Pregnancy-Proofing Your Beauty Regimen

Is your beauty routine safe when you're pregnant? Get insights on what changes you may want to consider.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 01, 2012
5 min read

Everyone knows you shouldn't smoke or drink when you're pregnant. And if you didn't know it, the product labels tell you. It's a lot less clear, though, which beauty products may not be safe for pregnant women.

"Any material placed on the skin has the potential to be absorbed into the bloodstream and may be able to cross the placenta, so some caution is warranted," says Andrew Healy, MD, an obstetrician at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass.

If you're unsure what's safe, take specific products to your doctor for analysis, recommends John Bailey, PhD, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council.

Peroxide, the active ingredient in teeth whiteners, is safe for adults -- even if you swallow some during the bleaching process, says Colleen Olitsky, DMD, a cosmetic dentist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "But there's so much we don't know about how substances affect babies during pregnancy. It's wise to avoid teeth whitening products."

"Use a whitening toothpaste instead," says Dayna Salasche, MD, clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "Most importantly, continue to brush, floss, and see your dentist regularly for cleanings."

Phthalates, which are found in many hair sprays and nail polishes, have been studied for a potential risk of causing birth defects. The FDA's conclusion? The available data doesn't establish an association between the use of phthalates in cosmetics and a human health risk.

"Phthalates have not been connected to birth defects in humans," Healy says. "However, studies in animals have shown these substances interfere with male sexual development, so caution is warranted."

To be on the safe side:

  • Use phthalate-free nail polish. Or polish your nails in a well-ventilated area to limit your exposure. Once the polish dries, there's little risk to your baby, since chemicals aren't absorbed through the nails.
  • Instead of using hairspray, which is easy to inhale, use mousse or gel.

Self-tanners haven’t been studied much in pregnant women. "An occasional self-tanner will do a lot less harm than a real tan or tanning beds," says Judith Hellman, MD. She is an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "But for 9 months, you can survive without looking bronzed."

Some sunscreens include oxybenzone; one recent study linked its absorption to low birth weight in baby girls. But this research didn't prove that sunscreen was to blame.

"Sunscreen is extremely important because pregnancy hormones can make the skin more sensitive than normal," Salasche says. If you're concerned about its use, consider one of these options:

  • Use a non-chemical sunscreen and wear a hat and other protective clothing while out in the sun. Limit your time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense.
  • Use sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead. These ingredients filter out UV rays by sitting on top of the skin -- meaning they're not absorbed.

Acne often gets worse during pregnancy because of hormone fluctuations. Talk to your doctor if you start breaking out. Prescription acne medicines, such as Accutane (isotretinoin), Retin-A (tretinoin), and tetracyclines are dangerous during pregnancy and can cause birth defects.

"I prescribe topical medications that contain azelaic acid, erythromycin, or clindamycin," says Jeanie Leddon, MD, PhD, a dermatologist in Lafayette, Colo. "Glycolic acid peels are also safe." Some doctors may feel comfortable recommending very small amounts of cream with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic wash.

It is safe to wash your face with warm water and a gentle cleanser two times a day. But don't scrub.

Researchers haven't examined the effects of hair dye on pregnant women, so some doctors recommend avoiding them.

Other doctors are more lenient. "It's thought that only a small amount of hair-treatment chemicals are absorbed into women's skin, and this isn't enough to cause problems to the fetus," Leddon says. "Highlights that aren't applied to the scalp may be fine."

As a conservative measure, avoid hair treatment during your first trimester -- that's when your developing baby is the most susceptible.

In general, also avoid dyes and other treatments with ammonia because their fumes may cause nausea. To reduce irritation from hair coloring, treat hair in a well-ventilated room, wear gloves, and rinse well immediately after treatment.

Lead is sometimes added to lipstick to make color long-lasting. In 2007, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that 61% of brand-name lipsticks they tested contained lead. The FDA doesn't consider lead in lipstick to be a safety concern, since lipstick isn't ingested.

"The contribution of lead-containing lipsticks [to lead poisoning] is unknown but probably fairly small," Healy says. But the safest bet would be to use one of the many lead-free lipsticks that are on the market.

Some pregnant women reach for wrinkle cream almost as much as they reach for stretch-mark lotion. But before massaging it into your laugh lines, consider the ingredients. Many wrinkle creams contain retinol, which has been linked to birth defects.

"There haven't been any conclusive studies, but the consensus is that retinol may be related to miscarriage or impaired growth," Salasche says.

"If a woman wants to use an anti-wrinkle cream during pregnancy, she should bring that product to her doctor so he or she can review the contents," Healy says.

Botox Cosmetic injections help smooth furrowed brows. But experts recommend skipping these treatments during pregnancy. "There are no adequate, well-controlled studies of Botox Cosmetic in pregnant women. So administration of Botox Cosmetic is not recommended during pregnancy," says Kellie Reagan, a spokeswoman for Allergan, the drug company that makes Botox Cosmetic.