Most over-the-counter skin care products are safe during pregnancy. However, it is a good idea to avoid certain ingredients, such as retinoids, hydroquinone, and phthalates.

Skin changes such as stretch marks, dryness, and hyperpigmentation can all happen during pregnancy. A skin care routine is unlikely to need major changes, but pregnant people should avoid certain chemicals in products.

This article explores the ingredients to avoid and lists several that are safe to use.

A pregnant person applying skin care lotion onto their stomach.Share on Pinterest
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Due to hormonal changes, a pregnant person may have:

  • stretch marks
  • hyperpigmentation
  • acne
  • linea nigra, a dark line that runs from the naval to the pubic area
  • spider veins
  • varicose veins

The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends speaking with a healthcare professional before applying any products to stretch marks. This is because some creams, lotions, and gels that claim to treat stretch marks contain retinol, which can harm a fetus.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends using a heavy moisturizer during pregnancy to help keep the skin soft.

Certain skin care chemicals can cause complications. Pregnant people should avoid products that contain any of these ingredients:

Retinoids

Retinoids are a synthetic form of vitamin A that can treat skin conditions such as cystic acne.

Pregnant people should not takeoral medications that contain retinoids during pregnancy, as these can lead to congenital disabilities, such as fetal retinoid syndrome.

Some topical products, such as creams and ointments, also contain retinoids. According to 2020 research, negative effects of these products during pregnancy are unlikely, but it is still advisable to avoid topical retinoids until after pregnancy.

Some over-the-counter products contain retinoids. Checking labels carefully is key.

Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is in prescription products that people use to lighten their skin.

Research from 2021 reports that the skin absorbs approximately 35–45% of the hydroquinone in these products. While this is unlikely to cause adverse effects, healthcare professionals recommend avoiding this ingredient during pregnancy and lactation.

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is no longer a common ingredient in cosmetics because it is known to increase the risk of cancer and pregnancy loss.

However, some cosmetics contain chemicals called “formaldehyde releasers,” which decompose over time, turning into molecules of formaldehyde.

Such chemicals include:

  • 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane
  • bronopol, also called 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • diazolidinyl urea
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • hydroxymethylglycinate
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • quaternium-15

It remains crucial to check ingredients lists before making a purchase.

Phthalates

Phthalates interfere with the body’s hormones. They are harmful to fetuses, and when possible, children and adults should avoid these chemicals.

Research from 2020 reports that prenatal exposure to phthalates disrupts levels of:

  • thyroid hormones
  • sex hormones
  • 25-hydroxyvitamin D

This can lead to:

  • preterm birth
  • preeclampsia
  • maternal glucose disorders
  • infant cryptorchidism, which is when the testicles are not in the correct position
  • infant hypospadias, which is when the urethra is not in the correct position in the penis
  • a shortened distance between the anus and genitals in newborns
  • growth restrictions

Many skin care ingredients pose no risks. For example, the ACOG reports that the following ingredients in acne treatments are safe to use:

  • azelaic acid
  • glycolic acid
  • topical benzoyl peroxide
  • topical salicylic acid

Learn more about salicylic acid safety and pregnancy.

A person might also opt for products that contain:

  • cocoa butter
  • aloe vera
  • antioxidants, such as vitamin C or E
  • shea butter
  • coconut oil

During early pregnancy, hormonal changes can worsen acne. It tends to improve during the later stages of pregnancy.

Speak with a healthcare professional before deciding on an acne treatment. However, the AAD reports that the following are likely to be safe:

  • topical antibiotics
  • oral antibiotics, including azithromycin and clarithromycin
  • azalaic acid
  • benzoyl peroxide, in limited amounts
  • laser and light treatments

To help manage acne during pregnancy, a person might also:

  • Wash the face twice a day.
  • Use a mild cleanser and lukewarm water.
  • Shampoo oily hair every day if it is straight, but less often if it is curly or coiled.
  • Keep the hair off the face, as hair care products can clog pores.
  • Avoid picking or squeezing the pimples, as doing so can introduce harmful bacteria and worsen scarring.

If a person uses cosmetics, they should for oil-free types.

Pregnant people should avoid the following acne treatments:

  • isotretinoin
  • tazarotene
  • spironolactone
  • adapalene
  • tretinoin
  • trifarotene

Also, stop any treatment that contains doxycycline, minocycline, or tetracycline before 15 weeks of pregnancy, as these chemicals can stain the teeth of the fetus.

Salicylic acid may be safe for a limited time.

As the AAD notes, sunscreen plays a crucial role in preventing skin cancer, sunburns, and premature aging.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed that two sunscreen ingredients be “generally recognized as safe and effective.” These ingredients are:

  • titanium dioxide
  • zinc oxide

These are typically present in mineral-based sunscreens, which sit on the skin’s surface, deflecting harmful UV rays. They are also called physical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, absorb UV rays. They usually contain one or more of these ingredients:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • octisalate
  • octocrylene
  • homosalate
  • octinoxate

A 2020 clinical trial found that these chemicals were detectable on the skin and in the bloodstream weeks after the last use.

Pregnant people may wish to use mineral-based sunscreens instead, as the skin does not absorb them.

Anyone with questions about the safety of their skin care routine should speak with a dermatologist. An OB-GYN can also describe whether certain skin care products are safe.

Overall, the research into the safety of various skin care chemicals during pregnancy has been limited. Most studies are anecdotal, case-specific, or animal-based.

Therefore, it is usually best to be cautious. This may mean switching skin care products or stopping certain treatments while pregnant to prevent any danger to the fetus.

The Environmental Working Group’s database has safety ratings for over 87,000 hygiene products. This tool also cross-references the ingredients in each product with more than 60 toxicity and regulatory databases.

As long as each product is safe, there is no reason to change a regular skin care routine during pregnancy.

The AAD recommends:

  1. using lukewarm water when washing the face or bathing
  2. applying a gentle, alcohol-free cleanser with the fingertips
  3. if using a body scrub, gently massaging it into the skin in circular motions
  4. rinsing with lukewarm water
  5. patting, rather than rubbing, the skin dry with a towel
  6. applying moisturizer, taking special care not to tug at the skin around the eyes
  7. applying a mineral-based sunscreen to any area exposed to the sun

Learn more about dermatologist-recommended skin care routines.

During pregnancy, a person should avoid any products that contain retinoids, hydroquinone, formaldehyde, or phthalates.

A person might be able to use those that contain azelaic acid, glycolic acid, topical salicylic acid, or topical benzoyl peroxide, but it is best to consult a healthcare professional first.

Some safe ingredients include aloe vera, shea butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter, and antioxidants, such as vitamin E or C.

Providing that all products involved are safe, a person should not need to significantly alter their skin care routine during pregnancy.