Formaldehyde is a common precursor to more complex compounds and materials. In approximate order of decreasing consumption, products generated from formaldehyde includeurea formaldehyde resin, melamine resin, phenol formaldehyde resin, polyoxymethylene plastics, 1,4-butanediol, and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate. The textile industry uses formaldehyde-based resins as finishers to make fabrics crease-resistant. Formaldehyde-based materials are key to the manufacture of automobiles, and used to make components for the transmission, electrical system, engine block, door panels, axles and brake shoes. The value of sales of formaldehyde and derivative products was over $145 billion in 2003, about 1.2% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States and Canada. Including indirect employment, over 4 million people work in the formaldehyde industry across approximately 11,900 plants in the U.S. and Canada.
When treated with phenol, urea, or melamine, formaldehyde produces, respectively, hard thermoset phenol formaldehyde resin, urea formaldehyde resin, and melamine resin. These polymers are common permanent adhesives used in plywood and carpeting. It is used as the wet-strength resin added to sanitary paper products such as (listed in increasing concentrations injected into the paper machine headstock chest) facial tissue, table napkins, and roll towels. They are also foamed to make insulation, or cast into moulded products. Production of formaldehyde resins accounts for more than half of formaldehyde consumption.
Formaldehyde is also a precursor to polyfunctional alcohols such as pentaerythritol, which is used to make paints and explosives. Other formaldehyde derivatives include methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, an important component in polyurethane paints and foams, and hexamine, which is used in phenol-formaldehyde resins as well as the explosive RDX. Formaldehyde has been found as a contaminant in several bath products, at levels from 54–610 ppm: it is thought to arise from the breakdown of preservatives in the products,most frequently diazolidinyl urea. Since 2006, formaldehyde (methylene glycol) is also used in hair smoothing treatments in order to straighten wavy/curly hair and make hair less prone to frizz under high humid weather. OSHA Oregon has reported these treatments as unsafe for human health.
Disinfectant and biocide
An aqueous solution of formaldehyde can be useful as a disinfectant as it kills most bacteria and fungi (including their spores). Formaldehyde solutions are applied topically in medicine to dry the skin, such as in the treatment of warts. Many aquarists use formaldehyde as a treatment for the parasites Ichthyophthirius multifiliis and Cryptocaryon irritans.
Formaldehyde is used to inactivate bacterial products for toxoid vaccines (vaccines that use an inactive bacterial toxin to produce immunity). It is also used to kill unwanted viruses and bacteria that might contaminate the vaccine during production. Urinary tract infections are also often treated using a derivative of formaldehyde (methenamine), a method often chosen because it prevents overuse of antibiotics and the resultant development of bacterial resistance to them. In an acid environment methenamine is converted in the kidneys to formaldehyde, which then has an antibacterial effect in the urinary tract. Some topical creams, cosmetics and personal hygiene products contain derivatives of formaldehyde as the active ingredients that prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.
Tissue fixative and embalming agent
Formaldehyde preserves or fixes tissue or cells by a mixture of reversible (short exposure time and low temperatures) and irreversible (long exposure time and higher temperatures) cross-linking of primary amino groups in proteins with other nearby nitrogen atoms in protein or DNAthrough a -CH2- linkage. This is exploited in ChIP-on-chip genomics experiments, where DNA-binding proteins are cross-linked to their cognate binding sites on the chromosome and analyzed to determine what genes are regulated by the proteins. Formaldehyde is also used as a denaturing agent in RNA gel electrophoresis, preventing RNA from forming secondary structures. A solution of 4% formaldehyde fixes pathology tissue specimens at about one mm per hour at room temperature.
Formaldehyde solutions are used as a fixative for microscopy and histology because of formaldehyde's ability to perform the Mannich reaction, although the percentage formaldehyde used may vary based on the method of analysis. Additionally, the methanol used to stabilize formaldehyde may interfere with the ability to properly fix tissue or cells, and therefore commercial formaldehyde preparations are available that are packaged in glass ampules under an inert gas to prevent the use of contaminating methanol for stabilization. Formaldehyde-based solutions are also used in embalming to disinfect and temporarily preserve human and animal remains. It is the ability of formaldehyde to fix the tissue that produces the tell-tale firmness of flesh in an embalmed body. In post mortem examinations a procedure known as the "sink test" involves placing the lungs of an animal in an aqueous solution of formaldehyde; if the lungs float it suggests the animal was probably breathing or able to breathe at the time of death.
Although formaldehyde solutions are commonly used as a biological preserving medium, usually for smaller specimens, it delays, but does not prevent, decay. This method of fixation does not preserve nucleic acids, thus preventing, for example, genetic analysis of the first discovered Dendrogramma specimens.
Several European countries restrict the use of formaldehyde, including the import of formaldehyde-treated products and embalming. Starting September 2007, the European Union banned the use of formaldehyde due to its carcinogenic properties as a biocide (including embalming) under the Biocidal Products Directive (98/8/EC). Countries with a strong tradition of embalming corpses, such as Ireland and other colder-weather countries, have raised concerns. Despite reports to the contrary, no decision on the inclusion of formaldehyde on Annex I of the Biocidal Products Directive for product-type 22 (embalming and taxidermist fluids) had been made as of September 2009.
Formaldehyde, along with 18 M (concentrated) sulfuric acid makes Marquis reagent which can be used to identify alkaloids and other compounds.