Pregnant women often hear advice on what they should and shouldn’t be putting into their bodies. However, rarely do they consider that what they’re putting on their bodies may also pose a risk. It is estimated that women use, on average, twelve different beauty and body products a day, and many of these products contain chemicals that may harm a fetus. While certainly a woman shouldn’t have to eschew her beauty routine just because she’s pregnant, there are some products better avoided. I asked Tristen Markey, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), what products to watch out for and alternatives to them. Here’s a list of the top offenders:
Phthalates are compounds used in plastic processing; they are also among the most common fragrance ingredients in cosmetics and lotions. At high doses, they have been linked to reproductive problems in animals, but it is unclear whether they cause health damage in humans. After surveying the evidence, an expert panel from the National Toxicology Program concluded, “reproductive risks from exposure to phthalate esters were minimal to negligible in most cases.” However, because the risks may not be fully understood, pregnant women may want to avoid them.
I asked Tristen what beauty products contain phthalates. He said that phthalates are not usually listed on consumer products; however, almost anything that is heavily scented contains phthalates. His advice was to look for products that are not heavily fragranced, and instead choose products that are fragrance and scent free.
- Alternatives: You can find a list of phthalate-free beauty products on the EWG’s Skin Deep  Web site. Some companies list their products as being phthalate free; Burt’s Bees and Kiss My Face are examples. Look for products that are unscented.
Not much is known about the relation between hair dying and birth defects. It is probable that the chemicals used in dying, perming, and treating hair are absorbed into the scalp; just how much and whether or not they reach the fetus is unknown. However, it seems smart to avoid them and the fumes associated with them. Tristan notes that certain hair dyes have been linked to cancers and localized irritations.
- Alternatives: Because highlights and hair painting do not touch the scalp, they present a lower risk; henna is a natural dye that poses much less risk; and au natural is no risk.
Retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives used in acne medications and anti-aging creams. Most pregnant women are well advised on the risks of Accutane (a retinoid called isotretinoin), which is used to treat serious acne. Taken orally, the use of this medicine has been associated with major birth defects and should not be taken while pregnant or within a month of becoming pregnant.
The evidence for other products in the retoniod family is not as clear. Retin-A, Avita, and Renova are topical treatments commonly prescribed to for acne, hyper pigmentation, improving skin appearance, and wrinkles. Although all these products contain a retinoid (tretinoin), the amount absorbed by the skin is considered to be very small, and they therefore pose little to no risk to a fetus. However, the Organization of Teratology Information Services suggests not using them during pregnancy due to the possible (yet unknown) risks.
- Alternatives: If your acne is serious, ask your doctor about oral erythromycin, considered safe to use during pregnancy. Try natural acne remedies or small amounts of benzoyl peroxide for local treatment. If you’re worried about your skin or a certain product, consult a dermatologist.
Like retinoids, the oral form of salicylic acid (SA), in high doses, has been shown to cause birth defects. However, the small amounts we are exposed to in skin cleaners and lotions are generally considered safe. The bottom line is to avoid oral supplements of SA (also under the name beta hydroxyl acid or BHA). If you’re erring on the cautious side, you may want to avoid prolonged exposure to SAs in body wraps or leave-on lotions.
- Alternatives: Try a homemade, natural astringent.
There are two kinds of sun block on the market: ones with chemical protection and ones with physical protection. Although the chemicals in sunscreen (oxybenzone and avobenzone) haven’t directly been shown to produce toxicity, they are absorbed into the skin. According to Tristen, the physical blockers may be better during pregnancy because they are not absorbed into the skin.
- Alternatives: Look for products containing zinc oxide or titanium oxide (physical blockers).
Rather than having to abstain from primping while pregnant, the main idea is to try to reduce exposure to the bevy of chemicals in many beauty products. That means even if you’re not able to avoid everything on this list, you can still limit the number of products you use.
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