High Levels Of Formaldehyde Found In Personal Care Products, Reports Washington State

December 15, 2023

Today we received the WE ACT Updates newsletter with a link to a new report released yesterday by the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology).

The report found high levels of formaldehyde in cosmetics and personal care products marketed to people of color.

The report findings were presented at a legislative hearing of the House Environment and Energy Committee on a new bill sponsored by Rep. Sharlett Mena—the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047)—which would ban formaldehyde, PFAS, lead, and other harmful chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products by 2025.

“This bill will simply prevent toxics from going into cosmetics,” stated Rep. Sharlett Mena (D-Tacoma). “We’re talking about forever chemicals like PFAS, we’re talking about lead, we’re talking about formaldehyde. Essentially we are talking about things that there is no safe amount to be putting on your face, or in your body, or in the environment,” she added.

Ecology collaborated with the Washington State Department of Health to test 50 low-cost products purchased in Washington, including some more likely to be used by people of color, such as lipstick, skin lotions, foundation marketed for people with darker skin tones, and hair products labeled as containing a formaldehyde release.

According to the Ecology report, testing found formaldehyde in 24 products above 200 parts per million (ppm), which is “high enough to cause allergic reactions in some individuals.” Ecology detected formaldehyde in items including children’s products such as a spray detangler and well-known products such as Olay Firming Night Cream. All of the styling gels and creams tested at more than 200 ppm formaldehyde.

Ecology’s tests also detected lead at concentrations greater than 1 ppm in two dark-tint powder foundations and one lipstick, despite there being no safe amount of lead according to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO).

“I learned from this study that a styling gel containing formaldehyde—and at the highest concentration in the study— has been used on my own teenage daughter’s hair,” said Erika Schreder, Toxic-Free Future’s science director. “We can’t allow companies to keep putting chemicals we know cause cancer in products we use on our hair and skin, especially when they are products used heavily by people of color. This legislation is urgently needed to protect people who use these products frequently, as well as the stylists and professionals who use them day in and day out.”

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Studies have shown that women of color are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals in cosmetics. A recent study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology discusses the environmental justice of beauty and states that people of color use more beauty products and are disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals as compared to white women, with Black consumers purchasing nine times more ethnic hair and beauty products than other groups. 

“Black consumers use more personal care products … than any other demographic…”

“Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Even low-level exposure can lead to adverse health effects, including death,” said Yuwa Vosper, policy and regulatory manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “And Black consumers use more personal care products daily than any other demographic, which means they are more at risk for these adverse health effects.

Cosmetics and other personal care products should not contain toxic chemicals, and consumers deserve to understand the harm that some of their everyday products may contain to make the best purchasing decisions.”

Related: Address high Formaldehyde levels in personal care products reported by Washington State by taking action.

The Ecology report also describes the use of chemicals that are largely unregulated in skin lotions, hair conditioning treatments and styling gels, lip and eye makeup, and deodorant, including some linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and developmental and reproductive harm.

For more information on the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act please visit Toxic-Free Future.

Report findings from Washington State Department of Ecology

Toxic-Free Future

Toxic-Free Future (TFF) is a national leader in environmental health research and advocacy. Through the power of science, education, and activism, Toxic-Free Future drives strong laws and corporate responsibility that protect the health of all people and the planet.

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