Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that's commonly found in homes, offices, and nail and hair salons. It's a volatile organic compound (VOC), meaning it can off-gas chemicals and compromise air quality over time.
Formaldehyde is found naturally in the environment and isn't a threat in low doses. However, it can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, and throat1 in high amounts, and the National Toxicology Program has declared that formaldehyde is "known to be a human carcinogen" and can increase the likelihood of certain cancers. With this in mind, you'll want to limit your exposure to formaldehyde at home when possible. Here are some are common places formaldehyde is found and a few formaldehyde-free alternatives:
Formaldehyde has long been used to stiffen fabrics, so there's a chance that sheets labeled "wrinkle-free," "easy care," or "permanent press" have been treated with it.
Consider steering clear of them and opting for untreated organic options instead. Here's a list of mbg's favorite sheets that you can feel good spending eight hours a day curled up on.
"The majority of mattresses on the market are made from polyurethane foam based on petroleum chemicals, so it can off-gas volatile organic compounds, which can cause respiratory irritation, skin irritation, etc.," Environmental Working Group senior scientist and co-author of the group's Healthy Living Home Guide Tasha Stoiber previosly told mbg.
The EWG's top choice is mattresses made from 100 percent natural latex foam, which is extracted from rubber trees and isn't treated with as many chemicals as polyurethane during manufacturing.
Formaldehyde is often part of the glue that holds particle board together, making it fairly common in lower-quality furniture, including tables, chairs, dressers, bed frames, and couches. The best way to avoid formaldehyde in your furniture is to eschew particle-board furniture altogether, opting instead for anything labeled "real wood."
IKEA has some good low-formaldehyde options, and antiques stores also tend to be great sources of real wood furniture. Even if they're made from particle board, older pieces will have already off-gassed some of their formaldehyde compounds. Plus, it's better for the environment to keep these pieces in use rather than buying new ones.
Similar to sheets, clothing is sometimes treated with formaldehyde to become "wrinkle-resistant" or "stain-free."
Avoid clothing with these designations and opt for natural, organic fabrics instead (think: cotton, hemp, wool, and linen over nylon and polyester). You can also buy used clothing, which is far less likely to off-gas chemicals and is better for the environment.
Short of embracing your natural hair texture, there's not much you can do about the straightening issue—nobody has developed a truly eco-friendly way to change hair texture yet. For nail polish, though, there are tons of bright, trendy colors in "five-, seven-, or nine-free" (referencing the number of chemicals excluded) formulations. Check out some of our favorite clean polishes here.
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Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.