Formaldehyde is a chemical compound commonly found in various everyday products and industrial processes. While it serves essential functions in many industries, its impact on human health has become a subject of increasing concern.
From its presence in building materials and household items to its role in industrial applications, formaldehyde exposure can occur in numerous ways. Its adverse effects on the human body, particularly when exposed to elevated levels, have raised questions about its safety and necessitated a closer examination of its potential health risks.
In this article, we will delve into the health implications of prolonged or excessive exposure.
What is Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde, a widely occurring chemical compound, is characterized by its colorlessness and a distinctly strong, pungent smell. It typically remains in a gaseous state when at room temperature.
This chemical occurs naturally in the environment, and it can be found in certain foods and even within our bodies.
Moreover, the American Cancer Society says that formaldehyde is widely used in various industries and has a range of applications, including:
- Building materials: Formaldehyde is used to produce building materials such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard.
- Adhesives and glues: It is a crucial component in many glues and adhesives used in woodworking and various other applications.
- Permanent-press fabrics: The textile industry employs formaldehyde to create permanent-press or wrinkle-resistant fabrics.
- Paper product coatings: Some paper products, including coatings for glossy papers, may contain formaldehyde.
When formaldehyde is mixed with water, it forms a solution known as “formalin.” This solution is frequently employed as an industrial disinfectant and serves as a preservative, particularly in environments such as funeral homes and medical laboratories.
Additionally, formaldehyde can be used as a preservative in various products, including antiseptics, medicines, and cosmetics.
Interestingly, even when formaldehyde is not directly added as an ingredient, some products release formaldehyde-containing substances. These substances have been detected in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, lotions, sunscreens, and cleaning products.
While small amounts of formaldehyde can naturally occur in certain foods, like fruits, it is also intentionally added as a preservative in some food products. Furthermore, formaldehyde can be produced from cooking and smoking processes.
It’s worth noting that humans and many other living organisms generate small quantities of formaldehyde as part of their normal metabolic processes.
How Are You Exposed to Formaldehyde?
Exposure to formaldehyde can occur through various pathways, primarily through inhalation. Here are the ways in which people can be exposed to formaldehyde:
You can be exposed to formaldehyde when you use hair products that contain it. This exposure happens when you inhale the fumes while applying these products to your hair. It can continue as you use high-temperature blow dryers and flat irons on your hair, which can release more formaldehyde fumes.
Even if you’re at a hair salon, you might be exposed to formaldehyde when these products are used on other clients. The exposure continues until the product is washed out of the hair. Be cautious when doing certain hair straightening treatments at home because they can also carry a risk of formaldehyde exposure.
The most common way to come into contact with formaldehyde is by breathing it in. It’s naturally present in the air, both indoors and outdoors, but you usually find higher amounts of it indoors.
You can encounter formaldehyde through various sources, like car exhaust, products made from pressed wood that contains formaldehyde resins, and appliances that burn fuel without proper ventilation (like gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, or kerosene heaters).
Formaldehyde is also a part of cigarette smoke, so smoking is another source of exposure.
Additionally, some cosmetics and personal care products, such as lotions, shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, and certain nail polishes, may contain formaldehyde or chemicals that release it in small amounts. This can also contribute to your inhalation exposure to formaldehyde.
Absorbing formaldehyde through the skin is a substantial route of exposure. Contact with this chemical can induce a spectrum of reactions, ranging from minor irritation to severe allergic dermatitis. In concentrated formaldehyde solutions, the skin may display symptoms like discoloration, cracking, dryness, and scaling.
Extended or recurring exposure can potentially lead to outcomes such as numbness, hardening of the skin, or even changes in skin pigmentation.
Several factors influence the absorption of formaldehyde through the skin. Increased absorption is more likely when there is pre-existing dermatitis, acne or when the skin is broken or irritated.
Environmental factors such as high humidity and the size of the skin area exposed also impact the degree of skin absorption of formaldehyde. Be mindful of these factors and take appropriate precautions when handling formaldehyde to reduce the risk of skin-related health effects.
As the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes, when your eyes are exposed to formaldehyde vapors, it can lead to irritation and excessive tearing.
The impact can range from temporary discomfort and irritation when exposed to lower concentrations of formaldehyde solutions to more severe effects like clouding of the cornea and even vision loss with higher concentrations.
If formaldehyde comes into contact with your skin, it can cause irritation or trigger an allergic skin reaction. However, because the body processes formaldehyde quickly, severe effects throughout the body are unlikely after skin exposure.
It’s worth noting that children are more vulnerable to harmful substances that can be absorbed through the skin because, in relation to their body weight, they have a relatively larger skin surface area.
Formaldehyde and Cancer
The prolonged use of chemical hair straighteners and relaxers containing specific ingredients, like formaldehyde, has been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer.
To address the health concerns associated with hair straightening products, regulatory measures are being proposed to limit the use of formaldehyde in hair relaxers and hair-smoothing products.
As TorHoerman Law says, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering banning formaldehyde as an ingredient in these products, with a focus on those used for hair-smoothing and straightening. It’s important to note that these products are commonly used by Black women.
As a result of these health risks, legal actions, including lawsuits, are emerging. Hair straightener cancer lawsuit cases are being filed in state courts across the United States. Legal professionals from various regions are representing clients who have been negatively affected by these products.
The legal action is not confined to the United States, as evidenced by an international class action lawsuit filed in a Canadian court against L’Oréal. This global litigation underscores the need for increased scrutiny and regulation of such products.
Formaldehyde is a chemical compound found in many everyday products and industrial processes, but it has raised concerns about its impact on human health. It can be encountered through various means, including in building materials, textiles, and cosmetics, as well as in beauty treatments like hair straighteners.
Understanding how people can come into contact with formaldehyde is essential. Long-term use of certain hair products containing formaldehyde has been connected to a higher risk of certain cancers, like uterine cancer. This has led to calls for regulations to limit the use of formaldehyde in these products and legal actions to support affected individuals.
These developments emphasize the need for greater awareness, safety measures, and regulations to address the potential health risks associated with formaldehFormaldehyde’s Hazardous Impact on Human Health: What You Need to Know
yde in various industries and consumer goods.