Is Formaldehyde Toxic? Your Questions Answered

By Marilee Nelson |

Is Formaldehyde Toxic? Your Questions Answered

Most people don’t realize that formaldehyde is found in dozens of modern household products.

This means most of us are exposed to low levels of toxic formaldehyde every single day,

In this article, we’re arming you with critical information you need to understand formaldehyde’s use in household products, including: 

  • What it is
  • What it’s used for (and in)
  • Why it’s so dangerous
  • And how to avoid it in cleaning, personal care, and other household products.

We’ll also include a link with information on 23 common sources of formaldehyde in the home to help you toss the formaldehyde toxins and create a safer and healthier home.

What Is Formaldehyde? 

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas at room temperature and has a strong odor. 

It is a VOC (volatile organic compound) that occurs in nature and our bodies in very small amounts. It is also chemically synthesized in higher concentrations for industry use.

As previously mentioned, most people know the smell of formaldehyde from the strong scent emitted from furniture made of particle board.

For example, if you’ve ever walked through a furniture store stocked with inexpensive wood furniture made of MDF (medium density fiberboard) or particle board, that off-putting smell was formaldehyde.

Per the Environmental Protection Agency and numerous studies, exposure to formaldehyde may cause adverse health effects, including cancer and chemical sensitization. 

We’ll discuss more about the dangers of formaldehyde exposure coming up.

What Is Formaldehyde Used For? 

Formaldehyde exposure is common because it’s a very effective preservative and pesticide.

From wood products like plywood and engineered woods used in building, MDF, plywood, or particle board used in furniture, and wrinkle-free clothing to personal care and cleaning products, formaldehyde is used in many industries, typically unbeknownst to the consumer. 

This is why the highest levels of formaldehyde are found inside our homes, offices, and schools, where products containing man-made formaldehyde are used daily.

Fortunately, you can quickly reduce your household exposure with what you’re learning in this article. 

The following is a list of where formaldehyde is found in common household products: [Sources: 1, 2, 3]

  • Air fresheners and fragrance plug-ins
  • Baby wipes - Note: these may contain formaldehyde-based preservatives, also known as formaldehyde donors. See “Skin and body care products” below for a list of ingredients to watch out for.
  • Building materials and insulation
  • Carpet cleaners
  • Cigarettes and e-cigarettes/vapes
  • Cleaning products
  • Composite wood products (particle board, plywood, and medium-density fiberboard)
  • Dishwasher detergent
  • Disinfectants
  • Essential oils containing terpenes for those in areas with ozone alerts: 
  • Fabric softener
  • Food
  • Fumigants
  • Glues
  • Lacquers
  • Nail polish
  • Paints and coatings
  • Paper products, including toilet paper and paper towels
  • Pesticides (household and industrial)
  • Permanent press fabrics and upholstery (wrinkle-free, easy-care)
  • Skin and body care products
    • These contain formaldehyde-based preservatives, also known as formaldehyde donors. Watch out for ingredients such as:
      • Diazolidinyl urea
      • Imidazolidinyl urea
      • DMDM hydantoin
      • Quaternium-15
      • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (most commonly known as bronopol),
      • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate

For more information on sources of formaldehyde in the home, see: 23 Sources Of Formaldehyde To Remove From Your Home Starting Right Now.

Why Is Formaldehyde Dangerous? + Health Implications

As previously mentioned, formaldehyde is a toxic cancer-causing chemical, which is enough reason to avoid it as much as possible.

It’s also a chemical sensitizer, meaning that exposure can enhance a person’s sensitivity to all chemicals.

Short- and long-term exposure to formaldehyde fumes can also create various unpleasant symptoms such as: [Sources: 1, 2, 3]

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Chest pains
  • Depression
  • Disorientation
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Itchy and/or burning eyes and nose
  • Joint pains
  • Laryngitis/hoarseness
  • Mental confusion
  • Nose bleeds
  • Rashes
  • Respiratory difficulties nausea 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Universal sensitization - many extremely chemically sensitive people have been injured from formaldehyde exposure by working in newly built office buildings, living in new trailer houses, or new homes.
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

Per the EPA, the major toxic effects caused by acute formaldehyde exposure via inhalation are eye, nose, and throat irritation and impact on the nasal cavity. Ingestion of formaldehyde has resulted in corrosion of the gastrointestinal tract and inflammation and ulceration of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach.

In addition, animal studies have reported effects on the nasal respiratory epithelium and lesions in the respiratory system from chronic inhalation exposure to formaldehyde.

And studies suggest an increased incidence of menstrual disorders in female workers using urea-formaldehyde resins. More research is needed.

Bottom line: man-made formaldehyde is a dangerous, highly toxic chemical ubiquitous in American households.

The prevalence of formaldehyde is a prime example of how we cannot presume any product is safe just because it’s for sale in the United States. 

Anyone can look up the harmful effects of formaldehyde. Yet numerous companies knowingly use it in products made for families, and even those for babies. 

It is truly up to us to educate ourselves on what we bring into our homes and to be our own product advocates.

Environmental Implications Of Formaldehyde

As discussed previously, there is a man-made synthetic formaldehyde and naturally occurring formaldehyde.

Naturally occurring formaldehyde is found in trees, vegetation, fruits, and vegetables. It is also made in tiny amounts, usually less than .03 ppm, in animals and humans and is not harmful to health.

However, man-made formaldehyde is no friend of the environment.

For example:

Formaldehyde also reacts with other environmental chemicals, which produce other toxic gasses, pollutants, and by-products.

Obviously, we cannot control the levels of formaldehyde produced by industry that harm the environment.

However, we, the people, have tremendous power to reduce the amount of formaldehyde-containing products that are washed down our drains and blown out our windows. 

Next, we’ll look at how to reduce our formaldehyde footprint for healthier air quality indoors and outdoors.

How To Clean Without Using Formaldehyde 

Formaldehyde is a common chemical preservative used in cleaning, laundry, and dishwashing products.

Therefore, we can automatically reduce our exposure by choosing non-toxic and natural cleaning products such as:

Baking Soda

Baking soda is an incredible non-toxic bleach alternative, scouring agent, deodorizer, and natural cleaner.

We love it for cleaning tile grout, as a drain cleaner, mixing up with castile soap to create soft scrubbing cleaner, for laundry, as a stain remover, and even as a natural teeth whitener and deodorant.

Get more tips on harnessing the power of baking soda in: Cleaning With Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate): 12 Surprising Uses.

Vinegar

Plain distilled white vinegar is a staple for non-toxic cleaning.

Vinegar can be used to clean your bathroom, kitchen, or tile floor, as a produce wash, a descaler, a fabric softener, washing dishes, removing stains, and so much more.

It also has sanitizing properties and has been shown to effectively kill E. Coli, salmonella, and listeria. This is why it’s a staple in our non-toxic disinfecting protocol.

Note: Although vinegar is a natural product, spraying it can make it airborne, releasing acetic acid, a respiratory irritant. Ventilate when cleaning!

Therefore, if you’re sensitive, have a respiratory condition, have babies or young children in the house, etc., opt for another of these non-toxic cleaning options.

Related read: 12 Ways To Use Vinegar In Your Home.

Branch Basics 

All Branch Basics products (Concentrate, Oxygen Boost, Dishwasher Tablets, and Gel Hand Soap) were created using the most non-toxic ingredients and absolutely ZERO formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing chemical preservatives. 

Branch Basics products are EWG-verified, Made Safe Certified, not tested on animals/cruelty-free, and safe for pets, babies, children, and the chemically sensitive.

Our all-in-one natural and non-toxic cleaning system was designed to replace every single cleaning and laundry product in your home with just one Concentrate plus optional Oxygen Boost.

Learn more about what’s in Branch Basics and why our products are safe in: Is Branch Basics Safe? Your Questions Answered.

Check out Branch Basics Starter Kits, which have everything you need to replace every toxic cleaning product in your home,

Formaldehyde FAQs 

You already have all the information you need to identify and make informed decisions about products containing formaldehyde.

However, this is a big topic, so let’s answer some FAQs.

Is Formaldehyde A Carcinogen? 

100% yes. 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the National Toxicology Program have both classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

Why is it still in so many products that are marketed as safe? We wish we knew, as this is unacceptable.

Is Formaldehyde Banned? 

Some people believe formaldehyde was banned because certain types of formaldehyde, such as urea foam formaldehyde found in insulation, were banned in the 1970s

Formaldehyde exposure levels are also regulated in factories where everyday exposure is potentially problematic.

Thankfully, incentives to reduce formaldehyde in building materials are catching on. For example, exterior grade plywood, instead of high formaldehyde OSB (oriented strand board), can be substituted for exterior sheathing in homes. Also, OSB and plywood manufacturers are offering more and more products that have been tested and certified to contain lower formaldehyde emissions than standard. 

However, other types are still alive and well and are used in all the household products covered here.

How Do I Stay Safe From Formaldehyde? 

Our mission with this article and everything we publish isn’t to scare, paralyze, or alarm but to empower you to reduce exposure to toxins and create a healthier home.

Does that mean we have to face the facts? It does. Knowledge and acting on it is power!

However, the truth is we are all fully capable of avoiding these harmful toxins and creating a safe haven at home.

Does that mean we can control every bit of formaldehyde we’re exposed to? No, we can’t.

However, we can absolutely stop bringing formaldehyde-containing products into our homes.

The best way to reduce your exposure to formaldehyde is to avoid using the above mentioned products and in: 23 Sources Of Formaldehyde To Remove From Your Home Starting Right Now.

A great place to start is by switching from toxic to non-toxic cleaning and laundry products.

We also recommend: 

Learn more about improving indoor air quality in your home in: Better Air Means Better Health: Enhance Your Immunity by Improving Indoor Air Quality.

Learn How To Toss The Toxins With Branch Basics 

Congratulations! You now have the knowledge and tools to drastically reduce your indoor air quality by eliminating the formaldehyde toxins in your home.

Interested in learning more about how to create a safe and healthy home by identifying and removing other harmful chemicals?

It’s not as hard as you think, and it can make a dramatic difference to your health and that of your children, family members, and pets.

That’s why we created our Toss The Toxins online course

This self-paced course 

 guides you step-by-step,  to identify products with harmful ingredients, place them in a box, and take them out of your living space. This act of removal immediately improves the air quality in your home.  We don’t ask you to throw anything away, we just want you to experience a home with better air quality. Many people experience quick improvement in symptoms and well-being.  We just don’t realize how much these products impact us until they are removed. 

We also teach you to be your own product expert so you can choose truly healthy, non-toxic options. 

Check out a preview of the course and see video testimonials here.

We also invite you to explore our blog, listen to our Podcasts, and follow us on Instagram for more tips on creating a healthier, low-tox home and lifestyle.

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.