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We're entering a world where ruling out toxic ingredients in our beauty regimens is becoming more mainstream. The education is right at our fingertips, and the sheer scope of natural and organic products is bursting at the seams. Admittedly, though, I myself pay close attention to the labels on my skincare products, but when it comes to makeup, I'm much less discerning—it's hard to give up a foundation and mascara you've been using for years when no natural alternative seems to quite match up.
And somehow, I naively bargain with myself that the silicones and parabens that are seeping into my bloodstream don't seem like imminent danger in the short-term. But if I knew that my beauty choices were affecting someone else, I'd re-evaluate. Cue pregnancy: Kids aren't on my near horizon, but I know that if and when I get pregnant, my routine will look much different than it does today. This is because there are a ton of hidden ingredients that aren't great for baby, let alone your own body. To find out what these offending ingredients are, I spoke with several top dermatologists for their thoughts.
Though there is limited data (and according to Sara Twogood, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Cedars Sinai, there's a consensus by both the ACOG and mothertobaby.org that it can be used), we've decided to keep benzoyl peroxide on this list—for now. "Though pregnancy can often cause hormonal acne, unfortunately, the typical acne products found over the counter, like benzoyl peroxide, fall in category C," says Jenna Queller, MD, FAAD. "That means there's some possible risk to the fetus."
Meet the Expert
- Jenna Queller, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist who is highly trained in medical, surgical, and cosmetic dermatology. She is part of the medical team at MFC Dermatology in Beverly Hills, California.
- Dendy Engelman, MD, is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon. She is currently an associate at Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery.
"Fragrances are usually made up of other harmful chemicals, like parabens, benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and more that are linked to cancer and nervous system issues," says Dendy Engelman, MD. "Short-term, they can cause irritation and redness on the applied area. Look for these terms to clue you in that a product contains a fragrance: parfum, perfume, linalool, limonene, eugenol, citronellol, geraniol, or cinnamal. Fragrance-free products are mostly labeled as so."
"Used in plastics, it is a highly unstable chemical that can infiltrate into whatever is being contained by it," explains Engelman. "It disrupts the endocrine system, leading to breast/prostate cancer, infertility, heart disease, and diabetes. Fetuses exposed to BPA have been linked to developmental issues and behavioral problems."
This is used as a skin-lightening agent in brightening serums and creams used to treat conditions such as dark spots and melasma. Queller says, "Whether you were taking hydroquinone pre-pregnancy or are considering using it to treat the dark patches of skin that sometimes develop during pregnancy (also called the mask of pregnancy), this is one product to avoid until after your baby is born. Studies have shown that as much as 45% of this medication is absorbed into the skin after topical application, and while no studies have yet been conducted on the effect of hydroquinone on a fetus, there is just too much of the chemical in your bloodstream after use to justify the risk."
To prevent brown spots and discoloration during pregnancy—use sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen!
"This chemical has been linked to cancer as well as other nervous system issues like chest pain, coughing, trouble breathing, and respiratory irritations," warns Engelman. "Some hair-straightening procedures use this chemical during the process. Even some nail polishes still contain formaldehyde, putting your body and salon workers at risk. JinSoon nail polishes are a great brand without formaldehyde."
To avoid formaldehyde, look for nail polishes labeled 3-free or 5-free, which do not use this chemical.
Research is still ongoing, but there are studies that show these chemicals have been linked to breast cancer as well as affecting the reproductive system," Engelman explains. A link does not mean cause and effect, but it's worth noting. "They are mainly used to preserve products, found in everything from foundations to styling gel. However, so many wonderful products exist and do not need to include this harmful ingredient."
"This is an ingredient mainly found in beauty products to help stabilize the formula and have been linked to liver, kidney, lung, and reproductive issues," says Engelman. "Look for these terms ending in -phthalate to avoid this ingredient."
"Found in Retin-A and Accutane, retinoids are prescription acne and anti-aging medications," explains Queller. "It may be listed on ingredient labels as retinoic acid, retinyl palmitate, retinaldehyde, adapalene, tretinoin, tazarotene, and isotretinoin. There's a proven link between the use of retinoids and an increased risk of birth defects for developing babies. We warn patients not to get pregnant if they're using these medications. But if you do get pregnant, stop taking retinoids immediately. Most retinoids are category C (meaning not enough studies or only known effects in animals), but Tazarotene and Isotretinoin are category X, meaning they are contraindicated to use in pregnancy, and we know the effects they can cause in human babies."
Oral Salicylic Acid
While it's unlikely to cause harm when used topically, Arielle N.B. Kauvar, MD, director of New York Laser & Skin Care, says it's unsafe during pregnancy when taken orally. Studies suggest that taking oral salicylic acid during late pregnancy may increase the risk for intracranial bleeding in the fetus.
"Used in hair-removal creams, sometimes listed on the label as acetyl mercaptan, mercaptoacetate, mercaptoacetic acid, and thiovanic acid," explains Queller. "While there are no studies about the effect that this chemical has on a growing fetus, it's important to note that in Europe they limit the amount of thioglycolic acid that can be used in products to 5%, whereas products sold in the U.S. are allowed to contain as much as 15.2%. That's a big difference, and when combined with the lack of solid data on the health risks, it's best to leave these products on the shelf."
Sunscreen is a nonnegotiable year-round, but especially during pregnancy, it's important to pay closer attention to which type of formula you choose. "Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, oxtinoxate, menthyl anthranilate, and oxtocrylene—ingredients in chemical sunscreens are not all classified under the FDA categories, but only applying physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is the safest," says Queller. "There has been some suggestive evidence of chemical sunscreen risks, but they haven't been fully substantiated yet. Since there are excellent physical blockers out there that are safe, why not take the risk out of it altogether and stick to those sunscreens?"
While there are no studies testing the effect of injectables like Botox, Dysport, or Xeomin, on a developing fetus, Queller is still weary. "No physician would recommend or perform this on a pregnant patient because the botulinum toxin works by paralyzing the muscles around wrinkles so that they become less visible," she explains. "Not exactly something you want to take chances with when you have a growing baby inside you."
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Check your shampoo and soap labels—there's a good chance this ingredient is lingering in your bathroom at this moment. "This chemical acts as a foaming agent in many soaps and washes," says Engelman. "The issue is that the level of concentration of this chemical is too irritating by cosmetic standards. Our body is not able to break this chemical down, and with prolonged exposure, it can cause issues with the nervous system and kidney and liver function. If ingested, it can cause nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea."
Here's something scary: This ingredient is often found in mascaras, but according to Engelman, it releases formaldehyde. Cue the internal screams.
According to NOW, stearic acid is safe and common to use. It's a natural acid found in many foods, so it's safe (and pretty common) to ingest it. In beauty products, it's often used as an agent in facial products to help mix water and oil. In items like face wash, it can help wash away dirt and oil since it allows water to bond to the oil on your face and wash it away. SkinStore says that the FDA has concluded that stearic acid is safe to use in limited quantities, but warns it may irritate sensitive skin.