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Acne comes in a variety of forms during all stages of a person’s life, be that during their teen years, adulthood, or menopause. For women who are pregnant, breakouts may appear more frequently than usual. Pregnancy acne is a term used to describe the breakouts that occur thanks to the hormonal changes and fluctuations that a pregnant woman’s body goes through while carrying, especially in the first trimester, but what exactly is it, and why does it happen?
We spoke with Dr. Nava Greenfield, a board certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City to learn why acne occurs for some women during pregnancy, what causes it, and how to treat it.
Meet the Expert
Nava Greenfield, M.D. is a dermatologist practicing at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Manhattan. She has been published in many medical journals, including The Journal of Dermatological Treatment, the Journal of Women’s Dermatology and Pediatrics. Dr. Greenfield is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society, Women’s Dermatologic Society, and the American Medical Association.
Types of Pregnancy Acne
While "pregnancy acne" isn’t technically its own type of acne, it's a term that’s used to describe those pimples that pop up when someone is, you guessed it—pregnant. Depending on the person, any form of acne symptoms can appear on the face or body before, during, or after pregnancy, but there are few that are more common than others throughout this time. "Cystic/hormonal acne and comedonal acne are two types that can typically occur during pregnancy," says Greenfield.
- Comedones. More commonly referred to as blackheads (open comedones) or whiteheads (closed comedones), this type of acne is characterized by small bumps that give skin a bit of a rough texture, according to University of Florida Health. These acne symptoms occur at the opening of the pore, and are considered non-inflammatory acne, which means they won’t swell or cause much pain.
- Cystic acne. Cystic acne is a severe form of inflammatory acne that produces large red, swollen bumps that are often painful to the touch due to inflammation, which occurs when excess oil combines with dead skin cells to create bacteria. Medical News Today states that the main cause of cystic acne is hormonal fluctuations in the body, which occur during pregnancy, especially during the first and second trimesters.
Causes and Prevention of Pregnancy Acne
Acne is the most common skin disorder in the United States, and affects up to 50 million people, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Acne symptoms occur when the body produces too much sebum, or oil, which then becomes clogged within pores with dead skin cells to form a bacteria called P. acnes. The condition of acne can be triggered by a number of things, including genetics, stress, and namely, hormones, which is most often the culprit when it comes to pimples during pregnancy.
- Hormones: "Hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, and the increase in estrogen are two potential etiologies of increase in acne breakouts during pregnancy," says Greenfield. One hormone known for triggering excess oil production are androgens. One type of androgen is called progesterone, which is one of the key players during pregnancy as it prepares the uterus to house a baby. While there is little to be done to manage hormone fluctuations during pregnancy, you can treat the surface of your skin, which may prevent bacteria from forming in those pores.
- Dirty pillow cases and towels: This goes for all types of acne across the board: Your skin is only as clean as the items that come in contact with it. That means pillow cases or towels, which can accumulate dead skin cells and hair, which then deposit oil onto your complexion and can produce pimples around the hairline. For good measure, wash towels and pillow cases once a week, and opt for shampoo free of sodium laureth sulfate, which can irritate and cause breakouts.
- Picking and popping your pimples: Like any acne symptoms, the breakouts that appear on the skin during pregnancy should be left alone, as picking, popping, or squeezing can lead to further irritation. Sometimes, popping can lead to scarring from skin tearing, which can linger on the skin long after that pimple has passed. So, if you can resist the urge to touch those breakouts.
Pregnancy acne usually occurs when excess oil produced by fluctuating hormones and dead skin cells become trapped inside the pores, but there are some effective ways to minimize those breakouts.
Cleanse your skin.
This rule applies to just about everyone who’s living with or has experienced acne at some point, and it doesn’t stop when a person gets pregnant. Rather than reaching for any old acne-fighter on the shelf, however, checking labels for safe ingredients is key in reducing acne symptoms and staying healthy. "Skincare products are number one!" insists Greenfield. "I recommend Belli Skincare for pregnancy skin. Belli Skincare’s Anti-Blemish Facial Wash and Acne Control Spot Treatment are both safe products that will help pregnancy skin stay clear."
Get your vitamins.
Certain vitamins and minerals are known to reduce acne symptoms. One such mineral is zinc, which pregnant or lactating women can see deficiencies in, says Medical News Today. Talk to your doctor about adding zinc supplements to your diet.
Try blue light therapy.
If you already have pimple-causing bacteria inside of your pores, blue light therapy can banish bacteria, and the inflammation that comes with it. "Blue light therapy is safe and works as an antibacterial treatment to combat P. Acnes living and causing inflammation in the sweat glands," says Greenfield.
Try a chemical peel.
The key to keeping skin free of dead cells and built-up oil: exfoliation. "Gentle chemical peels using a low concentration of glycolic acid is safe and can go a long way in preventing oil buildup while also exfoliating," says Greenfield.
Use the right topical actives.
When asked which ingredients to say no to during pregnancy, Greenfield recommends avoiding retinoids at all costs. Why? According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, retinol is part of the isotretinoin family, which is synthetic vitamin A, and may cause birth defects. Additionally, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid—which are acne product heavy-hitters—should be limited, but check with your doctor first as they may be safe to use in small amounts. Using products that are safe for pregnancy yet effective enough to cleanse your sebaceous glands of built-up sebum can go a long way in preventing [and treating] acne breakouts," Greenfield suggests. "Ingredients such as lactic acid and sulfur are both safe and efficacious. They combat oil buildup and gently cleanse the skin."