Most expectant Mums are well-informed about which foods to avoid when pregnant, however very few pregnancy guides or books offer advice on skin care products and ingredients which should equally be avoided or not used at all, due to their potential to harm an unborn baby. Some skin care ingredients have the ability to cross the placenta so if you haven’t yet come across this type of information, then below you will find a helpful cheat-sheet that you can use when shopping for skin care products.

Skincare ingredients that should NEVER be used in pregnancy or while breastfeeding:

— Retinoids —

Retinoids are found in some anti-ageing moisturisers due to their ability to help reduce wrinkles. They are a type of vitamin A that speeds up cell division (and therefore speeding your skin’s renewal) and prevent skin collagen from breaking down.

Whilst studies show that topical use (i.e. on a small percentage of your skin – less than 10%) shouldn’t cause harm (especially if retinoids are found towards the end of ingredient lists), precautionary advice is to avoid products with retinoids when expecting a baby or breastfeeding.

Please note though that just as with advice on eating foods containing high doses of Vitamin A (e.g. liver), studies have shown that high doses of Vitamin A in skin care products taken orally can be harmful to an unborn baby. Oral retinoids, such as isotretinoin (found in acne treatments, such as Roaccutane), are known to cause severe birth defects.

If you’ve discovered that you’ve been using a skin cream that contains a retinoid (this happened to me too!), please don’t panic. If you are worried, please seek advice and reassurance through your GP or midwife. Topical use is unlikely to have caused any harm but it is always best to speak to a professional to seek further advice and reassurance.

Search for these names within ingredient lists:

  • Retinoic acid (within medical prescriptions only)
  • Retinol
  • Retinyl palmitate/ retinal palmitate
  • Retinaldehyde (retinal)

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Other skincare ingredients BEST TO AVOID:

— Acids —

In particular, salicylic acid – it is often found in cleansers, toners and exfoliators, as well as some acne treatments, as it helps remove dead skin cells. BHA, or beta hydroxy acid, is a form of salicylic acid and is used in some topical exfoliators.

Again, if salicylic acid is found towards the end of an ingredient list rather than as an active agent if you are applying a product with salicylic acid to less than 10 percent of your total skin surface (e.g. within a toner once or twice a day) and are considered safe.

However, studies have shown that high doses in oral form can cause birth defects and various pregnancy complications. As salicylic acid is also used in face and body feels, it is recommended to always seek medical advice before starting such a treatment.

Search for these names within ingredient lists:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Beta hydroxy acid/BHA

Please note that the following acids are considered safe as long as they are at the end of the ingredient list rather than as active agents, however they may cause irritation due to hormonal changes happening within your body:

  • Glycolic Acid (also known as AHA)
  • Lactic Acid
  • Citric Acid
  • Malic Acid
  • Tartaric Acid
  • Mandelic Acid 

— Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) —

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (FRPs) are used in many products, e.g. shampoos, nail products, eyelash glues, hair gels and even some baby shampoos! They are used in cosmetics to prevent bacteria from growing in water-based products – all of these ingredients have different potency levels but when interacting with other ingredients, they can release the toxic formaldehyde, which is considered a known human carcinogen!

It is worth noting that formaldehyde and FRPs are completely banned from use in cosmetics and toiletries in Japan and Sweden; whilst in the EU, the use of Quaternium-15 as a preservative is allowed in cosmetic products at a concentration of up to 0.2% .

Search for these names within ingredient lists:

  • 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane-1,3-Diol (Bromopol)
  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane (Bronidox)
  • Diazolidinyl Urea
  • DMDM Hydantoin
  • Glyoxal
  • Imidazolidinyl Urea
  • Polyoxymethylene Urea
  • Quaternium–15
  • Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate

— Parabens —

Parabens are widely used as preservatives to prevent the growth of microbes and, therefore, to prolong the shelf life of skincare products. Some are more potent than others but overall, they can be absorbed by skin, blood and the digestive system. They are thought to behave like hormones and have been linked to cancer (skin and breast), as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity.

They can be easily found on the ingredients list – simply check the list for anything ending in paraben:

  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Isopropylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Benzylparaben

— Phenoxyethanol —

Used as a preservative, exposure to this chemical has been linked to reactions ranging from eczema to severe, life-threatening allergic reactions – mostly due to its ability (unlike many other ingredients) to penetrate through the skin’s protective barrier.

Infant oral exposure to phenoxyethanol is also said to acutely affect nervous system function. Moreover, parabens may enhance the allergic effects of phenoxyethanol so avoid products containing both chemicals. If you are not allergic, phenoxyethanol is considered a relatively safe preservative; however, from my understanding the scientific research on this ingredient isn’t particular conclusive so perhaps it’s better to stick to the ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude for now.

Note: the Cosmetics Regulation of the European Union approved phenoxyethanol in concentrations up to 1%.

— Ethanolamine compounds (MEA, DEA, TEA and others) —

Ethanolamines are present in many products, not only skin care and make up (including shaving creams, shampoos, dyes and mascara) but also household cleaning products.

Ethanolamines can react with certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen, and then form nitrosamines (a class of different chemicals) which are possible and known carcinogens. Some studies also suggest that DEA affects human male reproductive health.

The European Commission prohibits diethanolamine (DEA) in cosmetic products in order to reduce contamination from carcinogenic nitrosamines.

Search for these names within ingredient lists:

  • Triethanolamine/ TEA
  • Diethanolamine/ DEA
  • Cocamide DEA
  • Cocamide MEA

— Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT) —

These common preservatives are quite a mouthful to pronounce to say the least but they are found in many liquid products (such as body washes, shampoos and make up removers), and have been linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions and possible neurotoxicity. They are said to be two of the most predominant contact allergens found in cosmetic products.

Search for these names within ingredient lists:

  • Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
  • MI
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone (CMIT)
  • MCI

— Polyacrylamide —

Polyacrylamide is used as a stabiliser and binder in many products, including face moisturisers, anti-ageing products and body lotions. Though it is not a concern in itself, it is made up of repeating molecules of acrylamide, which is a strongly suspected carcinogen and has been linked to reproductive and developmental toxicity.

— Some UV filters —

Unlike what some may think, UV filters are used not only in sunscreen products but also in everyday skin care and make-up products. Unfortunately, though, some filters have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and organ system toxicity. For instance, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate has been detected in human urine, blood and breast milk, which indicates that we are systemically exposed to this compound. It is also considered an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and can disrupt thyroid function.

Search for these names within ingredient lists:

  • 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor
  • Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate also known as Octyl Methoxycinnamate (OMC)
  • Homosalate
  • Ingredients containing the word benzophenone (e.g. Benzophenone-3, Benzophenone-4)
  • PABA/ OD-PABA/ Padimate O

— Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil and related ingredients —

Whilst this is a natural ingredient, and soy-based lotions and facial products are generally considered safe to use, there are some studies that show that soybean oil has estrogenic effects so can deteriorate the symptoms of chloasma (i.e. dark blotches on facial skin) that affects some women in pregnancy.

— Some essential oils —

Essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy, however scientific evidence behind the effects of essential oils on a developing baby is not substantial so it is best to avoid them or to consult with your GP or midwife before deciding on a complimentary treatment or using essential oils yourself.

Please note that essential oils used within a skin care product are safe to use.

Are you also trying to avoid potentially harmful ingredients in children’s skincare products?

If so, then head over to my blog post Keep away from children to find out which ingredients to avoid and download another helpful cheat sheet.

You may also find my post My six golden rules for deciphering ingredient lists useful.

Let me know in the comments below which skincare products you’re worried about…

[disclaim]Disclaimer: I am NOT a medical professional and this blog post is written for informational purposes only. If you are uncertain about any particular product and its ingredients, please seek medical advice, especially if you wish to start using a new product or skin treatment.[/disclaim]