10 Skin Care Ingredients to Avoid During Pregnancy

Woman wearing a bikini, placing her hands in the shape of a heart over her pregnant belly
Ignacio Campo / Unsplash

Congratulations! You're pregnant! No doubt you have been given the standard list of do's and don'ts from your healthcare provider detailing all of the foods (we're looking at you, sushi!) you should avoid for the next nine months. You've been told to drink plenty of water, get your sleep and — depending on your condition — get plenty of exercise. You've been given a prenatal vitamin and loads of pamphlets on taking care of yourself and your growing baby.

But what about the products in your skincare regimen? The products you put on your body can affect your baby as much as if not more so than the foods you eat.

Never fear, help is here. Here's a list of skin care ingredients that you should avoid during pregnancy.

1. Retinoids

  • Found in Retin-A and Accutane, retinoids are prescription acne and anti-aging medications.
  • May be listed on ingredient labels as retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene and isotretinoin.

There's a proven link between the use of retinoids and an increased risk of birth defects for developing babies. Most doctors warn patients not to get pregnant if they're using these medications. But if you do get pregnant, stop taking retinoids immediately.

2. Tetracycline

  • Medications include doxycycline and minocycline.

Tetracyclines are antibiotics that should be avoided during pregnancy. They are used to treat a wide variety of conditions such as acne and Lyme disease. Studies have shown that they can damage a pregnant woman's liver and discolor her growing baby's teeth. If you need an antibiotic during pregnancy, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe a safer alternative such as amoxicillin or erythromycin.

3. Hydroquinone

  • A skin-lightening agent used to treat conditions such as chloasma and melasma.

Whether you were taking hydroquinone pre-pregnancy or are considering using it to treat the dark patches of skin that sometimes develop during pregnancy (also called the mask of pregnancy), this is one product to avoid until after your baby is born. Studies have shown that as much as 45 percent of this medication is absorbed into the skin after topical application, and while no studies have yet been conducted on the effect of hydroquinone on a fetus, there is just too much of the chemical in your bloodstream after use to justify the risk.

4. Phthalates

  • Chemicals added to plastics to make them more flexible and to increase the strength and effectiveness of other chemicals in a formula, such as perfume or nail polish.
  • Avoid ingredients such as BzBP, DBP, DEP, DMP, or diethyl, dibutyl, or benzylbutyl phthalate

Recent studies have raised concerns about the common use of phthalates in products and the potential health risks associated with their use. They have been linked to everything from high blood pressure to ADHD to diabetes. In addition, a new round of studies have found connections between prenatal phthalate exposure and abnormal fetal development. Look for personal care products that are labeled phthalate-free.

5. Formaldehyde

  • Listed on product labels as formaldehyde, quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM), hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, and 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)

Parenting groups recently won grassroots campaigns to get formaldehyde out of many products specially formulated for babies. But the ingredient — a known carcinogen — is still commonly found in personal care products made for adults such as hair straightening treatments, nail polish and eyelash glue. Seek out products that are formaldehyde-free.

6. Toluene

  • Steer clear of any nail polish with methylbenzene, toluol or antisal 1a on its ingredient label.

Most mainstream nail polishes contain toluene, a suspected carcinogen, along with phthalates and formaldehyde. Together, they are known as the "toxic trio," and they form a potent combination of toxins that you want to avoid at all times, especially during pregnancy. If you can't handle the look of your nails in the buff, look for nail polishes that are toluene-, formaldehyde- and phthalate-free.

7. Ammonia

  • Found in many hair dye formulas

While the verdict is still out on whether or not hair dye is safe to use during pregnancy, it's important to note that many formulas contain chemicals like ammonia, which can irritate the skin and lungs. So it's best to steer clear of these both during and after your pregnancy. Fortunately, there are a number of ammonia-free hair dyes currently available. If you're getting your hair done in the salon, talk to your stylist about products with low-to-no ammonia in the ingredients.

8. Dihydroxyacetone

  • Ingredient found in many spray self-tanners.
  • Also listed on product labels as DHA

DHA is a chemical that reacts with the dead layer of skin on your body, adding color in a way that many see as safer than suntanning. However, while DHA is not absorbed into the body, it can be inhaled during application. That could be unhealthy for both you and your baby. Bottom line: Skip the spray tan while you have a baby on board.

9. Thioglycolic Acid

  • Used in hair removal creams
  • May be listed on label as labeled acetyl mercaptan, mercaptoacetate, mercaptoacetic acid and thiovanic acid

Thioglycolic acid is the active ingredient found in most hair removal creams, or depilatories. While there are no studies about the effect that this chemical has on a growing baby, it's important to note that the European Union limits the amount of thioglycolic acid that can be used in products to 5 percent whereas products sold in the U.S. are allowed to contain as much as 15.2 percent. That's a huge discrepancy, and when combined with the lack of solid data on the health risks associated with their use, it's best to err on the side of caution and leave these products on the shelf.

10. Botulinum Toxin

  • a.k.a. Botox

Tired of looking so tired during pregnancy? Thinking about a spot of Botox to perk things up? Think again. There are no studies testing the effect of Botox on a developing baby. But before you jump to the conclusion that this must mean they are safe, consider that the chemical used in Botox procedures, botulinum toxin, works by paralyzing the muscles around wrinkles so that they become less visible. Not exactly something you want to take chances with.