Cannabis Sprays: Finding Formaldehyde When Emulsifiers Burn

I have been on quite a journey exploring different Cannabis sprays approved in Canada. Active ingredient after ingredient, reaction after reaction, diving through all the byproducts almost convinced me formaldehyde was not a questionable concern from accepted pesticides. I have found the possibility of toxins, caustics, and cancer-promoting oxidizers. Regardless, the possibility of truly vial carcinogens has been surprisingly low thus far.

Given how fundamental fresh-dank is for our actual health, many consumers have refused to put to rest the case of chemical odours emanating from so many legal Canadian strains. Is it because they were air-packaged nine months before purchase, irradiation, or is something else in there? That mystery leads me to those undisclosed, ‘inert ingredients’ found in many sprays.

Secret Ingredients in Cannabis Sprays

Unlisted surfactants are used in a pesticide formulation to enhance a cannabis spray’s ability to cling onto surfaces. Emulsifying agents are also added in an attempt to preserve the active ingredient, keeping it bound to water or oil. Countless different soaps and chemicals can be mixed in as long as they are chemically inert and not going to expose people to toxins. Worryingly though, guidelines seem vague.

Where surfactants show up, only the manufacturer truly knows. What substance is added to each spray is a tightly held secret. None of the inert chemicals they use are identified in any label.

Food Grade not Fire Grade

Some cannabis sprays, like the petroleum-based mineral oil Purespray oil 13E, are associated with a patent that helps identify their secret ingredients.

Surfactants hidden in their formulation include alcohol ethoxylates (AEs.) Mind the syllables, they have nothing to do with the alcohol you drink. They are “safe” non-toxic additives that do not typically degrade with other substances. Contradictory to that statement is evidence regular degradation can release propylene glycol. Applying this onto food as a drastically diluted residue will be harmless on your stomach. Cannabis is not always food though –  we tend to light it on fire. I would prefer seeing my delicate lungs stay safe.

Breaking Chains

Hundreds of varieties of AEs exist that can be added as inert ingredients. Some are derived more purely from petroleum products, whereas other variations start with more natural fatty acid chains. It has been shown they can breakdown above 150 degrees Celsius in an environment with rigorous airflows, such as drawing through a vaporizer.

Dow Chemical compiled research to understand the safety of their own ethoxylated concoctions. When heated above 250 degrees Celsius in the open air, their surfactants do indeed break apart completely and start gassing off precursor chemicals. Links in some molecular chains fall free while others shatter, liberating the possibility for a few new toxins to form.

Ethoxylated Combustion

Below is a limited and incomplete list containing a few thermal degradation products:

Ethylene oxide, or oxirane, is always the main ingredient in the production of all AEs, it’s the ‘ethyl’ in ethoxylation. This is a gaseous toxin. The FDA set a limit for ground spices at 50 ppm (0.005%.) Acute chronic exposure can cause cancer, kidney damage, reproductive harm with increased miscarriages, cognition problems, and nerve deficiencies.

1-4 Dioxane – This known byproduct of ethoxylation is moderately carcinogenic. Dose and duration are key factors in determining risk if your sustained health is forced to bare dioxane. The World Health Organization’s recommended safety limit is at 50 ppm.

Formaldehyde (and other aldehydes) – This is a well-known carcinogen, simply from inhaling chronic small doses. It has been proven to cause leukemia. The workplace exposure limit is 0.75 ppm, and at 20-100 ppm it can cause immediate harm to your health. Immediate contact with a low level of formaldehyde can include a burning sensation, wheezing, coughing, and nausea.

Ethylene Glycol – An acute toxin when ingested and metabolized, but the residual amount left behind on fruits and vegetables is currently not known to harm children. Inhalation of its pure vapour may be an irritant but not immediately toxic. A warning though, this antifreeze product can turn into 2% formaldehyde when overheated.

Secrets Left to Unravel

Ethylene glycol is not only a minor byproduct it is actually another permissible surfactant. This toxin can make up to 2% of PureSpray 13E’s total ingredients. Even with the required aftermarket dilution, it becomes clear the worst hazards were hiding in almost everything this whole time.

With the possibility for such harsh substances to form, testing the combustion products should be easy. In reality, no Canadian Lab is legally capable of detecting the actual smoke of cannabis for cancerous combustion byproducts like oxirane or formaldehyde. I would certainly prefer more transparency, even when growing my own. Unless THC, CBD, or caryophyllene can magically block the cancerous effects of formaldehyde.

A Retrospective Look

Below is a list of cannabis sprays that have been discussed in this series so far, with the percentage of inert ingredients displayed:

Zerotol – 73% – For an oxidizing agent like Zerotol, unknown additives alongside just 5% peracetic acid boost the oxidative strength tenfold. Helping kill things even more efficiently.

Purespray Green Oil6% (alcohol ethoxylates/ethylene glycol)

Agrotek Sulphur – 0% (no inert ingredients).

Influence LC – 85%

Clyclone and Lactosan – 97%


Milstop and Sirocco – 15%

Opal and Kopa Soap 53%

Neudosan Commercial Soap by Neudorff – Another company that is protected by patents. With 53% confidential stabilizing ingredients, this spray can possibly contain a maximum of any of the following: 5% ethoxylated emulsifiers (Polysorbate,) 5% alcohols (such as isopropyl alcohol, ethanol, propanol, butanol, propylene glycol, glycerol, and tetrahydrofurfuryl alcohol, or vegetable oils,) 1% (xanthan) gum, and 1% defoamer.

Featured image courtesy of Greencamp.