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What are the Effects of Formaldehyde Exposure?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Formaldehyde is found in a number of products. While most of these products contain a relatively low amount of the compound, others have a fairly strong concentration of formaldehyde. This is particularly true with products used in the course of scientific research and other professions where tissue is preserved in some manner. Formaldehyde exposure can lead to side effects that range from mild to life-threatening.

Many experts choose to classify various types of formaldehyde exposure into two different categories. Acute exposure is understood to be limited exposure that results in side effects that are short-term and usually easy to treat. By contrast, chronic exposure to formaldehyde involves situations where the individual is exposed on a regular basis to the compound and has developed symptoms that are long-term and may even lead to permanent health issues.

Among the acute effects of formaldehyde are irritations of the eyes, the nose, and the throat. When exposed to the compound for an appreciable length of time, the throat may feel raw and sore. At the same time, the eyes may begin to feel as if there is something grainy resting against each eyeball. Like the throat, the interior area of the nose may begin to feel raw and somewhat sore. Coughing and some trouble breathing may also be present until the individual is removed from the area where the formaldehyde is in use.

With chronic formaldehyde exposure, constant exposure can lead to the development of all the effects of acute exposure, but go far beyond them. Along with irritation of the nose, eyes, and throat, the respiratory system may be negatively impacted, leading to pain when attempting to breathe. If not treated in a timely manner, the exposure can lead to the creation of lesions in the respiratory system and cause damage to the lungs that may or may not be reversible.

People with a formaldehyde allergy are also likely to develop severe skin rashes when coming into contact with the substance. The skin may appear burned, develop welts, or become dry and cracked, depending on the severity of the allergic reaction. Prompt attention to the reaction must take place in order to prevent the possibility of scarring.

There is also some evidence that constant formaldehyde exposure increases the chances of developing certain forms of cancer. In particular, the incidence of lung and nose cancer appears to be significantly higher among people who regularly come in contact with formaldehyde. This has led many countries to establish guidelines that set what is considered a maximum amount of exposure on a daily basis. At present, there is no universal maximum in place across the world, although many countries utilize a figure of 0.2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

In some cases, formaldehyde exposure can lead to death. Professionals who make use of the substance as part of their work often wear protective clothing, including breathing masks, in order to safeguard against this possibility. Devices are used to monitor the indoor air quality in labs and other settings where formaldehyde is used regularly. When an unsafe level of formaldehyde emissions is found to be present, it is not unusual for the area to be vacated while the space is ventilated.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including The Health Board, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon998575 — On Jul 07, 2017

I bought some white socks and some underwear. I took them out of the packages and my lips and tongue became numb. I've washed them four times and I am now washIng them with baking soda. I read online from someone that worked at Old Navy that she would come home and wash her hands in baking soda because of the formaldehyde that she was exposed to during the day on the clothing.

By anon992295 — On Aug 28, 2015

Well I just found out that the FEMA trailers from Hurricane Katrina are saturated in formaldehyde and I not only one, but lived in it for four and a half years. Also, now my daughter and grandchild are now living in it. Is that considered long term exposure? Since then I have been diagnosed with COPD.

By ladyblue — On May 20, 2014

@anon944271: I highly doubt that the symptoms you are experiencing are from formaldehyde off-gassing from your towels. For one thing, towels are highly unlikely to be treated with formaldehyde; the most common fabric offenders are "no-iron" clothes for which people are willing to pay a premium for wrinkle-resistance. (The main reason to wash towels before you use them is to remove sizing and other -- usually harmless --substances used to help fibers maintain their shape during the manufacturing process. These substances can interfere with the absorbency of your towels, and in very sensitive people, cause mild rashes.) Your rash may be from something on those towels, and if you have extreme chemical sensitivity, the breathing symptoms might as well. But I would bet a large sum of money that it *isn't* formaldehyde.

As you can see from the cosmetologists also commenting on this article, long-term exposure is the culprit in formaldehyde-caused breathing problems. Occasionally someone can be exposed to such high levels in a very short period of time that one incident can cause these, but trust me, you would know if that had happened. Today I spent about half an hour in the embalming room with tears rolling down my cheeks from exposure to really high levels of this chemical, and yeah, I had the burning eyes, the sore throat, all of that, but three hours later, I'm fine. The long-term carcinogenic effects? Well, who knows? This job is short-term, thank goodness, and I'm knowingly taking my chances.

By anon944271 — On Apr 06, 2014

I bought some new towels over the weekend, and made the mistake of not washing them before use. Since using them I have been terribly itchy and having difficulty breathing (I don't have asthma).

Apparently, using formaldehyde in towels, sheets, etc., is very common to make them crease resistant and stop and mold, etc., from forming on them. My mother always told me to wash towels before using them, that it gets rid of the chemicals as well as making them more absorbent. I should have known better. Mothers are always right!

By anon933251 — On Feb 15, 2014

@anon89042: In response to your post, did you mean this?:

Hanna Instruments HI3838 Formaldehyde test kit, 110 tests

They are available for sale at many places, but I found one on ebay for $65:

By anon304993 — On Nov 23, 2012

What shampoo is really free of formaldehyde?

By anon253630 — On Mar 10, 2012

Sadly, my life will never be the same. I did keratin on about 10 clients and have been so sick and my lungs have been damaged and I fear that I will get cancer. I hope the company is happy with itself. What greedy jerks they are. I don't recommend it for anyone. I am very sad and depressed.

By anon247366 — On Feb 13, 2012

Did you know formaldehyde is in many of the vaccines we use today? Funny how there's no research about the side effects of intra-muscular injection of the chemical.

By anon180905 — On May 27, 2011

i am also a hairdresser and feel duped and lied to from these hideous companies using us as mules to make their money and get out as they get rich and we get sick! Shame on them, i have had hair loss for three years after performing this service. So sorry i believed the strangers in our industry! signed, Going bald and crying.

By anon170256 — On Apr 25, 2011

I'm a hairstylist and just found out the Keratin treatment we were using has formaldehyde in it. Most all of us have had all the symptoms listed. A recent blood test showed my red blood cell count was low. the doctor said to get b12. I researched and found out exposure to toxic chemicals can cause this, and/ or leukemia.

By jeffcardarel — On Apr 16, 2011

To learn more about proper ventilation control measures for hair smoothing services, look up the Aerovex Systems 3 Zone Ventilation Video.

By anon161053 — On Mar 18, 2011

My husband purchased a pair of slippers that were easy for him to put on. After wearing them for a almost week, his feet have become inflamed and severely itchy almost driving him insane. I think there maybe be Formaldehyde in the material that the slippers were made of. Is this possible?

The main area of discomfort is where the slippers went around the instep down to the side of his feet. But irritation has spread. Does anyone know if this could be the problem? They were made in China and I remember a while back about warnings of this substance being in blankets, etc.

By anon150159 — On Feb 07, 2011

I hear there is formaldehyde in glass fiber insulation. Would an installer of this product be at risk of lung lesions or cancer?

By anon143206 — On Jan 15, 2011

Just wondering if there's a link between formaldehyde exposure and hypothyroidism?

I worked for over 13 years in a textile setting, handling material all day. We never knew the material had been treated with formaldehyde until the year we shut down.

I ended up with hypothryroidism and lots of health problems.

By anon129506 — On Nov 23, 2010

Definitely not phenolphthalein. Though i don't recall the name. Drager tubes are used to test for it and the instructions explain the reaction. Just buy the tubes if you're willing to spend the money.

By anon124264 — On Nov 05, 2010

that sounds a bit like phenolphthalein, its an indicator used to show the change in pH. I've used it in chemistry lots. not sure about its price though but hopefully that could help jog your memory.

By anon120871 — On Oct 22, 2010

To all people who go to salons: The keratin hair treatments contain formaldehyde. There has been research done that all keratin hair treatments that are made in the USA all contain formaldehyde even if it says formaldehyde-free.

There are other ways to get smooth and healthy hair. Please don't risk your health to follow this fad.

By anon120354 — On Oct 20, 2010

I am a cosmetologist and just recently found out about a product that I have been exposed to that contains formaldehyde. It has caused frequent nose bleeds and a cough. I will discontinue use of the product but many other stylists are not. Be careful.

By anon90214 — On Jun 15, 2010

i have been a cosmetologist for 27 years and just found out why i have had arm and hand rashes and headaches, violent coughing, dizziness and allergies, sore throats and bronchitis all the time.

I have been using formaldehyde, which is used to clean and wash combs and spray on equipment in salons where i have worked. i have developed bad lungs from inhaling the stuff in the salon constantly and touching it, and i never knew why i started getting sicker and sicker.

I went from a healthy, thin woman to an overweight and sick person gradually from this exposure, and never knew what it was until i got fed up and started researching my symptoms and realized it was right under my nose, at my workplace.

I ust wanted to make you aware.

By anon89042 — On Jun 08, 2010

Does anyone know about a formaldehyde test that is a clear liquid in which a drop can be put on anything to determine if there is formaldehyde out gassing?

I used this nearly 20 years ago to determine the source of my overexposure, which was confirmed in a blood test. When a drop was placed on something it would go from clear to dark purple, depending on the severity of the out gassing.

If there was no formaldehyde present it would stay clear. I don't remember what that chemical was or where I got it and am having no luck researching it. It was very inexpensive. Anyone know about this? Thank you.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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