Vitamin A is a crucial nutrient that’s required for optimal skin, immune, reproductive, and eye health. However, once consumed or absorbed through skin, your body converts it to retinol.
Some pro-aging skin care products use a type of retinol called retinoids, which have become a holy grail because they can help reverse acne and reduce fine lines. Retinoids do this by helping surface-level skin cells exfoliate faster and boosting collagen production to rejuvenate skin.
OTC 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 irregularities have been linked in higher doses. As such, all retinoids are advised against during pregnancy.
Prescription retinoids like isotretinoin have been widely documented for posing a 20% to 35% risk of severe congenital irregularities, with about to 30% to 60% of children showing neurocognitive conditions with exposure in utero.
Because of this, it’s recommended that people who can become pregnant take the following precautions while using isotretinoin:
- Use two forms of contraception.
- Be frequently monitored by their doctor for pregnancy and compliance.
- Stop the medication 1 to 2 months before trying to become pregnant.
Also, even when you do not plan to become pregnant (soon) or is pregnant, to use retinol with caution. Long term use of retinoids is linked to a very dry skin and redness when while having sensitive skin.
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 that 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). Always check where you got the product and whether it was OTC or prescribed (before you were pregnant).
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 with other ingredients (35% to 45%), 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 and human studies, serious reproductive and developmental dysfunction has been linked to phthalate exposure.
Endocrine disruptors are becoming increasingly studied by the FDA and professional medical organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, for their potential role in negatively affecting congenital reproductive health.
Cosmetics are a top source of phthalate exposure. The most common phthalate you’ll find in beauty products is diethylphthalate (DEP). Phthalates commonly found in plastic packaging can also leach into personal care products.
Formaldehyde is rarely used as a preservative and disinfectant in beauty products anymore because it’s a known carcinogen, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), can increase the risk of infertility and miscarriage.
But there are formaldehyde-releasing chemicals commonly found in cosmetics with a similar potentially dangerous effect. These include the following, as noted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG):
- bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol)
- 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.
A 2019 review suggested that certain chemical UV filters may have negative effects for water sources, fish health, and food chains worldwide. These include:
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 both you and your baby. Plus FDA is also agreeing that more research is needed for the use of the chemical sunscreen ingredients for people (and not just pregnant ones).
A 2018 study in animals 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 schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Oxybenzone exposure has also been associated with Hirschsprung disease, a birth irregularity affecting the large intestines.
Here are a few alternatives to safely manage pregnancy’s most common (and frustrating) skin woes.
Acne and hyperpigmentation
If you’re prone to breakouts - 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’s likely safe in small amounts commonly found in OTC beauty products.
Glycolic acid and similar ones — such as azelaic acid — can also help with reducing fine lines, brightening skin, and reducing enhanced skin pigmentation.
The ACOG endorses glycolic and azelaic acid as safe to treat acne during pregnancy, in addition to topical benzoyl peroxide and topical salicylic acid.
Mature-looking skin and wrinkles
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 topical antioxidants to try in your skin care products include:
- vitamin E
- green tea
Note that oral resveratrol supplements should not be taken during pregnancy. It’s best to talk with your doctor before trying any supplements, especially if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy.
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, they’ll pull it from your body. That — in addition to hormone changes — can lead to dry skin. Actually, everything you future little wonder will need, they will pull it from you :).
In addition to drinking plenty of water, moisturizing products that have 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. Actually, how you protect every day is a big question :).
The verdict on the safety of certain chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone 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.
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