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Formaldehyde, chemophobia, EWG and the MOST IMPORTANT THING to know about “toxic” stuff

written by Tara Haelle

This post is a bit of a mash-up in which I’m pulling together a couple of different topics I’ve been meaning to get to, and it just happens to be convenient to knock them all out at once.

First, a few months ago, the New York Times reported on Johnson & Johnson’s release of newly formulated personal care products – including baby shampoo – that no longer used the preservative quaternium-15, which releases minute amounts of formaldehyde as it breaks down. J&J’s decision was directly the result of a disingenuous, fear-mongering campaign by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to get the “toxic” and “cancer-causing” formaldehyde out of baby shampoo. (As we know, the best way to scare folks is to make it about the kids.)

It's the dose that makes the poison, and there simply is not enough formaldehyde in vaccines to cause any problems for humans.

It’s the dose that makes the poison, and there simply is not enough formaldehyde in vaccines to cause any problems for humans.

This whole thing annoyed me because I was well aware that the tiny amounts of formaldehyde released by the preservative in baby shampoo were hardly “toxic” if you consider that it would take 15 bottles of shampoo to expose a person to as much formaldehyde as exists in a single apple. The dose makes the poison, not the chemical itself (more on that in a bit). The hullabaloo surrounding formaldehyde in baby shampoo is just another example of “chemophobia,” or an irrational fear of “CHEMICALZ!” in our society (more on that shortly too).

So I wrote a lengthy piece at Slate about the irrational fear surrounding formaldehyde, given that it naturally occurs in our environment, our food and our bodies. It was a fear I was familiar with since I had created the now famous “pear meme” showing how little formaldehyde residue is in vaccines compared to what’s in a pear. I hope you’ll take the time to read that piece if you haven’t because I did an immense amount of research for it. In fact, I did so much research that the final article was about half as long as my first draft. And as I expected, I regretted what I had to cut out.

The section I most regretted cutting was the one in which I discussed EWG’s secondary reason for demanding that J&J remove the preservative from their products – the fact that formaldehyde can be an allergen. Indeed, studies have shown that formaldehyde-releasing preservatives in personal care products can cause skin irritation, as EWG’s senior scientist and toxicologist Johanna Congleton pointed out during our phone interview. Of course, *anything* – even water – can be an allergen, and it would therefore be impossible to create products with no potential to induce allergic reactions. However, allergic skin irritation in J&J products is a valid concern, especially if the 8-9% figure in that study is accurate for the US population. So why did I cut it?

I cut it because it detracted from the focus of the article, which really wasn’t about J&J and quaternium-15 at its heart. Rather, the article was really about blowing fears about chemicals out of proportion to the extent that we think they will kill us. EWG did not mount a massive campaign against J&J to remove an allergen. It would be intellectually dishonest to say so. Though formaldehyde as an allergen is mentioned in their materials, their scary headlines and bumper sticker calls-to-action all focused on formaldehyde as a toxic carcinogen. So that’s what I focused on.

What else was cut from my article? Nuance. So it often is with journalism written for a general audience. However, I received some valid criticism on Twitter from an environmental scientist and engineer who pointed out that I oversimplified, and potentially even misrepresented, what being a carcinogen means. It was a great Twitter discussion, and although I stand by my story, and although she and I both agree that the formaldehyde in J&J products poses no cancer threat to consumers, she wrote an excellent blog post discussing the nuance I couldn’t have addressed in my piece. I recommend you check it out. (She also points out the allergen concern which, as I told her on Twitter, I regretted having to cut.)

The overarching point of my piece, however, was that we humans often develop a visceral fear of something because we overestimate the risk it poses. I dip into the possible psychological mechanisms behind that fear in my piece, but I wanted to point out again, here, just how ubiquitous it is with chemicals. We saw it with Food Babe’s ridiculous campaign against the “yoga mat chemical” in Subway bread, and good ol’ Ms. Babe is at it again now, raising fears about “the anti-freeze ingredient.”

The thing is, just because we can’t pronounce something or it’s man-made doesn’t make it unsafe, and just because it’s “natural” sure as hell doesn’t make it safe. If you ever have any doubts about the myriad ways Mother Nature can kill you, take a vacation to Australia and sleep in the bush (or swim in the ocean). Above all, it’s impossible to avoid “chemicals.” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen someone claim they don’t use chemicals in their home, or that they want “chemical-free food” or “chemical-free products.” I’ve even seen products advertised as “chemical-free.”

Newsflash: our world is made of chemicals. WE are made of chemicals. Oxygen is a chemical. Water is a chemical. (And by the way, both can be toxic if you get too much of them, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) The only way you’re going to get free of chemicals is to find a way to get out into the vacuum of space – and even then YOU are a floating bag of chemicals, contaminating space with all the chemicals sloughing off your body. Until we cease to exist, we’re stuck with chemicals. (I’m unaware of any evidence regarding the soul’s chemical composition.) So it’s time to stop being terrified of them.

6brnsbgn-1400350417It’s hard not to be terrified, though, because we have organizations like EWG telling us all the things we should be terrified of, which is a frustrating shame. Once upon a time, EWG offered a wonderful public service. As a nonprofit organization, they served as a watchdog looking for unsafe levels of chemicals in our food and environment. They still claim to do this, but their words are nearly meaningless now. Somewhere along the line – not long after they created the infamous (and not-so-dirty) Dirty Dozen – they became too popular for their own good – at least that’s my guess – and realized the power of big, scary, sensationalistic headlines. Scary articles, especially in list form, grab attention.

But EWG has now become the equivalent of Chicken Little. When they make it sound as though baby shampoo that’s been used for more than five decades is going to cause cancer (despite their own Skin Deep database entry for the preservative listing it as not harmful carcinogenic), it’s hard to take them seriously. They even jumped on FoodBabe’s yoga mat bandwagon with the whopping 500 foods that contain the offending chemical. (At least NPR had a more nuanced take.)

[Edit: I deleted a paragraph here in which I stated that the Skin Deep database entry on quaternium-15 had changed from when I last viewed it (listing the preservative as harmful now but not harmful previously) because I could not find an image in the Wayback Machine to confirm it had changed, and I did not want to rely only on my memory.]

But their Skin Deep Cosmetics Database brings me to my final and most important point. When it comes to determining whether something is toxic, the absolute, hands-down, above-all MOST IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER is this: The dose makes the poison. If I could get the world to chant it with me, I would: the dose makes the poison the dose makes the poison the dose makes the poison. And by the way, the dose makes the poison. EWG’s Skin Deep database is next to useless because it does not take dosages into account. It ranks formaldehyde as a 10, its most harmful rating, despite the fact that our bodies and our foods contain formaldehyde. Now, formaldehyde most certainly can be harmful. It can cause cancer, and it can kill you – but only at a high enough dosage. Similarly, a single molecule of cyanide or arsenic is not going to kill a 200-lb man. But, if that 200-lb man drinks gallons and gallons water at one time, it can kill him. Oxygen can kill too, as any scuba diver will tell you.

So whenever you talk about chemicals or substances being toxic, you absolutely MUST consider the dose. Without discussing dosage, the whole conversation is pointless. Is mercury toxic? Well, how much are we talking about? Low enough amounts in fish are fine. Is aluminum toxic? Well, how much are we talking about? After all, there’s aluminum in breastmilk and baby formula.

We all know “the dose makes the poison” rationally – any cook is cautious with the salt – but taking it to heart can be another matter. So we have to police ourselves a little bit before we get carried away. When discussions about ingredients or chemicals or pharmaceuticals or supplements or the like comes up, before jumping to any conclusions, stop for a moment and think: what are we talking about? How much are we talking about? And what do we know about that amount of that stuff? Because after all, whether it’s formaldehyde in baby shampoo or oxygen in your scuba tank, it’s the dose that makes the poison.

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18 Responses to “Formaldehyde, chemophobia, EWG and the MOST IMPORTANT THING to know about “toxic” stuff”

  1. mybluerat

    The annoying thing about articles like this is they always use this tone like, ‘I am science and reason, you are all scaredy-cat housewife alarmist idiots who will believe anything’

    It’s true the dose makes the poison, but if you are dosed with toxic chemicals in small amounts constantly in everything from the water, to your food, to the air, to your cosmetics, to your shampoo, laundry detergent, fabric softener, cleaners- well those can all add up to a much larger dose and that is why people want to be educated about the amount of known toxic chemicals in common household items and try to minimize exposure when possible.

    Anyway, why do we need even a small dose of poison in baby shampoo? I buy Dr. Bronners castille soap, it is just soap and works fine. Does this make me ‘anti science’ and ‘anti progress’ ?

    As an aside, plus it really irritates me when they say this: Newsflash: our world is made of chemicals. WE are made of chemicals. Oxygen is a chemical. Water is a chemical.

    When people say we want to minimize chemical exposure, its FREAKING OBVIOUS we mean ‘KNOWN TOXIC CHEMICALS’ not like ‘every chemical including oxygen’. When writing an article such as this when the author pretends to not understand this distinction, it’s obviously intended to belittle and demean consumers who are just trying to be educated and protect their health and their families, and look down upon from a fabricated high horse of ‘educated scientist’

    • Tara Haelle

      By no means do I think I am superior in some way to others, and I’m not one of those who rants about all “those idiots.” There are many people who are misinformed or uninformed, and then they learn something and that’s that. My complaint is with those who *promote* the misinformation, such as Food Babe and Mike Adams at Natural News and Mercola. I don’t blame or mock ordinary people for their sincere ignorance (though yes, there are many who write about the topics I write about who do), especially when those people keep an open mind and keep reading, as most of my blog readers are and do.

      You are correct that *cumulative* exposure should concern us. That is why the EPA and other regulatory agencies take potential cumulative exposures into account when they set legal maximums, and most companies (I say most because there are no doubt the evil, unethical ones killing us with toxic levels of chemicals) use far less than those maximums. So the concern about cumulative exposure with the amounts I’m talking about in household products is a red herring, a trope. The amount of formaldehyde released in baby shampoo is about the amount (or less) than what’s in your breath. It’s not just a “small dose.” It’s so minuscule that it’s not worth discussing. As I noted in my Slate piece, it would take 40 million baths in a single day to reach the levels of formaldehyde set by California’s Proposition 65, which is INCREDIBLY conservative. So the accumulation argument in this case is not relevant.

      That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be concerned about with certain compounds in household products. Flame retardants are a concern. Lead exposure is most certainly a concern and still causes brain damage and death every year in the US. Large amounts of mercury exposure from fish is a concern. The runoff from the Mississippi in “cancer alley” is a concern. It’s possible there are some compounds in plastics that we need to be concerned about (though, so far, it doesn’t appear that BPA is one, but I’m supportive of the precautionary principle there). The problem is that when we pour our time and energy into campaigns about the chemicals we DON’T need to be concerned about – such as formaldehyde in personal care products, the “yoga mat chemical” in foods, etc. – then we divert our attention away from the other chemical and environmental exposures that we DO need to be concerned about or investigating.

      As far as your irritation when I point out that water and oxygen are chemicals, you would be surprised. I’m not pretending not to know anything — I have known MANY people who truly mean they want something “chemical-free” because they don’t understand what a chemical really is. (I’m also a former high school teacher, so I know where the science literacy deficits begin too.) Precision of language matters. If someone means they don’t want “toxic levels of chemicals” or “chemicals that have been linked to X, Y, Z in high enough amounts,” then that’s what they should say. The term “chemical-free” should not exist because the reality of chemical-free doesn’t exist. Science literacy matters, and I will continue to point out that EVERYTHING is made of chemicals as long as people continue to use imprecise language to say things they don’t really mean. I’m not belittling or demeaning anyone, and I’m not a scientist. I am educating and informing, which has always been my role as a journalist and teacher.

    • Emily

      “When people say we want to minimize chemical exposure, its FREAKING OBVIOUS we mean ‘KNOWN TOXIC CHEMICALS’ not like ‘every chemical including oxygen’. When writing an article such as this when the author pretends to not understand this distinction, it’s obviously intended to belittle and demean consumers who are just trying to be educated and protect their health and their families, and look down upon from a fabricated high horse of ‘educated scientist’”

      It is NOT obvious!!!!!! If you want to educate yourself, then stop using phrases that are scientifically illiterate. If you mean toxic chemicals, say TOXIC CHEMICALS!!!! You are the one on a god damn high horse if you, obviously intelligent enough to understand the distinction, insist on using WRONG WORDS in a supposed quest to educate yourself!!! Your very first assignment from all the chemists in the world in your endeavor to be educated is to STOP IT!!!!!!!!!!! STOP SAYING CHEMICALS WHEN YOU MEAN TOXIC CHEMICALS. Seriously, people like you WHO SHOULD FREAKING KNOW BETTER are driving us all crazy, so PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE STOP IT WITH THE CHEMICAL FREE, THE CHEMICAL BATH, CHEMICAL EXPOSURE, AND THE USE OF CHEMICALS FOR TOXIC CHEMICALS. It is TOTALLY COMPLETELY UTTERLY SINCERE WHENEVER SOMEONE WRITES TO TELL YOU THAT EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS WHEN YOU MISUSE THE WORD CHEMICALS. If you want the explanations of how everything is a chemical to stop, then YOU have to STOP misusing the word. YOU DO NOT GET TO REDEFINE WHAT THE WORD CHEMICAL MEANS!!!!!!!! STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP!!!!!! IT!!!!!

  2. Thank you for this! My own connection to the allergen issue: the worst allergic reaction my son ever had was to an lotion made by Burt’s Bees, a company that prides itself on its use of all natural ingredients. It took a doctor’s visit and a prescription steriod to get the rash under control.

    • Tara Haelle

      That’s interesting! Yes, the unfortunate and frustrating thing about allergens is that they can be anything. As too many people know, the horrific allergies that attack us throughout the seasons are usually caused by pollen, and it doesn’t get more natural than that. If – and only if – there was evidence that J&J products with Q-15 were causing more skin irritation than would be expected, then it was perfectly reasonable to ask the company to reformulate those products without the preservative. But I didn’t see that as EWG’s main call to action.

    • b

      Yep, this frequently happens to me. People recommend “natural” products over other options, and then I’m environmentally allergic to one or more of the ingredients. It’s one reason that Skin Deep database is very frustrating for me – the lack of allergen/cross-reaction information.
      I also discuss often how “organic” scientifically means made of carbon, which sounds a lot like the “chemical-free” statements this article mentions.

  3. I was watching a twitter party yesterday (UK based) which was promoting “chemical free” ways to clean your house. The company sponsoring it suggested using diluted vinegar or Bicarb so you could be chemical free. *face palm* They also claimed that 40% of allergies were caused by chemicals. Presumably, ultimately 100% of allergies are? I’m allergic to pollen, pretty sure that’s made of chemicals just like everything else!

    The really sad thing though was that this was encouraging people to share their scare stories and work themselves up into a state of fear, just to sell some expensive cloths.


  4. Margaret

    I think the real problem is that it’s too difficult for the average person to differentiate between chemicals of concern and those not of concern.

    As a scientist (but not a chemist), I am very much aware of how much we *don’t* know about many of the manufactured chemicals all around us. When I started looking into some the (not obscure) chemicals I use in my research, I discovered that for most of them, there were only tests done on lethality doses in mice. But are they carcinogens? Not evaluated. Do they disrupt fetal development? (I was pregnant at the time so it *mattered*.) Not evaluated.

    And so I use the precautionary principal as much as possible in my everyday life, because I just don’t have the time to go looking up studies on every product I come in contact with — and I don’t have faith that most of them are fully vetted. How do I know whether I should be concerned about formaldehyde or flame retardants or BPA? I don’t have time to research them. And I haven’t found any good sources that vet all the claims that come up in the popular media. So I avoid (as much as practical) based on precaution.

  5. Sybil Sanchez

    You mention the precautionary principle in your response above. If that were in place, this would all look a lot different. I get your point about EWG but where would you then direct discerning consumers who may be laypeople and ill-educated about science but want to make wise choices nonetheless?

    • Tara Haelle

      That’s a good question, and unfortunately I’ve had a hard time finding a reliable place myself. EWG did *used* to be that source. It’s unfortunate they’ve become less scientifically reliable because that is a role consumers need filled. That leaves consumers to have to piece together information pulled from various sources: FDA, CPSC, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, overseas regulatory info, and science-based blogs that rely on peer-reviewed evidence, such as Science-Based Medicine. I realize that’s not a great option, and it’s a hodge podge, but I’m not aware of another organization filling the role EWG once did in a way that’s scientifically accurate and reliable.

      • Sutton

        Tara, do you have an opinion on Good Guide?

        • Tara Haelle

          I actually had not heard of it until your comment. I just did a cursory look just now, and it actually – at a quick glance – looks pretty good. I looked up a couple quick products, skimmed their ingredient lists and what they said about it, and looked at their staff and scientists. So far, I’m impressed and planning to spend more time checking out the site. I can’t say I do or don’t trust it after such a brief skim, but I’m grateful you pointed it out to me!

  6. […] too, if you care to look around.) Somewhat related to vaccines, science writer Tara Haelle has gone into detail about chemophobia– or the fear of mostly harmless chemicals in everything from cosmetics, to vaccines, to food […]

  7. […] too, if you care to look around.) Somewhat related to vaccines, science writer Tara Haelle has gone into detail about chemophobia– or the fear of mostly harmless chemicals in everything from cosmetics, to vaccines, to food […]

  8. Richard

    When Paracelsus said that the dose makes the poison everyone presumes it means one thing. Too much of something is poisonous. While this is correct we are also forgetting the other end of the spectrum, too little of something is as bad if not worse for us. Little to no sunlight results in Vitamin D deficiency, little to no salt and the body will cramp and not function properly etc… When strapping words of wisdom to ‘memes’ we should perhaps take time to think about the wisdom itself before trying to affect others views on the matter.

  9. I love this site! I am also on a quest to beat chemophobia and to demystify the food science behind some of the scare stories out there. My mantra is “the dosage makes the difference” (thank you, Paracelsus). This image and site will be referenced at

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