because infants and young children have not developed a level of cognitive thinking that allows them to reverse a harmful situation. According to Piaget, the ability to reverse an action is not possible until the child reaches the age of seven.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Are you wearing formaldehyde? Part 1



Formaldehyde, a preservative one may remember from high school chemistry class. It is a naturally occurring substance that's also produced by our bodies. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reports that everyone is exposed to small amounts of formaldehyde in air and some foods and products. Low levels can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat while high levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers. Workers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde have been known to develop nose and throat cancers. It has been known to trigger asthma attacks in children. Furthermore, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found a link between formaldehyde exposure and Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS).

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas that has a distinct pungent odor. It dissolves in water but easily dissipates. Airborne formaldehyde can break down to form formic acid and carbon monoxide and therefore smog is a major source of formaldehyde exposure. It is used in the production of fertilizers, paper, plywood , particle board and foam insulation. It is a preservative for some foods, antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics and leather. It is also applied to fabrics so that it shrinks less, prevents staining and resists wrinkling. Free or unreacted, excess formaldehyde can be inhaled, ingested or dermally absorbed to cause the health hazards that agencies report.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that adults not drink water containing more than 1 milligram of formaldehyde per liter of water (1 mg/L) for a lifetime exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure level of 0.75 parts per million for an 8-hour workday, within a 40-hour work week.

Worldwide efforts to set limits on free formaldehyde have been made to avoid hazardous exposure. Various countries in Europe have regulations limiting free formaldehyde in clothing as follows:


  • In babies clothing (for children less than 24 months old) no more than 20 mg/kg.
  • Textiles that are in direct contact with skin during use cannot contain more than 100 mg/kg.
  • Textiles that are not directly in contact with skin have a limit of 300 mg/kg.

Japan has the strictest regulation which limits free formaldehyde on clothing for adults and children above 24 months of age to 75 ppm. The limit for clothing intended for babies is lower.


The United States requires the following limits:

  • 20 mg/kg for children under 36 months of age
  • 75 mg/kg for all other textiles used with direct skin contact
  • 300 mg/kg for all other textiles not subject to direct skin contact.

However, the above mentioned limits are voluntary standards.

Germany and Austria recommends labeling textiles subject to direct skin contact if such textiles are known to contain more than 1500 ppm of formaldehyde. The label appears both in English and German as follows: Contains formaldehyde. Washing this garment is recommended prior to first time use in order to avoid irritation of the skin.


One can limit exposure to free formaldehyde by:

  • Promoting good indoor air circulation: Indoor sources of formaldehyde are carpets, drapes, adhesives used in plywood and furniture, insulating foam, and cigarette smoke. It's not surprising that high levels of exposure to free formaldehyde occur indoors than outdoors.
  • Do not use unvented kerosene heaters.
  • Wash garments prior to use: Chemicals that impart wrinkle resistance properties should be properly "fixed" or cured on to fabrics with the right combination of temperature, pressure and time of application. Unfixed or free formaldehyde can be laundered off the cured fabrics.
  • Read product labels and purchase household chemicals and cosmetics that are formaldehyde-free.