Practicing good hygiene and washing your hands with soap can help get rid of bacteria and grime, helping you fend off illness. But what if the hand soap you’re using is slowly releasing a toxic carcinogen over time? Could your good intentions actually backfire on you?

Little girl washing her hands

What to Look Out for

The ingredients you want to be cautious of are formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, SLS, parabens, triclosan, PEG compounds, fragrance, and color additives.

I wanted to discuss formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs), which you’ll find in soap, lotion, hair gel, nail polish, and cosmetics. The 5 most common FRPs are DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, bronopol, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea, which is what you should look for on ingredient labels. These preservatives help prevent bacteria from growing in water-based products, but they also release small amounts of formaldehyde over time. The longer you’ve stored it and the higher the temperature, the more formaldehyde will be released. Diazolidinyl urea releases the most formaldehyde, while quaternium-15 is the most sensitizing, so these are two you’ll definitely want to steer clear of.

What’s wrong with formaldehyde?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program classify formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. The National Cancer Institute reviewed epidemiologic data from studies and experimental data from lab research, concluding that formaldehyde exposure may cause leukemia, specifically myeloid leukemia, in humans. The investigators mostly looked at people who are exposed to formaldehyde in their workplace, like embalmers and anatomists. Several studies also show an association between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer.

formaldehyde danger

FRPs can also be skin irritants and contact allergens. Case in point, the American Contact Dermatitis Society awarded formaldehyde “Allergen of the Year” in 2015.

How does formaldehyde enter our bodies? It can either be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Besides being found in personal care products, formaldehyde is all around us–in cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, fuel-burning appliances, wrinkle-resistant clothing, diet sodas (aspartame is metabolized to formaldehyde), and even fruits and vegetables. And yes, the exposure from these sources is definitely much greater than from say, a hand soap.

There are strict regulations regarding the use of FRPs in Japan (banned) and the European Union, but not in the United States. However, companies are beginning to take note of consumer’s concerns, warranted or not. By the end of 2013, Johnson & Johnson’s stopped using FRPs in their line of baby products. This goes to show that consumers have the power to sway companies and change the products they put on store shelves.

Johnson and Johnson's baby products

So, what can you do to lower your exposure to formaldehyde?

Avoid personal care products that use FRPs. At the very least, don’t use expired products, and keep them away from sun exposure. As far as reducing the levels of formaldehyde in your home, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends the use of “exterior-grade” pressed wood products. Pressed wood products include plywood, particleboard, and paneling. Before purchasing these products, make sure you ask about the formaldehyde content. It’s also important to ensure adequate ventilation in your home and reduce humidity levels by using air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

Hand Soap I Like

south of france hand soap

South of France Hand Wash

Why I Like It: This is a great natural hand soap, which follows a traditional Marseille recipe. They use a blend of vegetable oils, coconut oil, and aloe vera. You can choose from a variety of scents, including lavender fields, green tea, climbing wild rose, and lemon verbena.


Alaffia Everyday Shea Hand Soap

Alaffia Everyday Shea Soap

Why I Like It: Another great natural hand soap, Alaffia Everyday Shea is fair trade certified. All sales of their products contribute to empowerment projects to help break the cycle of poverty in Togo. They offer scents like honeysuckle, mandarin mango, peppermint tingle, and vanilla passion.

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