Before I got pregnant, I worked in the beauty closet at SELF magazine. It wasn’t too different from my job testing baby products for Babble, except that I was slathering on lotions, spritzing perfume and trying the hottest nailpolish trends. When I got pregnant, I knew that I needed to start watching what I put in my body, but I also had a feeling that I should be careful of what I put on my body, knowing the kinds of ingredients that could be absorbed into my body.
I was a tad on the paranoid side, so I googled the ingredients in my favorite beauty products, only to find that some were indeed deemed “unsafe” or at least “questionable” — and when it came to my unborn fetus, questionable wasn’t good enough. (It didn’t help that my first trimester of pregnancy brought on the worse case of acne I’ve ever had!)
While the majority of commonly used beauty products are perfectly safe, there are certain ingredients — especially in high-end or specialty products — that should be avoided. We compiled a quick list of what beauty products to avoid during pregnancy, as well as safer alternatives, but ask your doctor or midwife if you’re concerned:
Beauty products to avoid during pregnancy:
- Retenoids, a powerful form of Vitamin A commonly found in anti-aging products and some acne medications. While it’s most dangerous if taken orally, you might want to avoid it topically too — at least during the first trimester. Check with your doctor if you’re using an anti-aging or acne medication. (You’ll see it as Retin-A, Retinoic acid, Retinol or Retinyl)
- Salyclic acid, most commonly found in acne-fighting products. I found mixed advice on this, as some experts say it’s only harmful if taken orally, while others warn against using it topically as well. Using it in mild, over-the-counter face wash might not be as harmful as a peel, mask or spot treatment that’s left on the skin, giving the ingredient time to absorb into your body. (Also look for Beta Hydroxy Acid or BHA on the label.)
- Dandruff shampoo, which might contain salyclic acid or coal tar. It’s best to avoid this chemical-filled shampoo during the first trimester, but talk with your doctor about a safe treatment for dandruff.
- Spray tanning. Obviously you shouldn’t be tanning for real during pregnancy (or ever) for many reasons, but the good news is that the Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) in chemical tanning isn’t supposed to absorb past your top layer of skin. However, pregnant women can inhale the DHA during spray tanning, which might be mutagenic. Want to be safe? Just go pale.
- Soy. But soy sounds natural, and natural is good — right? While it might be safe, the estrogen in soy can increase the dark facial splotches that pregnant women are prone to get. Look for lethicin, phosphatidylcholine, soy and textured vegetable protein (TVP) in the ingredients. Also, “oil of bergamot” has the same effect. On the other hand, “active soy” is generally safe because the estrogen has been taken out.
Beauty products that some say you should avoid, others say is perfectly fine:
- Nailpolish and nailpolish remover. While studies haven’t shown that nailpolish is harmful for your unborn fetus, it’s best to avoid fume-filled nail polish salons altogether. And if you’re concerned, skip the polish during the first trimester or opt for a more natural polish free of tolune, DHB and formaldehyde — all of which are known to be carcinogenic.
- Chemical hair removal. While BabyCenter says that hair removers like Nair are perfectly fine (and quite convenient during the last trimester), others warn that the levels of thioglycolic acid haven’t been tested enough to be completely safe. Again, talk with your doctor about the specific brand you’re thinking about using or just skip it for now.
- Perfumes and lotions with heavy fragrance. Because so many fragrances contain phthalates (and you really have no idea how dangerous the specific phthalates are in the fragrance), Treehugger.com recommends limiting them in your beauty products.
- Hair dye. While it’s generally accepted that highlighting your hair (which is painted directly on the hair) is safer than dying (which is painted on the scalp), some suggest to avoid it altogether. If you must, stick to highlights.
- Sunscreen. We reported the questionable ingredients in sunscreen earlier this year, so it’s not a surprise that this is controversial for pregnant women. On the other hand, pregnant women need sunscreen more than ever on their sensitive skin (especially to prevent the “mask of pregnancy” dark splotches that some pregnant women get), so look for sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient.
- Makeup. Again, it’s no surprise that makeup is filled with chemicals that you might not want on your face during pregnancy, but you should definitely make sure that your makeup doesn’t contain retinol or salyclic acid. To be on the safe side, buy products that are “noncomedogenic” or “nonacnegenic,” or even opt for mineral makeup.
- For acne-prone skin, stick to products that contain Glycolic acid or just AHA. Belli Pregnancy has an Acne Cleansing Facial Wash Duo ($39), which they claim is the safest acne wash for pregnancy. Check with your dermatologist if you’re concerned.
- In fact, Belli Pregnancy (pictured above) claims to be the only skincare company that searches through medical journals and research to rule out any ingredients that might possibly cause pregnancy complications. They have everything from anti-brown-spot sunscreen to belly lotion. Find out more here.
- When in doubt, stick to baby products. They’re less likely to contain any questionable ingredients and work just as well.
- We like to check the safety of specific beauty products at the Environmental Working Group’s SKIN DEEP cosmetic database.