Risks of Formaldehyde Exposure

A Chemical Widely Used in Industrial Manufacturing and a Known Carcinogen

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas at room temperature. It has a distinct odor, sometimes described as smelling like pickles.

Small amounts of formaldehyde are produced naturally by animals, plants, and humans. The chemical is also used in many building materials and as a preservative in household products. Most people don’t experience health problems when exposed to low levels of formaldehyde. However, even low amounts can irritate the eyes, throat, nose, airways, and skin in sensitive skin.

Exposure to very high levels of formaldehyde for many years has been linked to more serious medical problems, including a greater risk of cancer.

This article discusses where formaldehyde comes from, toxicity levels, and the link to cancer.

A man holding a cigarette in his hands

SimpleImages / Getty Images

Where Formaldehyde Comes From

Formaldehyde occurs naturally in the body of living organisms and in some foods. It’s also a byproduct of combustion. The chemical is produced when burning natural gas, gasoline, wood, kerosene, or tobacco. Additionally, formaldehyde is used in various industries to make materials or to preserve certain products.

People are exposed to formaldehyde mainly by inhaling it. Products that contain formaldehyde can release the chemical as a gas or vapor into the air. Formaldehyde can also be absorbed through the skin or consumed through foods and drinks.

Formaldehyde Sources

Formaldehyde is commonly found in:

  • Glues and adhesives
  • Pressed-wood products (plywood, particleboard, and fiberboard)
  • Insulation materials
  • Fertilizers
  • Antiseptics, medicines
  • Cosmetics
  • Cleaning products
  • Smoke from cigarettes, gas stoves, or open fireplaces

Even if a product doesn’t use formaldehyde as an ingredient, it could contain substances that release the chemical. This is sometimes the case for products such as soaps, cosmetics, shampoos, and sunscreens.

Who Is Exposed to Formaldehyde?

Professionals who may be at risk for formaldehyde exposure include:

  • Construction workers
  • Agricultural workers
  • Workers who manufacture plastics, resins, or foam insulation
  • Beauticians
  • Morticians

Is Formaldehyde Exposure Dangerous?

The level of exposure depends upon the dose, duration of time spent around it, and the work being done. Research suggests that formaldehyde is not harmful at low levels, but even low levels can trigger unwanted symptoms in some individuals. Exposure to higher amounts of the chemical, especially over a long period, can lead to more profound negative health consequences.

According to the National Cancer Institute, when formaldehyde is present in the air at levels higher than 0.1 parts per million (ppm), some people can experience side effects, such as:

Are Some People Extra Sensitive to Formaldehyde?

Some people may be more sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde, including very young children, older people, and those with asthma or other breathing problems.

Formaldehyde and Cancer Link

Exposure to formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer in animals. Some research also suggests that exposure to high amounts of formaldehyde in the workplace may be linked to some types of cancer in humans, but it’s unclear whether exposure to smaller amounts can increase that risk.

Studies in humans have shown an association between formaldehyde exposure and cancer of the nasal sinuses and the nasopharynx (the hollow tube connecting the nasal passages to the rest of the respiratory system). Other studies suggest workers exposed to high levels of formaldehyde, such as embalmers and certain medical professionals, may have an increased chance of developing leukemia.

Based on the existing evidence, some national and international agencies have concluded the health risks of formaldehyde, which include:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labels formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen.” A carcinogen is a cancer-causing substance.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), lists formaldehyde as “carcinogenic to humans.”
  • The National Toxicology Program (NTP), which includes government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says formaldehyde is “known to be a human carcinogen.” 

How to Reduce Formaldehyde Exposure 

You can reduce exposure to formaldehyde by avoiding products that contain the chemical and not allowing smoking in your home. It is also recommended to use exterior-grade pressed-wood products to limit formaldehyde exposure.

If you purchase products containing formaldehyde, there are some ways to lessen your exposure, which include:

  • Remove the packaging from the products and allow them to air out before bringing them into your home.
  • Make sure your home is well-ventilated. Open windows or use fans when bringing in an item that contains formaldehyde.
  • Lower the temperature and humidity in your dwelling to help lessen the formaldehyde released.

If you’re concerned about high levels of formaldehyde in your home, you may want to hire an indoor air-quality consultant or order a test kit to analyze the conditions.

Reducing Exposure in the Workplace

Government agencies have placed limits on formaldehyde exposure for workers. The limit is 0.75 ppm, on average, for an eight-hour workday. The highest level of formaldehyde a worker can be exposed to is 2 ppm, which can only occur over 15 minutes.

Additionally, employers must monitor chemical levels and provide equipment, such as respirators and protective clothing, if necessary.

Overwhelmed by Avoiding Formaldehyde?

Try not to worry too much about formaldehyde exposure that you can’t control. Most people don’t experience any health problems from small amounts of formaldehyde.


Formaldehyde is an odorless gas found in building materials and as a preservative in household products. Even lower levels of formaldehyde exposure can cause skin, eyes, nose, and throat irritation. If exposed to high levels, formaldehyde can cause health hazards, including cancer.

To reduce your exposure, avoid products that contain the chemical and do not smoke in your home. Some professionals are around higher levels of formaldehyde and should take precautions to reduce their exposure.  

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Minnesota Department of Health. Formaldehyde in your home.

  2. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Formaldehyde and your health.

  3. American Cancer Society. Formaldehyde and cancer risk.

  4. American Lung Association. Formaldehyde.

  5. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Formaldehyde.

  6. National Cancer Institute. Formaldehyde and cancer risk.

  7. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Formaldehyde.

  8. World Health Organization (WHO). Formaldehyde.

  9. National Institutes of Health. Formaldehyde.

  10. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). What should I know about formaldehyde and indoor air quality?

  11. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Formaldehyde fact sheet.