A young pregnant woman moistures her arms.

Pregnancy skincare routine: the ingredients you can & can’t use

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Wondering what skincare products are safe to use during pregnancy? L360 editor and aesthetician Mattie Lacey-Davidson speaks reveals all.

Pregnancy comes with a lot of changes, not just to your body, but to what you can and can’t do. Whatever the feeling about being with child — excited, nervous, or something else entirely — most women will, at some point, feel pretty fed up with the resulting restrictions. Whether it’s food, drink or physical activity, what you can and can’t do while pregnant can be both frustrating and confusing. Unfortunately, skincare is part of that. Quite a few of the big-ticket items immediately become restricted or off limits entirely — including retinol, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acids and even some sunscreens.

A young woman in a red bikini applying sunscreen to her arm.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov

Even if you think you’re pretty savvy when it comes to your knowledge of pregnancy-safe skincare, the huge changes to hormone levels in your body over the nine months can lead to your skin changing entirely. While some report a ‘pregnancy glow’ — due to increased blood flow — others speak of fluctuations in their skin condition. You might go from normal skin to sensitive skin, dry skin to oily skin, and you might even find yourself with acne for the first time in your life with no idea how to treat it.

I spoke to two skincare experts to find out exactly what skincare ingredients pregnant women can and can’t use, and why — and used this to create a simple pregnancy skincare routine for you.

Skincare restrictions during pregnancy:

Can you use retinol while pregnant?

When it comes to the skincare ingredients that are unsafe to use while pregnant, retinol is at the top of the list as it carries the most risk. A topical form of vitamin A, retinol increases the speed of skin cell turnover — making it a sought-after product for anyone fighting breakouts, acne and signs of ageing — but all the experts warn against its use entirely during pregnancy. Amie Hibbert, aesthetician and skincare specialist at VieDerma, explains: “While vitamin A is important for foetal development, additional absorption through skincare ingredients may cause excessive intake and cause birth defects.”

While the research linking excess vitamin A and birth defects was conducted with high percentage, prescription-only retinol (such as tretinoin), it is recommended that over-the-counter, low-percentage retinol products should be avoided, too.

A young black woman applies her skincare routine in front of a wall mirror.

Are chemical exfoliators, such as lactic or glycolic acid, safe during pregnancy?

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are chemical exfoliators that break down the bonds holding dead skin cells together and can help increase skin cell turnover. There are several different types (glycolic acid and lactic acid are the most popular), and all should be used at low levels. “Small doses pose a low risk,” explains Bruce Green, cosmetic chemist and founder of skincare brand SOS Serum. “But high doses come with mixed evidence on risk, so should be avoided.”

Unfortunately, this is where things can become confusing. Generally, the recommended level for pregnancy is a concentration of less than 10%, but many AHA products don’t disclose the percentage used. If your favourite AHA skincare product isn’t labelled, and you can’t find the details online, then it’s best to swap it for a product that lists percentages at the desired amount. I recommend Alpha-H Liquid Gold, a 5% glycolic acid toner.

Can you use salicylic acid when pregnant?

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that works differently to the chemical exfoliators above. Whereas AHAs break down dead skin on the surface, salicylic acid is able to go deep into the skin’s pores, where it breaks down any build up of dirt or oil, leading to fewer spots and blackheads. As is the case with AHAs, high percentages are off limits. “There is some evidence that high doses can cause defects,” says Bruce. “And even though this is often disputed, I recommend you don’t take the risk.”

So does this mean that — as with AHAs — salicylic acid can be used at low percentages during pregnancy? Amie suggests you steer clear, warning that even at low percentages it should be used with caution. A low dose would be anything under 2%, but you’re even less likely to find the percentage labelled on skincare products for this ingredient, which adds another uncertainty to the mix. So it’s best avoided.

In a bathrobe, a young woman prepares to use essential oils in her bath.

Essentials oils and pregnancy: is fragrance in skincare safe?

This is a tricky one, as not all essential oils have been tested for safety during pregnancy, used topically or otherwise. “The majority of essential oils are deemed safe,” says Bruce. “But — and it’s a big but — many fragranced cosmetics contain a combination of oils, not just one. And essential oil combinations haven’t been thoroughly tested.” To be on the safe side, he recommends going fragrance free with your skincare while pregnant.

Even when other ingredients are used to add fragrance, changes to your skin during pregnancy can result in heightened sensitivity, and fragrance ingredients can contribute to this. If you’re dealing with sensitised skin (or just want to play it safe) look for fragrance-free skincare. It’s pretty popular right now, so it won’t be hard to find.

Is sunscreen safe to use during pregnancy?

The answer to this is yes – and maybe not. Mineral sunscreens are deemed safe, but it’s recommended that you avoid chemical sunscreens. The reason for this is evidence shows some chemical SPF ingredients (oxybenzone in particular) are absorbed through the skin into the blood, which means they’ll likely end up making their way into your baby’s system, too. Some research suggests this can lead to developmental problems and birth defects. All skincare products will have ingredients listed, so you can quickly check for oxybenzone, but if the thought of sunscreen in your blood is off-putting, grab a mineral sunscreen. I recommend Summer Fridays Mineral Milk Sunscreen (SPF 30), as it’s suitable for all skin tones and won’t leave a white cast which, unfortunately, mineral sunscreens are infamous for.

A young woman in a blue bikini holds her baby bump.
Photo by Ignacio Campo

Pregnancy-safe skincare ingredients:

How to treat acne during pregnancy

With two of the best breakout-busting ingredients off limits (retinol and salicylic acid), acne can be hard to treat during pregnancy, but azelaic acid will help. A chemical exfoliator, azelaic acid is both anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory, so can reduce breakouts. It also works well in fading any dark patches or red marks that spots have left behind. I recommend The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%. It can be used morning and evening, in combination with any other ingredient (bar another exfoliator), but I’d start with just once a day and increase after a few weeks if you’re not seeing results.

However, it’s worth noting that hormonal acne is one of the hardest forms to treat, as the root of the problem is not in the skin, and there’s nothing you can do about hormone levels during pregnancy as they’re fluctuating for good reason.

A young woman examines her complexion in the mirror for hormonal acne.
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch
The best anti-ageing ingredients to use when pregnant

As we’ve said, low levels of AHAs are OK, and you might find that ageing skin is less obvious while pregnant, due to increased blood levels keeping it plump and healthy. But if you want a little more from your skin then add bakuchiol into your pregnancy skincare routine. Often referred to as ‘natural retinol’ or ‘phyto-retinol’, this ingredient comes from the psoralea corylifolia plant. One study found that when a 0.5% bakuchiol cream was used morning and evening for six weeks, it had similar anti-ageing effects to retinol — such as a reduction in wrinkle depth, fine lines and pigmentation, as well as increased elasticity and firmness of the skin — but without the drying and sensitising effect that sometimes comes with introducing retinol to skin. The same study also found it to be effective at preventing and treating spots, so it might be a contender for fighting acne, too.

As  skincare specialist myself, I don’t think it’s quite on a level with retinol but simply a good alternative. I recommend the Balance Me Bakuchiol Smoothing Serum.

How to treat melasma in pregnancy

Hyperpigmentation is when the skin produces too much melanin in one area, leaving you with dark spots. In pregnancy this is often referred to as melasma and can come in the form of freckles or large brown patches. Hyperpigmentation can be caused by sun damage, so it’s best to wear sunscreen daily, but it isn’t known exactly why it happens during pregnancy, although most people blame hormone levels as it can occur during menopause, too, another period of huge hormonal fluctuation.

If you find yourself with melasma and want to reduce it with skincare, you’ve quite a few options. Glycolic acid, azelaic acid, vitamin C, niacinamide and bakuchiol can all reduce signs of hyperpigmentation and are all pregnancy safe — just don’t use them all in the same routine.

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