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As soon as you find out you’re expecting, your whole world changes. And that might include your skin care line-up, too.
While it’s more well known that you must shelve your favorite wine (sorry!), having to nix your trusted skin care products may come as a real shock. But all eyes are on your skin products for a good reason: Certain ingredients can be absorbed into your body, and therefore, your baby’s body, too.
Rest assured that most over-the-counter (OTC) body care products are completely safe, but there are a few ingredients that could be harmful to your little one. So here’s the good news: You can find a balance between maintaining your mama-to-be glow and protecting your baby.
Whether you’re looking for a safe product to reverse an unwelcome skin change brought on by pregnancy (yes, unfortunately, they do happen) or you’re checking up on the safety of your current regimen, this breakdown of what a healthy pregnancy skin care routine looks like — as well as what specific ingredients to avoid — is for you.
Skin changes during pregnancy
First, let’s face it: Pregnancy-related skin changes happen to many people. Hormones can take the blame — or you can chalk it up to just another one of those “normal” quirks that come with the mama-to-be gig.
While some lucky ladies experience 9 months of pure complexion perfection, others experience at least one less favorable new or worsening skin issue at some point. The most common are:
- dry skin
- darkening skin (a condition called melasma or cholasma)
People with preexisting skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea may also experience a change in their symptoms (for better or worse).
And because your body is “all in” when it comes to pregnancy, pesky skin changes can affect other places, too — think stretch marks, spider veins, hair growth, and even hair loss.
Top skin care ingredients to avoid in pregnancy
Before we jump into our list, we must point out that evidence-based data on the safety of specific products in pregnancy is limited. In almost all cases, clinical trials on pregnant women that could even start to prove that certain ingredients are harmful are an ethical no-no.
But some animal, anecdotal, or case-specific studies have shown some serious fetal effects related to a few common skin care ingredients. That’s the basis for our recommendations.
All of that brings big questions about what cosmetics are truly safe during pregnancy. On this basis, most experts (and therefore, we) err on the side of caution.
Vitamin A is a crucial nutrient that’s required for optimal skin, immune, reproductive, and eye health. Once consumed or absorbed through skin, your body converts it to retinol.
Some anti-aging skin care products use a type of retinol called retinoids, which have become a holy grail because they can help reverse acne and
Over-the-counter products have lower levels of retinoids, while prescription medications — such as Retin-A (tretinoin) and Accutane (isotretinoin) — contain much higher doses. The amount of retinoids absorbed by topical products is likely low, but birth defects have been linked in higher doses. As such, all retinoids are
Prescription retinoids like Accutane have been
Because of this, it’s recommended that women of childbearing age taking Accutane:
- use two forms of contraception
- be frequently monitored by their doctor for pregnancy and compliance
- stop the medication 1–2 months before trying to become pregnant
High-dose salicylic acid
Salicylic acid is a common ingredient to treat acne due to its anti-inflammatory capabilities, similar to that of an aspirin. But a 2013 study concluded products that deliver a high dose of salicylic acid — such as peels and oral medications — should be avoided during pregnancy.
That said, lower-dose topical OTC products that contain salicylic acid have been reported safe by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Hydroquinone is a prescription product to lighten skin or reduce skin pigmentation that occurs from melasma and chloasma, which can be brought on by pregnancy.
There’s no proven link between severe congenital defects or side effects and hydroquinone. But because the body can absorb a significant amount of hydroquinone compared to other ingredients (25 to 35 percent according to this article), it’s best to limit exposure (if any at all) during pregnancy.
Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in many beauty and personal products. In animal studies, serious reproductive and hormone dysfunction has been linked to phthalate exposure.
There are few human studies to support this, but
Cosmetics are the top source of phthalate exposure, and the most common phthalate you’ll find in beauty products is diethylphthalate (DEP).
Formaldehyde is rarely used as a preservative and disinfectant in beauty products anymore because it’s a known carcinogen, and, according to the
But there are formaldehyde-releasing chemicals commonly found in cosmetics with a similar potentially dangerous affect. These include the following, as noted by the Environmental Working Group:
- DMDM hydantoin
- diazolidinyl urea
- imidazolidinyl urea
Oxybenzone and its derivatives are the most frequently used ultraviolet (UV) filter in sunscreens. It’s proven effective for skin protection, but the potentially adverse health and environmental effects of oxybenzone are bringing it into a more unfavorable light.
Because oxybenzone is a known endocrine-disrupting chemical, the concern for use in pregnancy is that it could disrupt hormones and cause permanent damage to mother and baby.
A 2018 animal study concluded that oxybenzone exposure during pregnancy at levels humans would commonly use made permanent changes to mammary glands and lactation. Other animal studies have linked the chemical to permanent fetal damage, possibly associated with developing neurological conditions in adulthood, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Safe skin care ingredient alternatives
Here are a few alternatives to safely conquer pregnancy’s most common (and frustrating) skin woes.
Acne and hyperpigmentation
If you’re prone to breakouts — or find yourself suddenly traveling back in time with adolescent-like skin flashbacks — there are some safer alternatives to using retinoid-based products while expecting. One of the most effective is glycolic acid.
Glycolic acid in large quantities isn’t recommended during pregnancy, but it is
The ACOG endorses glycolic and azelaic acid as safe to treat acne during pregnancy, in addition to topical benzoyl peroxide and topical salicylic acid.
Just as they work like magic to boost your immune system and ward off free radicals in your body, topical antioxidants such as vitamin C can safely enhance your skin’s vitality by protecting your skin from damage and maintaining collagen.
Other pregnancy-safe antioxidants to try in your skin care products include:
- vitamin E
- vitamin K
- vitamin B3
- green tea
Dry skin and stretch marks
There’s no doubt that pregnancy requires a lot from your body, so if your baby-to-be needs more water at any point, it will pull it from your body. That — in addition to hormone changes — can lead to dry skin.
In addition to drinking plenty of water, moisturizing products that have coconut oil, cocoa butter, peptides, and hyaluronic acid (HA) can improve hydration. And when it comes to stretch marks, one strategy to prevent them is frequently moisturizing prone zones to help the skin stretch naturally as your bump (and baby) grow.
Sun protection is one of the most important things you can do for long-term wrinkle and skin cancer protection. But how you safely protect your skin during pregnancy is the big question.
The verdict on the safety of chemical broad-spectrum sunscreens is still out, so try mineral-based sunscreens that protect the skin by forcing the UV rays to bounce off of the skin entirely. Mineral-based sunscreen ingredients include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. And don’t forget that wide-brimmed hat to add some fashionable shade.
Related: The best pregnancy-safe sunscreens
Pregnancy-safe skin care brands
In the overwhelming sea of beauty products on the market, there are a few brands dedicated to pregnancy-safe skin care and body products.
Here are five to check out:
- Belli Skincare
- Earth Mama® Organics
- Erbavia Organic Skincare
- The Spoiled Mama
How to check if your skin care products are safe
First, discuss the safety of your skin care products with your dermatologist and OB/GYN, especially if you’re taking prescription medications or are concerned about a pre-existing skin condition.
Next, you can scan your products’ list of ingredients for any we’ve reviewed — or others that may be concerning to you. A very credible resource for learning more about skin care and personal product ingredient safety is the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Because personal care products aren’t heavily regulated, the EWG developed a database of over 87,000 personal care products, delivering a safety rating for each. The safety rating is generated by referencing each product’s ingredients with over 60 toxicity and regulatory databases.
You can reference the EWG’s Skin Deep® database online or get the app (available for iPhone or Android). In the app, you can quickly scan a product’s bar code to get its safety rating.
Try this pregnancy-safe day and night skin care routine
We know we just downloaded a lot of information — and sifting through products and ingredient lists might sound overwhelming — so here’s a general morning and night skin care routine with a variety of pregnancy-safe skin care products to get you started on your quest for the best sheen.
First, use lukewarm water to wash your face with a mild cleanser.
Shop for cleanser products online:
- all skin type cleanser
- anti-aging cleanser
- anti-blemish cleanser
Next, apply a toner.
Check out these toners, based on your skin type:
- hydrating and balancing antioxidant toner
- toner for oil-prone skin
To follow, add a broad-spectrum mineral-based sunscreen.
Shop for these pregnancy-safe ones:
- SPF 30
- SPF 40 tinted face stick
After that, apply a moisturizer that fits your skin type.
You can find these online:
- hydrating moisturizer
- day cream
- firming cream
- night cream
Then, apply an eye cream (if needed).
Shop these eye creams if you’re in need of a good pregnancy-safe option:
- firming and wrinkle-reducing cream
- eye-brightening cream
For stretch mark prevention, apply moisturizer on belly, hips, and thighs.
These products are healthy options to consider:
- tummy butter
- skin and scar balm
- stretch mark cream
- stretch mark oil
For your night ritual, sub in a serum for your sun protection.
Shop for these serums:
- melasma treatment
- firming serum
It’s not easy to give up your beloved skin care regimen, but we know you’ll do anything to protect your little one.
This includes avoiding products that could be harmful to you or your baby during pregnancy — with evidence suggesting that prescription retinoid-containing products are the most likely candidate to lead to severe congenital defects.
On the bright side (literally), you can use our list of pregnancy-safe skin care products to shine with confidence knowing you’re making healthier choices for your baby-to-be. And talk to your OB/GYN or dermatologist for guidance on your specific pregnancy skin-care concerns and goals.