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Formaldehyde in cosmetic products

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Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring organic compound that nearly every living animal and plant produces at various levels through the living process. Formaldehyde is an important building block in the production of some of the most popular consumer items, as a medical preservative for human tissue and organs, and in household and industrial products.

Low levels of formaldehyde can be found in many consumer products including cosmetics and personal care products like shampoos and conditioners, shower gels, liquid hand soaps, cream cleansers, skin moisturisers, toothpastes, nail hardeners, eyelash glues, and hair straightening solutions.

Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde does not present a health concern; however, exposure to cosmetics containing excessive levels of formaldehyde is a safety concern, especially when used directly on people’s hair and skin.


The adverse health effects associated with high levels of exposure to formaldehyde in cosmetic products includes:

  • sensory irritation
  • skin sensitisation
  • breathing difficulties
  • asthma, and
  • can cause cancer in circumstances where there is chronic high exposure. 

Formaldehyde has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organisation International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a chemical known to cause cancer in humans.
Other names for formaldehyde include Formalin; Morbicid Acid; Methylene Oxide; Methylaldehyde and Methylene Glycol.


In 2010, the ACCC undertook a survey in collaboration with the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) to test formaldehyde levels in a range of cosmetic products.  The outcome of the survey resulted in voluntary safety recalls of a number of cosmetic products whose formaldehyde levels exceeded the safe limits set through the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons (Poisons Standard).

In Australia, the maximum safe limit for free formaldehyde in cosmetics is 0.2 per cent.  Note: different formaldehyde limits apply for nail hardeners and oral preparations (5 per cent).  This limit is based on a comprehensive expert risk assessment undertaken by NICNAS, the federal regulatory body responsible for industrial chemicals.  Cosmetic products that exceed these limits are hazardous and would be non-compliant with relevant State and Territory legislation.

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