Anyone who’s pregnant, has been pregnant, or has seen any comedy with a pregnancy plot line is well aware that having a bun in the oven requires a lot of lifestyle changes, including diet, exercise, and even skin care. Believe it or not, it’s just as important to make sure the ingredients you’re putting on your skin are safe to use during pregnancy and lactation.
The good news is that most skin care ingredients are safe to use during this time, but it’s important to be aware of the ones you need to eliminate. Of course, it’s crucial to discuss any of these or any other skin care products you’re considering with your physician. These are the eight skincare ingredients you shouldn’t use during pregnancy — and what you can swap them out with.
The first ingredient you need to remove from your skin care regimen is retinol and any of its derivatives, according to Paula Begoun, Founder of Paula’s Choice. “Retinol and its derivatives, such as retinyl retinoate and retinyl palmitate, are lumped with prescription retinoids such as tretinoin,” she explains.
Retinol is best known for anti-aging, brightening, and acne-fighting benefits, but it can pose a risk to the baby due to overexposure of vitamin A. Luckily, there are plenty of safe alternatives to consider that deliver the same results, such as peptides. Not only do they have the ability to stimulate collagen, but they’re gentle and reparative too.
Vitamin C is another alternative to the anti-aging and skin brightening properties of retinol. “Vitamin C is a winner for wrinkle reduction, skin color improvement, and helping with melasma,” Begoun says. The popular antioxidant works to encourage collagen production while protecting skin from environmental damage.
Retinol is also known for its ability to ward off acne and improve pore size. To duplicate these results, Begoun recommends Niacinamide (also known as Vitamin B3) as your new go-to. “Niacinamide is excellent for skin tone and pore size improvement, enhanced hydration, wrinkle reduction, fading dark spots and uneven skin tone,” she says.
Begoun considers hydroquinone the gold standard for lightening dark spots. However, she explains, “Research has shown that approximately 45% of it can get into the body where it could possibly have a negative impact on a developing fetus.” As luck would have it, vitamin C and niacinamide can offer similar benefits. Begoun suggests looking for products containing these ingredients at concentrations of 10% or greater to fight dark spots.
“This foaming agent has been linked to carcinogenic effects and birth defects,” warns Dr. Dendy Engelman, a New York-City based dermatologist. Primarily used as emulsifiers to make foam and bubbles in products, DEA can also be used to adjust the pH level of a product. If you love your foaming cleansing, check the label, since you might have to swap it out for a gentler version.
While you may have read that 2% salicylic acid is considered safe to use during pregnancy, doctors caution against it because it can be absorbed into the bloodstream, which is unsafe for a growing fetus. Salicylic acid can be swapped out for products containing sulfur, an ingredient that works to gently decongest pores and clear up breakouts. Another safe ingredient alternative is witch hazel.
Benzoyl peroxide, like salicylic acid, can be absorbed into the bloodstream, so it should also be avoided during pregnancy. Benzoyl peroxide reduces acne-causing bacteria. Luckily, tea tree oil works to rid skin of bacteria and it’s completely safe to use during pregnancy.
Tetracycline is an antibiotic prescribed by dermatologists to stop the growth of acne-causing fungal bacteria on skin. For a safe alternative, turn to products containing honey, a natural antimicrobial.
Also known as Bisphenol A, BPA was banned as a cosmetic ingredient in 2006, but it’s still used to coat packaging materials to prevent corrosion. It’s commonly found in plastic bottles and aerosols, so you’ll want to check that it isn’t secretly in your go-to setting spray. “Used in plastics, it is a highly unstable chemical that can infiltrate into whatever is being contained by it,” Engelman says. “It disrupts the endocrine system, leading to breast and prostate cancer, infertility, heart disease, and diabetes. Fetus’ exposed to BPA have been linked to developmental issues and behavioral problems.”
Commonly used in nail polish and hair dye, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) actually lists it as one of the most toxic cosmetic ingredients. If inhaled, it can cause developmental damage to a growing fetus. Toluene is also commonly listed as as phenylmethane, toluol, and methylbenzene, so be sure to look for those when considering whether or not a product is safe.
One last thing to consider when it comes to taking care of your skin during pregnancy is the use of professional treatments. While lasers, injectables, and chemical peels are completely off limits for pregnant women, it’s perfectly safe to get facials with pregnancy-safe ingredients to help you tackle your skin concerns during pregnancy. And let’s be honest, regular facials are a wonderful way to pamper yourself. You totally deserve it, mama.
A version of this story was published May 2019.