Can I highlight my hair? Whiten my teeth? Here's a list of your beauty dos and don'ts.

young woman holding pregnancy test looking away with smile

Hair, Nails, and Teeth

Even though I am a longtime beauty writer, pregnancy really threw a wrench in my endless schedule of pedicures, massages, and peels. I was constantly calling my doctor to be sure all this primping wouldn't hurt my precious cargo, and most of the time I was allowed to indulge. But occasionally, my vanity had to take a backseat -- good training for motherhood, which reduces manicures and blowouts to mere monthly damage control. So I polled ob-gyns, dermatologists, and dentists about the most common beauty questions on the minds of moms-to-be.

Q. Can I color my hair?

A. Some doctors advise against putting any chemicals on your scalp, while others say it's fine after the first trimester. Most agree, however, that highlights are a safer bet as the chemicals are typically contained in foil and rarely touch the skin. If you're going to be doing at-home highlights, use a coloring cap (available at beauty supply stores) to keep the formula away from your scalp. Also wear gloves and apply the solution in a well-ventilated room to minimize inhaling the fumes. You may also want to consider using vegetable hair dyes, which usually contain fewer chemicals than conventional dyes.

Q. Can I still use depilatory creams for my lips and bikini line?

A. No studies have ever linked depilatory creams with birth defects. However, the vast majority of these creams are lye based, so the extra-cautious mom-to-be might choose to shave or wax instead. Bruce Shepherd, MD, an ob-gyn in Tampa, Florida, agrees. "While the risks to the baby are low for topical agents like these, I tell patients to err on the side of safety."

Q. Can I have my nails done?

A. Yes, say dermatologists and ob-gyns. This is great news, because many pregnant women report that their nails grow faster, longer, and stronger than ever before. While there are small amounts of toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde and toluene, in nail polishes and removers, an insignificant amount is absorbed through the nail bed. While I was pregnant, not only did having pretty polished toes (even if I couldn't see them) make me feel better about my expanding girth, but the accompanying leg massage helped minimize swelling.

Q. My teeth are looking yellow. Are at-home whitening kits safe to use?

A. They're not recommended. "Most contain hydrogen peroxide, which is often ingested during the whitening process," explains Lana Rozenberg, DDS, director of the Dental Day Spa, in New York City. "Because there have been no studies done on the effects on babies in utero, it's best to hold off." If you feel you must shine up your smile, find a dentist who whitens with a halogen light, which is safer than traditional bleaching trays. Of course, get permission from your ob-gyn before receiving any dental work other than a cleaning.

Questions About Skin Treatments

Q. Is it safe to use a fade cream on the dark patches on my skin?

A. Melasma, a darkening around the cheeks, forehead, lips, and chin, strikes more than 50 percent of pregnant women. Doctors blame increased estrogen levels, which stimulate the production of melanin (which makes us look tan), coupled with sun exposure. Although it's tempting to use a skin-bleaching cream, most contain hydroquinone (a powerful skin bleach) and little is known about its effects on a growing baby. Plus, even if you eliminate the discoloration now, it will likely come back as your pregnancy continues. Melasma often fades within a year after delivery, and you can use hydroquinone creams such as DDF's Potent Lightening Protocol cream to speed the process at that time. If the patches persist, your dermatologist can prescribe a stronger cream or other topical treatments to restore your even tone.

Q. Will skincare products with ingredients like retinol and alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) harm my unborn baby?

A. There is no evidence that skin-care products with AHAs can hurt your baby. Retinol, however, is another story. "Retinol is a milder, over-the-counter form of Retin-A," explains Dr. Barbara Reed, a dermatologist at the Denver Skin Clinic. "And there have been instances in which pregnant women using Retin-A gave birth to babies with abnormalities." Until after D-day, replace retinol products with vitamin C serums, which offer similar benefits and have been found to be safe to use during pregnancy.

Q. Can I still enjoy massages and facials?

A. Most spa treatments are safe; just make sure to inform the spa that you are pregnant. This is especially important if you're having a massage. Many spas have therapists who are specially trained in prenatal massage techniques, which means they'll know what areas of your body to avoid putting pressure on and what parts may need special attention, such as the lower back. They will also typically use unscented oils to avoid any adverse reactions. Some insurance companies will even cover the cost of occasional rubdowns if your doctor feels they'll help alleviate conditions such as sciatica and swelling. Steer clear of deep-tissue massage, as well as foot reflexology and shiatsu, which focus on certain acupressure points that can affect the abdomen. As for facials, a basic one is fine, but avoid chemical facials or peels, which can be harmful to your baby. Also skip any spa treatments that raise your body temperature, such as hot body wraps and the steam room. Not only can these treatments make you feel uncomfortable, but a rise in body temperature can be dangerous for your baby.

Q. I'm about to spend a week at the beach. Can I sunbathe safely?

A. You already know there's no safe way to sunbathe, and pregnancy hormones make you especially sun-sensitive -- and more easily dehydrated. While you are at the beach, apply a sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and an SPF of at least 30, and drink plenty of water. If you start to feel overheated or dizzy, find an air-conditioned room, rest, and rehydrate.

Q. Can I prevent stretch marks?

A. Not really. But you can keep them to a minimum by watching your weight and applying a rich moisturizer containing cocoa butter to help skin stay supple. If, after delivery, stretch marks are dashing your bikini dreams, there is hope: Prescription Retin-A or Renova creams have been found to minimize the appearance of some marks, or a dermatologist can zap them with a laser. Just do it right away, because treatment is more effective when the marks are new. In the meantime, you can conceal stretch marks with self-tanner, since they are more visible on pale skin.

Stacey Stapleton is a writer in New York City.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2005.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

American Baby