13 Cosmetic Chemicals to Avoid During Pregnancy

To keep your baby safe, your skincare routine may need some adjustments. Learn which cosmetics chemicals to avoid during pregnancy.

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We're sure you've got the basic pregnancy no-nos covered. For example, you forgo wine with dinner, you check with a health care provider before taking any medication, and you've said sayonara to sushi. But you're probably more than a little lost when it comes to the chemicals in your skincare and makeup.

It's understandable; ingredient lists can be daunting. So we did the research and simplified it for you. Read on for a list of chemicals to avoid during pregnancy and tips on choosing safer products.

Cosmetic Chemical Concerns During Pregnancy

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), environmental contaminants can have lasting effects on reproductive health. Toxic exposures may include air and water pollution and personal care products. And unlike pharmaceuticals, which are closely regulated before going to market, environmental chemicals like those found in cosmetics are not.

Some personal care products contain chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with the body's hormones. Avoiding these chemicals in beauty products during pregnancy can lower your exposure and risk.

Cosmetic Chemicals to Avoid During Pregnancy

Always be sure to read ingredient lists to find what chemicals are in your cosmetics. The following is a list of chemicals often found in cosmetics that experts suggest you avoid during pregnancy.

Aluminum

Aluminum is an element found in many things, including food preparation, water treatment, cosmetics, and hygiene products like antiperspirants. The body usually excretes aluminum, but if levels exceed the body's capacity, it can stay in your tissues and organs.

Aluminum is a known neurotoxin, and research shows that exposure can lead to neurological disorders. So limiting exposure during pregnancy may be a good idea. Look for the ingredient as aluminum chloride hexahydrate or aluminum chlorohydrate.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHA)

Beta hydroxy acids treat acne and other skin conditions like psoriasis. They include:

  • Salicylic acid
  • 3-hydroxypropionic acid
  • Trethocanic acid
  • Tropic acid

Research has found that salicylic acid has been associated with embryo malformation when ingested. Although the same has not been seen with topical application, experts still recommend limiting its use during pregnancy just to be on the safe side.

Diethanolamine (DEA)

Diethanolamine (DEA) is commonly found in hair and body products, especially shampoos, hair relaxers, and leave-in conditioners. You'll find it in an ingredient list as one of the following:

  • Diethanolamine
  • Oleamide DEA
  • Lauramide DEA
  • Cocamide DEA

Research has found that DEA may impact reproductive health. Specifically, a study of sperm donors found that DEA alters the structure and function of human sperm. Plus, older animal studies have found a link between maternal exposure to DEA and altered memory function in offspring.

Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

The active ingredient in self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone (DHA). While only a small percentage (around 0.5%) is absorbed by the skin, researchers say inhaling spray-on tanners is the more significant risk of exposure during pregnancy. Since inhalation results in higher blood concentrations, avoiding these products while pregnant is best.

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is found in some hair straightening treatments, nail polishes, and eyelash glue. You'll find the ingredient listed as one of the following:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Quaternium-15
  • Dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM)
  • Hydantoin
  • Imidazolidinyl urea
  • Diazolidinyl urea
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate
  • 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol)

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), formaldehyde exposure increases the risk of fertility problems and miscarriage. People at greatest risk are those exposed occupationally, like those who work in a salon.

Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is a lightening agent found in cosmetics most heavily marketed to people of color. You'll find it in the ingredients list as one of the following:

  • Hydroquinone
  • Idrochinone
  • Quinol
  • 1-4 dihydroxy benzene
  • 1-4 hydroxy benzene

The ingredient is actually banned in Europe due to toxicity concerns, but it is available in the U.S. About 35% to 45% of the chemical is absorbed into the bloodstream when applied topically. So, it's best to avoid it while pregnant.

Parabens

Parabens are used as a preservative in cosmetics, personal care products, and medicines. You'll find them under the ingredient list as one of the following:

  • Propyl
  • Butyl
  • Isopropyl
  • Isobutyl
  • Methyl

Parabens are known endocrine disrupters, and researchers have found that exposure can reduce sperm and increase birth weight.

Phthalates

Phthalates are found in products with synthetic fragrances and nail polishes. You'll find them in the ingredients list as the following:

  • Di-ethyl phthalate (DEP)
  • Di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP)
  • Di-methyl phthalate (DMP)
  • Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Di-n-octyl phthalate (DOP)
  • Benzyl butyl phthalate (BzBP)
  • Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) 

Due to the prevalence of phthalates, exposure is widespread, and research has found that preventing exposure may reduce the risk of preterm birth.

Retinoids

Retinoids are a synthetic (human-made) form of vitamin A used to treat skin conditions, especially severe acne. Retinoids are available in over-the-counter and prescription cosmetic products—though you're most likely to see retinol, a type of retinoid, in over-the-counter products. Retinoids may appear as one of the following on ingredients labels:

  • Vitamin A
  • Retinoic acid
  • Retinyl palmitate
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Adapalene
  • Tretinoin
  • Tazarotene
  • Isotretinoin

Using retinol can lead to fetal retinol syndrome, which can cause congenital malformations. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, manifestations may include growth delay, skull and facial malformations, and nervous system and heart abnormalities.

Thioglycolic acid

Thioglycolic acid is found in chemical hair removers. You'll find it listed as an ingredient as one of the following:

  • Acetyl mercaptan
  • Mercaptoacetate
  • Mercaptoacetic acid
  • Thiovanic acid

Little is known about the absorption of thioglycolic acid due to a lack of human studies. Still, health care providers generally recommend against its use while pregnant.

Toluene

Toluene is a solvent found in nail polishes and may be labeled as follows:

  • Methylbenzene
  • Toluol
  • Antisal 1a

According to NIOSH, solvents increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth, low birth weight, and congenital disabilities. Those at greatest risk of exposure are those who work with solvents, such as dry cleaners, artists, cosmetologists, and printers.

Triclosan

Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical used in some toothpastes, cosmetics, soaps, and lotions. It might be called one of the following on a label:

  • 2,4,4′-Trichloro-2′-hydroxydiphenyl ether
  • 5-Chloro-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)phenol
  • Trichloro-2′-hydroxydiphenyl ether
  • CH-3565
  • Lexol 300
  • Irgasan (DP 300)
  • Ster-Zac

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use in over-the-counter (OTC) wash products in 2016; however, it can still be found in other items like some lotions and toothpastes. Tricolsan is an endocrine disrupter, and according to researchers, it is associated with adverse birth outcomes, including head circumference, birth weight, and length.

Cosmetic Chemicals That Are Safer During Pregnancy

The following cosmetic chemicals are safer choices for your skincare during pregnancy:

  • Benzoyl peroxide in limited amounts
  • Glycolic acid
  • Azelaic acid
  • Vitamin C serum

While these ingredients don't come with known risks, that doesn't mean they are perfectly safe. So, before using them, it's best to talk to a health care provider.

Quick Tip

One surefire way to avoid unwanted chemicals in skincare products is to make your own. There are plenty of DIY recipes out there for making everything from deodorant to facial cleansers.

What About Sunscreen?

Protecting your skin from the sun's harmful rays is important, pregnant or not. But, generally, you should stick to mineral sunscreens and avoid chemical sunscreens during pregnancy. That's because maternal exposure to chemical sunscreens, especially the ingredient oxybenzone, has been associated with Hirschsprung's Disease in babies, a condition that affects the colon and causes trouble passing stool.

Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Unlike chemical sunscreens, which absorb ultraviolet (UV) rays, mineral sunscreens work by creating a barrier to reflect UV light.

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Sources
Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Skin changes and safety profile of topical products during pregnancyJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2022.

  3. Spermatotoxic effect of diethanolamine: An in vitro study. Asian Pacific Journal of Reproduction. 2013.

  4. Diethanolamine alters neurogenesis and induces apoptosis in fetal mouse hippocampusFASEB J. 2006.

  5. Self-tanners, tanning pills, tanning booths. Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS). 2021

  6. Prenatal exposure to parabens affects birth outcomes through maternal glutathione S-transferase (GST) polymorphisms: From the mothers and kids environmental health (MAKE) studyInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2021.

  7. Associations between prenatal urinary biomarkers of phthalate exposure and preterm birth: A pooled study of 16 US cohortsJAMA Pediatr. 2022.

  8. Urinary triclosan concentrations during pregnancy and birth outcomesEnviron Res. 2017.

  9. Can oxybenzone cause Hirschsprung's disease?Reprod Toxicol. 2019.

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