Pregnancy Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid

I’m sure if you’ve been reading my pregnancy skin care series, you know that skin care while you’re pregnant is a bit different than regular skincare. Here I’m addressing specific skin care ingredients and why you might need to avoid them while you are pregnant.

Pregnancy Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid

There are definitely some ingredients that you should avoid while pregnant due to possible birth defects. The placenta is basically a big sieve, it lets things through in a very non-specific (and size based) fashion. Your baby is busy doing things like making organs, which means that small mistakes early on can have big effects later on.

While your skin is a barrier, we do know that some of the products you put on it will be well absorbed and those ingredients can reach the blood stream. Which means they can reach the placenta and therefore your baby. We will never have data regarding safety for many of these ingredients. The studies just wouldn’t be ethical to complete (would you want to be volunteering to try something out and see if it affects your baby? Not me!) so we just make do with the information we do have and try to make some educated guesses.

Pregnancy Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid

Retin A/Accutane, Retinoids, Vitamin A: Yes, the big baddies here are definitely the 2 prescription drugs listed first. Accutane is a huge issue with pregnancy as it is linked to many different birth defects. In fact, most physicians won’t even prescribe it to women of child bearing age unless they are also on birth control or sign a waiver.

While Retin A and over the counter retinoids are not as strongly linked to birth defects as Accutane, they are all the same class of drug and as such are on pretty much every MD’s list of no-no ingredients. The retinoids are Vitamin A derivatives, and I’ve seen quite a few lists advising to avoid topical Vitamin A as well, so it’s made my list. Yes, there is still Vitamin A in your diet and your prenatal vitamin. It should be there and can take care of your needs. But, no need to add even more in skin care.

Note that Beta-Carotene is a Vitamin A derivative that is considered separately from the retinoids, and it is considered safe.

All Hydroxy Acids: From citric acid to salicylic acid, pretty much all of the hydroxy acids either are not safe or simply don’t have enough information to say “sure, go crazy and rub this all over you.” So, the official word is that all of they hydroxy acids, alpha and beta, have pregnancy categories that recommend avoidance, with 1 exception.

The exception is Lactic Acid, which your body makes on its own (I spend a lot of time in the PICU trying to prevent little bodies from making it, but that’s a whole different issue). Lactic acid has been shown to be fine in pregnant animals, but we don’t have evidence in humans. So, the official recommendation is to use with caution if really needed. Personally, I’m avoiding it in everyday skin care items but did let my esthetician use it in my facial a few weeks ago.

I’ve seen a few books that say Glycolic Acid is fine, and there are many physicians that tell this to their patients. However, its official pregnancy category is that there isn’t enough info so should be avoided. The “correct” type of study to prove the safety of Glycolic Acid will simply never be done, so many physicians have looked at the current evidence and feel fine recommending it. I personally avoided it while pregnant and it’s one I look for when recommending products as safe or not.

I also want to point out that Citric Acid is found usually in very small amounts at the very end of ingredient lists. It is typically there to help modulate pH in a product. You likely expose yourself to more Citric Acid in one glass of OJ than you would in a year of using such a product. I avoided it in my first 2 trimesters, but lightened up in my third trimester when I realized I was being a bit silly.

Dihydroxyacetone: Also known as DHA, this is the active ingredient in sunless tanners. The jury is still out on whether sunless tanners are safe. I’ve seen sources that say yes, some that say no. I can tell you that my skin has taken on some interesting dry patches while pregnant, and it would be pretty hard to get an even sunless tan. This is a great time to embrace the pale, so I’m going with that.

Hydroquinone: Though I found it in several drug references as safe in pregnancy, these ingredients were listed on enough lists of things to avoid due to unknown risks that I’m avoiding them.

Kojic Acid: This ingredient is sometimes used to help lighten the skin, but it has shown up on multiple lists of items to avoid. I can’t find the reason why, but I’m thinking lightening my skin shouldn’t be a priority now anyways.

Benzoyl Peroxide: Again, I can’t find this in any actual drug reference books and a literature search didn’t turn up anything of use, but it is listed over and over on lists of things to avoid while pregnant.

Laser Therapy: I’ve seen laser therapy, whether for zapping away birth marks, tattoos or hair, listed over and over on lists of things to avoid while pregnant. Even my beloved Silk’n Sens Epil lists pregnancy as a contraindication for use. I had to stop using it as soon as I found out about the pregnancy. As well, most places that offer lasers refuse to treat you if you are pregnant.

I would likely reserve lasers (and at home machines) to be used under the direction of your physician. There is some evidence in the medical literature that laser treatment is safe during pregnancy.

Salicylates: This should include topical willow bark and should be avoided. I also include the related chemical sunscreen ingredients in this list.

Parabens: since that seems to be asked over and over. They are currently considered safe by pretty much everyone except the EWG, who have a big propaganda machine and I don’t think they interpret most studies correctly. If you disagree with me about that so be it, I’m just stating my opinion since I’ve been asked over and over. Parabens considered safe for pregnancy and breast feeding. BUT… if an ingredient makes you uncomfortable you should just avoid it. There are so many products on the market these days that it is very possible to do so without any issues.

Hyaluronic Acid use during pregnancy: Hyaluronic acid is basically the same thing as Sodium Hyaluronate.

I can’t figure out how this became an ingredient that is sometimes on no-no lists, because not only does your body already make a ton of it, but is a big molecule. Huge. It is so large that it just hangs out in the spot where it is made, much too large to get into cells, to pass through membranes or travel to other locations.

Much is the same for any Hyaluronic Acid that you apply to the surface of the skin. Your skin has very tight membrane junctions between those cells on the surface. Hyaluronic Acid can’t get through and just sits there on the surface of the skin. I’m always very suspicious when a company tells me that their HA is different and can get it. It’s a big red flag.

So, since it can’t get in, and your body is already making it anyways, definitely feel that it is safe to keep using HA in your products. It just sits on the surface and helps hold moisture there. We need it to live up to pregnancy glow expectations!

Sulfur: This is often found in acne treatments, and I haven’t really been able to find much info about safety in pregnancy. Be aware that if you’re allergic to sulfa drugs you should avoid this ingredient, but I’ve seen it as the active ingredient in many “pregnancy safe” acne treatments and is probably fine.

Guide to Skin Care while Pregnant or Nursing

Don’t forget to check out the other articles in my Pregnancy and Nursing Skin Care Guide!



  1. Raquel
    January 12, 2018 / 11:43 am

    Thank you for sharing. Very informative for me. As I am on my 3rd trimester. Stopped using all products that I am not suppose to use. Thought melisma hasn’t changed or been added to. I am looking to change my routine up a bit. I’ll keep your article in mind. Thank you.

  2. Iwona
    January 21, 2018 / 9:45 am

    What Products would you recommend that are safe during pregnancy to use as facial washes and creams to body lotion?

  3. Keri
    February 15, 2018 / 9:54 pm

    Thank you so much for your website and advice for pregnant and nursing mamas!

    I noticed one of your “safe” facial washes is Philosophy Microdelivery Exfoliating Wash. One of the ingredients is sodium hydroxide. Is that a hydroxy acid?

    Thank you!

    • 15mins
      February 16, 2018 / 3:41 pm

      It’s not!

  4. sally
    February 19, 2018 / 9:06 pm

    Benzoyl Peroxide is listed as safe, including by the NIH, so I’m not sure what you’re basing your assertion on.

    “When benzoyl peroxide is applied topically, only 5% is absorbed through the skin, and then it is completely metabolized to benzoic acid within the skin and excreted unchanged in the urine.2,3 No studies on the use of this preparation in pregnant patients have been published; however, systemic effects on a pregnant woman and her child would not be expected and therefore use of this product during pregnancy would not be of concern.”

    • 15mins
      February 21, 2018 / 3:18 pm

      Benzoyl Peroxide has no known studies proving that it is safe but as it is known to be absorbed (as stated in your comment even) not all OB or Derms agree that it is ok to recommend. It was listed by my OB (at a major University health system) on a hand out given to all patients as an ingredient to avoid, and is very frequently mentioned as an ingredient to avoid elsewhere online and in books. Several of the ingredients on this list are in similar situations, but as I stated it would be nearly impossible to actually do those studies due to ethical concerns.

  5. Jemima
    March 7, 2018 / 8:53 am

    Firstly, thank you for this information – very helpful indeed! I was wondering whether you have any advice re. makeup and it’s safety during pregnancy. I’ve read that some makeup can contain harmful ingredients such as formaldehyde and toluene. I, like you, am a bit of a makeup junkie and wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without mascara, concealer and my eyebrows done at the very least. Would you consider writing a blog on the subject with suggested products like you did for Pregnancy Safe Skincare (brilliant by the way)?

    • 15mins
      March 8, 2018 / 10:20 am

      Most brands update their makeup formulas quite often and the ingredient lists are very difficult to find, so I haven’t been able to write such a post. I would not work about powders, brows and mascara for example as those will sit on the surface of the skin (or on the lashes, which are dead proteins basically), so not a concern.
      A quick note- We think of formaldehyde as toxic because it is used in embalming. Surely it must be horrible, right? The truth is that it is an additive to food, and your body is making it as a byproduct to normal processes. Large amounts obviously aren’t good, but even water is toxic in large amounts.

  6. March 19, 2018 / 2:21 pm

    I truly appreciate your website. I am so glad i came across it…
    For nursing this momma…. i just bought some products and am wondering if i should return them or use them! If i need to return then i will have to do it asap :/. Would love to hear back from you!
    Face wash
    INGREDIENTS: (Aqua) Distilled Water, Aloe Vera (Aloe Barbadensis) Gel, Grape Seed (Vitis Vinifera) Oil, Vegetable Glycerine, Jojoba (Buxux Chinensis) Oil, Squalane, Shea (Butyrospermum Parkii) Butter, L-sodium Hyaluronate, Rose Hip Seed (Rosa Rubiginosa) Oil, L-sodium PCA, Vitamin E (D-alpha-tocopherol), Xanthan Gum, Benzyl Alcohol, Azulene, Fruit Extracts, Allantoin
    Face wash 2
    INGREDIENTS: (Aqua) Distilled Water, Aloe Vera (Aloe Barbadensis) Gel, Grape Seed (Vitis Vinifera) Oil, Vegetable Glycerine, Jojoba (Buxux Chinensis) Oil, Squalane, Shea (Butyrospermum Parkii) Butter, L-sodium Hyaluronate, Rose Hip Seed (Rosa Rubiginosa) Oil, L-sodium PCA, Vitamin E (D-alpha-tocopherol), Xanthan Gum, Benzyl Alcohol, Azulene, Fruit Extracts, Allantoin

    Facial MIST
    INGREDIENTS: Aloe barbadensis (aloe vera) leaf juice*, Rosa damascena (rose) flower water*, Anthemis nobilis (roman chamomile) flower water*, glycerin, water, Chrithmum maritimum (leaf) extract, hydrolyzed Lupinus albus (lupine) protein*, hydrolyzed Linum usitatissimum (linseed) extract*, Salix nigra (willowbark) extract, glycerin*, Populus tremuloides (aspen) bark extract, Avena sativa (oat) kernel extract*, Oryza sativa (rice) extract*, Spirulina platensis extract*, caprylyl capryl glucoside, Vanillosmopsis erythropappa (bisabolol) wood oil, Helichrysum italicum (immortelle) flower oil*, Cymbopogon martini (palmarosa) leaf oil, sodium hyaluronate, Salvia sclarea (clary sage) flower/leaf oil*. (Ingredients with* were issued from Organic Agriculture. 99.98% of the total of the ingredients are of natural origin, 93.3 % of the total ingredients proceed from Organic Farming)

    INGREDIENTS: Aqua (Water), Glycerin, Glycol Distearate, Lactic Acid (L), Cetyl Alcohol, Stearic Acid, Sodium Hyaluronate (L), Tartaric Acid (L), Malic Acid (L), Ascorbic Acid (L), Phenyl t-Butylnitrone (Spin Trap), Vaccinium Macrocarpon (Cranberry) Fruit Extract, Glucuronolactone (D), Beta Vulgaris (Beet) Root Powder, Betula Alba Bark Extract, Tocotrienols, Elaeis Guineensis (Palm) Oil, Tocopherol (D-alpha), Peumus Boldus Leaf Extract, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Water, Alcohol, Benzyl Alcohol

    INGREDIENTS: Aqua (Water), Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Cetearyl Olivate, Squalane, Rubus Chamaemorus (Cloud Berry) Seed Oil, Titanium Dioxide, Ribes Nigrum (Black Currant) Seed Oil, Sorbitan Olivate, Glyceryl Stearate, Glycerin, Rosa Canina (Rose Hip) Fruit Oil, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Sorbitol, Mica, Iron Oxides, Oenothera Biennis (Evening Primrose) Oil, Xanthan Gum, Lonicera Caprifolium (Honeysuckle) Flower Extract, Asparagopsis Armata Extract, Ascophyllum Nodosum Extract, Tocopherol (D-alpha), Cinnamomum Cassia (Cinnamon) Leaf Oil, Citric Acid, Eugenia Caryophyllus (Clove) Leaf Oil, Zinc Oxide, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Water, Lonicera Japonica (Honeysuckle) Flower Extract, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil, Zirconium Oxide, Alcohol Denat., Zingiber Officinale (Ginger) Root Oil, Phytic Acid, Peumus Boldus Leaf Extract, Betula Alba Bark Extract.

    • 15mins
      March 19, 2018 / 3:03 pm

      The references in this post are for those that are pregnant, the list is different if you are nursing. Here’s the post on what to avoid in skincare while breast feeding.

      For the products here, I would avoid the facial mist while pregnant due to willow bark, but otherwise the products look safe for nursing and pregnancy.

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