The Dangers of Chemical Sunscreen During Pregnancy

Sunscreen with oxybenzone could affect your newborn's health, according to a new study. Here's what doctors have to say about it.

Pregnant woman rubs sunscreen on her belly.
Photo: asife/Shutterstock

April 8, 2019

Being pregnant can be equal parts exciting and terrifying. You can't wait to pick out names and nursery décor, but you've likely also fallen into the black hole of Google, researching everything that touches your skin to make sure it won't cause harm to your baby. And while most of the hair, skin, and makeup products you use are safe to continue during pregnancy, new research published in Reproductive Toxicology suggests that if you use certain chemical sunscreens it might be time to toss the tube.

The study found a link between oxybenzone—an organic compound used in chemical sunscreens which turn UV rays into heat and then release it from the body—and a birth defect called Hirschsprung's disease. The rare disease, which affects an infant's large intestine, occurs in one out of 5,000 children and may require surgery.

"When it's time to have a bowel movement there are neurotransmitters that are sent from the body to the colon to signal this. But with Hirschsprung's disease there's no transmitter there for it to reach the colon, and as a result the infant gets constipated," says Thomas Dardarian, D.O., president of the American College of Osteopathic Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Fort Worth, Texas.

The study shows pregnant women in their first trimester who apply sunscreen containing 6 percent oxybenzone twice a day (the recommended usage) can absorb the chemical into their bloodstream. It may then reach the fetus, causing harmful cell changes during embryonic development. "That's because oxybenzone is considered an endocrine disruptor, which can have an adverse effect on development, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems," says Dr. Dardarian.

Oxybenzone is also fat-soluble, meaning it gets into the fat cells and can stay there for weeks, making it difficult for expecting women to know what their exposure level really is. And this isn't only a cause for concern during pregnancy. Women who are trying to conceive should consider avoiding the product, along with those who aren't even planning on it—nearly 50 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, after all. "You could be away on a honeymoon using a product with oxybenzone thinking that everything is fine, and then you could wind up being pregnant and having an unintended exposure to it," Dr. Dardarian says.

But if you're past your first trimester and have just realized you've been using sunscreen with oxybenzone in it, try not to panic. "The reality is that all pregnant women are exposed to endocrine disruptors throughout gestation," says Felice Gersh, M.D., founder of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, California, and the author of PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist's Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness. "They are ubiquitous in our environment."

The study is also very dose dependent, adds Dr. Dardarian. This means where you live (particularly the type of climate) and how often you apply sunscreen are factors that determine a fetus' risk for Hirschsprung's disease. For instance, those who live in a sunny, warm location and use sunscreen with oxybenzone year-round and daily, may have a higher risk factor than someone who uses it less frequently, such as on vacation or seasonally.

Still nervous about past exposure to oxybenzone? It's not a bad idea to focus on your diet. Dr. Gersh recommends eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables (aim for nine to 12 cups daily). After discussing with you doctor, also consider taking a B complex supplement and extra folate which may help decrease the flow of toxins to the fetus.

Also keep in mind, you're not out of danger zone once a baby is born. Dr. Gersh warns exposure to an endocrine disruptor like oxybenzone can cause a host of issues, including poor sleep, ADHD, and an increase in certain illnesses like bronchitis and sinusitis. That's why it may be best to simply avoid using sunscreens with oxybenzone on your child at all times.

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