After answering thousands of questions from readers about pregnancy beauty, I’ve noticed that there are a few questions that come up over and over. I’ll answer them here, which will likely give you a more detailed and patient answer than me answering in post comments.
I get this question in a few different instances. First, when it is an ingredient you’re worried about but I am not. Second, when something that I usually screen out shows up in an ingredient list. Everything I am worried about is in my posts on what to avoid while pregnant or nursing.
When I’m not worried but you are
There are a lot of ingredients that fall under this category, and I get asked about more all the time. You can learn more about the specific ingredients I am worried about during pregnancy and during nursing. While I labeled those posts as skincare, I look for the same ingredients in all products.
Often I am asked about ingredients someone read about “somewhere online” or that are confusing, such as hyaluronic acid, which isn’t really an acid. Note that I’m pretty conservative in what I include in my “to avoid” lists, but my list is based upon current medical literature and my discussions with other physicians. I am not worried about that ingredient because I currently do not have evidence to support concern.
Sometimes these other ingredients are related to “bad” ingredient, but not closely enough that there is concern. Along those same lines, brands will claim a product has an AHA, BHA or “natural retinoid” and I’ll still say the product is safe. Note that brands will call these things out when they are included in extracts/oils. These things are sometimes safe to use in pregnancy/nursing when included this way, and they’re only a concern when listed individually as chemicals (which are often slightly different chemically and in higher percentages).
The skin is a barrier, it tries to keep most things out. Frequently I am asked about different herbs and extracts from things that are edible. The amount of an ingredient that you’ll find in skincare is much less than you would be exposed to if that same ingredient was a food. So if the ingredient you’re asking about is something you can eat, but haven’t been warned to avoid eating…. should be ok to put on your skin.
When an ingredient is in a list, and you know I said to worry about it
I’m at the mercy of online ingredient lists, which sometimes are wrong, get changed or updated. I’m also human, and I fully admit I may have made a mistake and overlooked something! For this reason you should always check your own ingredient lists when your product arrives. Please nicely let me know about it so I can fix the mistake.
Having said that, please also know that brands will often state an ingredient is in a product in their write up, or in a “key ingredient” list. I only check the full ingredient list, which includes every chemical name of every ingredient. Sometimes those “key ingredients” aren’t listed in the full ingredient list because they are in an oil or extract (which we don’t worry about), or they may be in a chemical variant that’s so far removed that it isn’t of a concern.
Or vice versa.
I have different standards for pregnancy safety than brands do, and my standards are pretty conservative. It is up to you to decide whose opinion you want to listen to.
Note, sometimes brands are driven by different goals than me. I try to base my recommendations on the current medical literature and discussions with OBs, dermatologists and other pediatricians (I’m a pediatrician). Brands sometimes state something is fine to use, but they may be more liberal as they are trying to sell a product. Or they may state you need to avoid something that’s fine because they are worried about liability. As we don’t have strong science behind recommendations, it somewhat is up to you to decide whose advice to trust.
But what about this % of an ingredient? You said it’s bad, but I read online that this % is actually fine.
This comes up most often with glycolic acid, but I’ve also heard it with salicylic acid, retinoids, etc. Every “bad” ingredient has a percentage that someone out there will say is safe.
First, there’s no studies regarding safety during pregnancy for most ingredients, and we can’t do those studies as they’re actually unethical. Would you sign up for a study where we have you use a product that is potentially dangerous to your baby, so we can verify that it is dangerous? Of course not! But we all wish the information was out there already. Instead we have to infer ingredient safety based upon whether we know it can be absorbed with topical use, whether it can cross the placenta or be secreted into breast milk, what would be the potential effects?
Given we don’t know if things are actually safe or not, we also don’t have exact cut offs for when something is actually safe. I can’t do a study to say 9% glycolic acid is safe but 11% isn’t. That 10% number isn’t based on actual evidence. Along those same thoughts, would a higher percent be ok if you applied to only half of your face? What about if it is your body? Which trimester, but then what if you have your dates wrong? What if you have an eczema flare up and your skin is absorbing ingredients more easily? It kind of goes on and on.
Because of those reasons, if there’s enough reason to think an ingredient is unsafe, complete avoidance is recommended. This is an all or nothing thing. Anyone that says “well, it isn’t absorbed enough to reach a high enough level to be dangerous”…. isn’t correct. Because we don’t know what the dangerous level is, and the absorption depends on many highly variable factors that can’t always be accounted for. We just don’t have the information to back up those claims.
What about if I only used this once or twice a week?
It is important to know that in the US, pregnancy risks and safety are viewed as absolutes. If there’s a risk of an issue due to an ingredient we think is absorbed into the body, in the US “we” (aka- physicians. I’m using this rather inclusively as I’m a pediatrician and not an OB, but I am referring to the medical establishment) say to avoid it completely. We don’t logic our way into saying it is ok if you only use X amount, or X frequency… simply because we don’t have data to back up the statement that something is safe to do that with. We have very little safety data from pregnancy, and it would be much too difficult to even conduct a study that would be able to tease out that you can use your favorite face mask 1-2x a week still. Instead, if we have concerns about a specific ingredient you’ll just be told we think you should be avoiding it.
What about by trimester? Is this ok to use in 2nd or 3rd? What if you are trying to conceive?
Similar to what I just commented on above, we don’t have safety data regarding trimesters. That’s data we will never have, those studies on pregnant women are unethical to perform. Even if we had specific timing concerns with an ingredient and a specific time of the baby’s development, there could very likely be other effects on other parts of development that we haven’t thought of. If something should be avoided during pregnancy, that is for the entire pregnancy.
Many women don’t realize they are pregnant for weeks after they are actually pregnant. If you’re actively trying to conceive, it is recommended that you assume you are in your first trimester and avoid the risky behaviors that you would while pregnant.
First, many women don’t realize that they should be avoiding some ingredients with their makeup and skincare. Retinoids are the worst ingredient, with the most evidence behind potential birth defects. But most ingredients that are recommended to avoid just have potential effects. We think something could happen, or we know something is easily absorbed… and that concerns us.
I get asked a lot if I know what the immediate effects of using a product are, or if something will show up in a scan. Unfortunately that isn’t information we have, and likely we never will. Doing the studies to really know exactly which ingredients are dangerous, how much exposure you need and what happens as a result… those will never be done. They are not ethical to do.
So, we talk a lot about ingredients we are really concerned about, that may or may not have an effect on your baby. And you’re already ahead of the game by thinking about it. I’d swap to a product that you know is safe and not worry about it too much. A lot of women don’t change out their beauty products during pregnancy and there are no issues.
This is another question without a great answer based on science. Since we don’t know for sure which ingredients are safe or which levels of an ingredient in the body are safe, and then we don’t know how long it would take to get something down to a “safe” level in your system…. you can see it kind snowballs from there. So many unknowns!
So, how long should you stop using “bad” products before you try to conceive? Is it even necessary? I’ve seen expert opinions that range from no time up to 6 months, though most opinions are more in the 3 month range. It’s also recommended that you start taking a prenatal vitamin at least a month before TTC, primarily due to the folic acid (here’s a good explanation why).
When you are trying to conceive, you should already act as if you’re pregnant. Waiting for a test can mean missing time that you’re actually already pregnant. So, I recommend that once you are TTC start taking a prenatal vitamin, avoiding risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol and using recreational drugs, and start using pregnancy safe products.
I have a post about how to ask about pregnancy safety. Note, it can take me a long time to review a product. Please try to look for your favorite products on the pregnancy safe brand list, having to re-review the same product over and over when it is already on a list is frustrating to me and adds a lot of extra time to reviewing products each day (I get 20-40 comments a day requesting review and many of those have 4 or more products). Please save me time and point to me the correct product by providing your product’s ingredient list. Do not ask about your product on another brand’s product page.
Finally, please be polite. I have a job, a family and a life. I review products daily, but I also sleep on occasion. I frequently wake up to comments from around the world, comments that are angry with me because I didn’t respond immediately with my opinion of their product. While I was asleep. You might be anxious about whether you can use your favorite face cream, but in the grand scheme of things please keep in mind that having to change to a new moisturizer isn’t a big deal.
This happens quite a bit, and sometimes in the most unexpected products. A favorite night serum, your go-to hand cream or that eye shadow primer you’ve been wanting to try. They all might have a chemical sunscreen added.
Why? Shelf life.
Adding a sunscreen to a product helps to prevent it from breaking down, and you don’t need much of it for this to work. Testing for SPF value takes more sunscreen ingredients (often enough that you’ll notice the sunscreen through smell or consistency), and the testing for FDA compliance can be both expensive and time consuming. But it also is not required for products that contain sunscreens. So, you can bet that brands will include chemical sunscreens to increase shelf life!
Ingredients to watch for with this:
• Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate
• Benzophenone-3, Benzophenone-4, Benzophenone-5