Why Formaldehyde is Called Formalin: Understanding the Chemistry and Origin of the Term

Formaldehyde is an organic compound that is commonly known for its strong odor and toxic nature. You may be surprised to know that formaldehyde is used in various industries for a range of practical purposes. But enough about formaldehyde, let’s talk about formalin. Formalin is a solution that is made up of formaldehyde and water. It is widely used in medical and laboratory settings as a preservative and an antibacterial agent.

You may wonder why formaldehyde is called formalin. The name formalin actually derives from the word formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that has a strong odor. When formaldehyde is dissolved in water, it forms a solution known as formalin. Formalin is used to preserve biological specimens in the medical and laboratory settings. Additionally, it is used as a sterilizing agent in the pharmaceutical industry and as a disinfectant in the agriculture industry.

What is Formaldehyde?

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas. It is a common chemical found in many household products, such as building materials, furniture, and even cosmetics. Formaldehyde is widely used in industry to make other chemicals and materials, such as plastics, coatings, and resins. It is also used as a preservative, disinfectant, and sterilizer.

Formaldehyde is a simple organic compound with the chemical formula CH2O. It is highly reactive and easily bonds with other molecules to form larger compounds. Because of its reactivity, it is often used in the production of other chemicals and materials.

  • Formaldehyde is commonly found in:
    • Building materials, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard
    • Furniture, such as sofas, carpets, and mattresses
    • Cosmetics, such as nail polish, hair straightening products, and eyelash glue
    • Cleaning products, such as disinfectants and laundry detergents
  • Formaldehyde can be released into the air as:
    • Environmental pollution from factories and other sources
    • Fumes from building materials and furniture
    • Emissions from vehicles and cigarette smoke

Exposure to formaldehyde can cause a range of health problems, including irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as respiratory problems. Long-term exposure to high levels of formaldehyde has been linked to cancer.

Formaldehyde is often referred to as formalin, which is actually a solution of formaldehyde and water. Formalin is commonly used as a disinfectant and preservative in medical laboratories and mortuaries. The term formalin is derived from the Latin word “formica,” which means ant. Formaldehyde was first isolated by the Russian chemist Aleksandr Butlerov in 1859 from the chemical compound called formic acid, which was derived from the Latin word for ant.

Formaldehyde Production

Formaldehyde is commonly synthesized through the oxidation of methanol, a colorless liquid used as a solvent and antifreeze agent. This process primarily occurs through two methods: silver catalyst method and metal oxide catalyst method. The former uses silver metal as a catalyst to oxidize the methanol while the latter uses metal oxides like iron or molybdenum to achieve the same reaction.

  • The silver catalyst method is a commonly used production process for formaldehyde. In this process, air and methanol are mixed on a bed of silver metal, resulting in the oxidation of methanol to formaldehyde and water. The reaction produces approximately 94% formaldehyde by weight, with the remainder being methanol and water.
  • The metal oxide catalyst method is similar to the previous process but uses metal oxide catalysts instead of silver. This production process is more energy efficient than the silver catalyst method and can produce formaldehyde with higher purity levels, around 99% by weight.
  • In addition to these two methods, formaldehyde can also be produced through the oxidation of natural gas. However, this is less common due to the higher costs associated with this production process.

The table below summarizes the production methods and the advantages/disadvantages of each:

Production Method Advantages Disadvantages
Silver catalyst Produces high yields of formaldehyde Requires careful handling of the highly toxic silver catalyst
Metal oxide catalyst Produces higher purity levels of formaldehyde Requires higher capital costs due to the need for specialized reactors and catalysts
Natural gas oxidation Utilizes readily available natural gas High capital and operating costs

Overall, formaldehyde production methods vary depending on the desired purity, efficiency, and cost factors. However, both the silver and metal oxide catalyst methods remain the most widely used processes for commercial formaldehyde production.

Formalin Uses

Formalin, a solution of formaldehyde in water, has various uses in different industries. Here are some of the most common formalin uses:

  • Textile Industry: Formaldehyde-based resins are utilized in the textile industry to enhance the quality of fabric and clothing.
  • Paper Production: Formalin is incorporated into the papermaking process to increase the durability and strength of the paper products.
  • Medical Applications: Formalin is used in a wide range of medical procedures, including embalming, tissue preservation, and sterilization of surgical instruments.
  • Woodworking: Formalin-based resins are employed in woodworking activities to manufacture durable, strong, and water-resistant wood products.

Aside from these industries, formalin has also been used as a disinfectant and preservative for biological specimens in laboratories. It is also used as a component in pesticides, dyes, and inks.

Formalin’s versatility and effectiveness in different applications have made it a crucial component in numerous industries.

Formalin-based Resins

One of the most critical applications of formalin is the production of formaldehyde-based resins. These resins are made by reacting formalin with various chemicals, such as urea, phenol, and melamine.

The resulting products, such as melamine-formaldehyde resin and urea-formaldehyde resin, have diverse uses across various industries. For example, urea-formaldehyde resin is commonly utilized for the production of particleboard, while melamine-formaldehyde resin is used for the manufacture of laminates.

Formalin Safety Concerns

Despite its extensive range of applications, formalin also poses several safety concerns. Exposure to high levels of formalin vapor can cause irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. It is also classified as a carcinogen, meaning that prolonged and repeated exposure may increase the risk of cancer.

Therefore, it is essential to take adequate safety measures when working with formalin, including using appropriate personal protective equipment, installing adequate ventilation systems, and minimizing exposure to the substance.

Protective Equipment Ventilation System
Wear gloves, goggles, and a lab coat when handling formalin Install a fume hood or exhaust fan to minimize exposure to formalin vapors
Dispose of contaminated items, such as gloves and lab coats, in designated containers Ensure that the ventilation system is regularly maintained and functioning properly

By adhering to proper safety protocols and minimizing exposure, formalin can be used effectively and safely across various industries.

Formaldehyde Exposure

The most common way humans are exposed to formaldehyde is through inhalation. The gas is often used in building materials and can escape into indoor air from products like plywood, carpets, and insulation. Formaldehyde can also be found in cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and certain chemicals used in home and personal care products.

  • Occupational exposure is also a concern for workers in industries that use formaldehyde, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and funeral services. These workers may have higher levels of exposure and be at risk for health issues like asthma, cancer, and dermatitis.
  • Exposure to formaldehyde can cause irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat. It can also lead to respiratory issues like coughing and wheezing. Long term exposure can increase the risk of certain types of cancer.
  • Individuals who are particularly sensitive to formaldehyde may experience more severe symptoms and even develop hives or rashes from contact with formaldehyde-containing products.

Reducing Formaldehyde Exposure

To reduce your exposure to formaldehyde, there are several steps you can take:

  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid using home and personal care products that contain formaldehyde.
  • Ventilate indoor spaces by opening windows or using air filtration systems.
  • Use products that are labeled as formaldehyde-free or have low levels of the chemical.
  • Wear protective equipment, like gloves and masks, if working with formaldehyde-containing materials.

Formaldehyde in Everyday Products

It’s important to be aware of the products that may contain formaldehyde. Common household products that can release formaldehyde include:

Product Potential Formaldehyde Release
Paints, coatings, and varnishes During application and drying
Mattresses and bedding From adhesives and foam
Wrinkle-free fabrics During manufacturing
Certain cleaning products From preservatives and disinfectants

By choosing alternative products and practicing good ventilation, you can reduce your exposure to formaldehyde and protect your health.

Safety and Precautions when Using Formalin

The use of formalin requires extra care to ensure the safety of both the user and the people around. Here are some of the precautions that should be taken when handling formalin:

  • Always wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, goggles, and a lab coat when handling formalin.
  • Formalin should only be used in a well-ventilated area. Make sure there is enough air circulation to avoid inhaling the fumes.
  • Formalin should never be used near an open flame; it is highly combustible.

Proper Storage of Formalin

When handling formalin, it is also important to know how to properly store it to ensure its effectiveness and avoid accidents.

Formalin should always be kept in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. It should be stored in a tightly sealed container that is clearly labeled. Formalin should be stored separately from other chemicals to avoid cross-contamination and accidental mixing.

Emergency Procedures

In case of an accident involving formalin, it is important to know the proper emergency procedures.

If formalin is ingested, seek medical attention immediately. If formalin comes in contact with the skin, wash the affected area thoroughly with water. If formalin gets into the eyes, flush them with water for at least 15 minutes and seek medical attention.

First Aid Kit

It is essential to have a first aid kit nearby in a place with formalin. The kit should contain:

Item Purpose
Gloves To avoid skin contact with formalin
Goggles To protect the eyes from formalin fumes
Antihistamine tablets To counter allergic reactions to formalin exposure
Baking soda To neutralize any acid or base that may come into contact with the skin or eyes

By following these safety and precautionary measures, formalin can be used effectively and safely without posing a significant threat to the users or the environment.

Physical and Chemical Properties of Formalin

Formalin is a colorless liquid with a pungent odor, and it is commonly used as a disinfectant, preservative, and embalming fluid. It is a mixture of formaldehyde gas dissolved in water, usually in a concentration of 37% to 50%. Formalin solutions are stable, and they do not usually decompose under normal conditions. Formaldehyde is the main active ingredient in formalin, and it is also a colorless gas with a pungent odor.

  • Formalin has a boiling point of 97°C and a density of 1.09 g/mL.
  • It is highly soluble in water and forms a clear solution when dissolved.
  • Formaldehyde gas is highly flammable and is a strong reducing agent.

Formalin has several physical and chemical properties that make it an effective disinfectant and preservative. Its germicidal action is due to the ability of formaldehyde to react with amino and sulfhydryl groups in proteins and other macromolecules, leading to their denaturation and inactivation. This mechanism makes it an effective agent against a wide range of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Formalin is also used as an embalming fluid in the funeral industry. The preservative properties of formalin come from its ability to crosslink proteins and other macromolecules, making them more resistant to decay and decomposition. Embalming fluids typically contain about 5-29% formaldehyde, along with other ingredients such as methanol, ethylene glycol, and phenol. These added ingredients enhance the preservative action of formaldehyde, making it suitable for long-term preservation of human remains.

Property Value
Boiling Point 97°C
Density 1.09 g/mL
Solubility Highly soluble in water
Germicidal Action Reacts with amino and sulfhydryl groups in proteins and other macromolecules leading to their denaturation and inactivation. Effective against bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Overall, formalin is a versatile and effective chemical with many applications in various industries. Its physical and chemical properties make it a potent disinfectant, preservative, and embalming fluid. However, due to its strong fumes and potential health hazards, it is essential to handle formalin with care and caution.

Formalin vs. Paraformaldehyde: What’s the Difference?

Formaldehyde is commonly referred to as formalin in its solution form. On the other hand, paraformaldehyde is a polymer of formaldehyde with a different chemical structure than formalin. Here are some of the differences between formalin and paraformaldehyde:

  • Chemical Structure: Formalin is a 37% solution of formaldehyde in water, while paraformaldehyde is a powder made up of polyoxymethylene.
  • Performance: Formalin is known for its wide range of applications in disinfecting, preserving, and embalming, among others. Paraformaldehyde, on the other hand, is used mostly as a disinfectant and a cross-linking agent.
  • Storage: Formalin is usually stored and transported in sealed bottles or containers as a liquid. Paraformaldehyde, being a powder, can be stored for long periods of time without significant deterioration under appropriate conditions.

If you are considering using formaldehyde or its derivatives for your application, it is important to understand the differences between formalin and paraformaldehyde and choose the right one based on your specific needs.


In summary, formalin and paraformaldehyde are two different forms of formaldehyde, each with its unique properties and applications. While formalin is a liquid solution that finds uses in a variety of applications, paraformaldehyde is a polymer that is mainly used as a disinfectant. Now that you understand the differences between the two, you can make the right selection for your needs.

Why Formaldehyde is Called Formalin?

1. What is formalin?
Formalin is a solution containing formaldehyde gas dissolved in water, with a typical concentration of 37%.

2. Why is formaldehyde called formalin?
Formaldehyde is called formalin because it is dissolved in water, creating a solution that is widely used as a preservative and disinfectant.

3. What is formaldehyde used for?
Formaldehyde is used in a wide range of applications, such as in the production of durable building materials, textiles, and resins. It’s also used as a disinfectant and preservative for biological specimens, and as a chemical intermediate in the production of other chemicals.

4. How is formalin made?
Formalin is made by dissolving formaldehyde gas in water. The gas is typically produced by the oxidation of methanol.

5. What are the health effects of formalin exposure?
Formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as other health effects such as headache and dizziness. Prolonged exposure to high levels of formaldehyde can increase the risk of cancer.

6. How can I protect myself from formalin exposure?
To protect yourself from the harmful effects of formalin exposure, it is important to wear appropriate protective clothing and to ensure proper ventilation when working with formaldehyde or formalin.

7. Is formalin safe for use?
When used as directed, formalin is safe for use. However, it is important to use appropriate safety measures to minimize exposure and to follow all applicable laws and regulations.

Closing Thoughts

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