Pregnancy can be a magical experience filled with a host of benefits from better sex to increased body confidence. But for some women, it can mean months of nausea and fatigue, as well as dermatological conditions ranging from acne to hyperpigmentation. While many of these issues are easily remedied with everyday over-the-counter solutions, there are some skincare ingredients that pregnant women should avoid using.
“It’s difficult to say how much of a topical solution is absorbed and drawn into the bloodstream,” says Dr. Roni Munk, director of MunkMD in Montreal. “It depends on the area it’s being applied to and the quantity being applied. But we do know that the thinner the skin, the more it will absorb — what you put on your eyelids will be absorbed more than what you put on your back. Regardless, you’re probably absorbing anywhere from two to five per cent of the drug.”
Health Canada has a “hotlist” of cosmetic ingredients that are either prohibited or restricted, but it doesn’t specify if any are especially hazardous to pregnant women. It’s important to discuss your beauty routine and the products you use with your doctor, and to consult with them before introducing a new ingredient to your repertoire, even if it’s a natural one.
“There can be a lot of risks with certain essential oils in their purest form,” says Laura Townsend, Canadian marketing director of The Detox Market. “Your body is in flux during pregnancy, so you have a better chance of reacting to something.”
While all women respond differently to skincare ingredients depending on individual factors like skin type and sensitivities, there are some hard and fast rules about what to avoid during pregnancy.
Also known as Retin-A and retinyl palmitate, this is a derivative of vitamin A. While adequate amounts of vitamin A are important for embryonic growth, some studies have linked excessive intake to malformations of the baby’s head, heart, brain and spinal cord.
It’s also related to Accutane, a potent acne medication, which can cause birth defects, Munk says.
“The amount of retinol that gets absorbed through the skin is minimal and probably OK, but we don’t want to take that risk,” he says. “I usually tell my patients to use glycolic or oleic acid to combat acne. If they’re using it for its anti-aging benefits, I just tell them to stop using it until after the baby is born and to wear sunscreen — it’s the most effective anti-aging treatment, anyway.”
We know that everyone benefits from wearing sunscreen, but pregnant women should opt for a physical (or natural) sunscreen versus a chemical one.
“Chemical filters like oxybenzone and avobenzone are possible hormone disruptors,” Munk says. “It’s a controversial issue, but some studies show that those disruptors can play a major role in fetal health.”
They’ve been linked to childhood obesity, ADHD and developmental effects on the nervous system.
The hormonal fluctuations and increased androgen production that happen during pregnancy can result in acne. While we know that strong medications like Accutane should be avoided, the jury is out on more common acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.
“If taken in large quantities orally, these ingredients can have negative consequences,” Munk says. “But topical formulations haven’t shown to be a factor. I personally prescribe benzoyl peroxide to my patients, but it’s important that it’s applied in the right quantities, and on not-too-big an area to avoid significant absorption.”
Sometimes pregnant women will experience melasma, a pigmentation of the skin also known as the “mask of pregnancy.” Although it usually goes away after pregnancy, women may be tempted to use an over-the-counter topical treatment, many of which contain hydroquinone.
And while studies haven’t linked hydroquinone to any particular adverse effect, its high absorption rate — 35 to 45 per cent — is troubling to experts.
“Most potent anti-pigment agents like hydroquinone are contraindicated for pregnant women,” Munk says. “The safest compounds to use are glycolic or linoleic acids, and sunscreen.”
A common preservative in cosmetics, parabens offer two distinct concerns: they are known hormone disruptors and are easily absorbed into the skin. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Chemistry, prenatal exposure to BPA (a type of paraben) has been linked to a host of pregnancy and childhood issues including miscarriage, low birth weight, obesity, impaired fetal growth and behavioural problems.
The main ingredient in antiperspirants, aluminum chloride has been vilified for over 40 years, thanks to a widely criticized study linking it to Alzheimer’s disease. Staunch opponents of the ingredient, have also claimed that it plays a role in breast cancer. (This, too, is questionable.)
As far as pregnant women are concerned, it’s fine to use, says Munk.
“The concentrations in a regular antiperspirant are low, so it’s safe. It’s only when you start to use it in a higher concentration, [like a product designed for hyperhidrosis] that it’s a concern.”
A standard antiperspirant has about three to six per cent aluminum chloride, while a prescription product contains anywhere from 15 to 30 per cent.
We automatically think that anything natural will be good for us, but that’s not always the case.
“When women first get pregnant, they often want to switch all of their beauty products out, but we don’t want them to make such a drastic change so quickly,” Townsend says. “I wouldn’t introduce anything new until the third trimester and after a doctor is consulted.”
Essential oils are a go-to for women looking for natural benefits and a kick of aromatherapy, but not all oils are good for pregnancy. Jasmine and clary sage have been known to trigger contractions, sage and rosemary oil can cause bleeding, and rosemary has been proven to increase blood pressure, Townsend says. But she’s quick to point out that essential oils in natural products are diluted, so they’re generally safe.
“Pure essential oils are what women need to worry about with pregnancy,” she says. “The key thing, however, is education. If you haven’t used the product before, read up about it and always consult your doctor.”