As a teratogen information specialist, one of the questions I frequently get asked is “can this product be harmful to me or my pregnancy?” What a perfect time to address this question during June’s National Safety Month, which aims to raise awareness about reducing the leading causes of unintentional injury in the home! What is the answer to that common safety question? Usually yes, a product can be harmful to you or your pregnancy. But before you throw out everything in your house and live in a bubble for nine months, let me explain…
Anything can be toxic if too much is ingested or absorbed into the body – even water. What matters is the dose – how much of something you are exposed to. For example, in a healthy person, drinking 8-10 glasses of water a day would not be expected to cause water toxicity. However, drinking 8-10 gallons can be dangerous. Again – all in the dose.
There may be beauty products you use before pregnancy that may not be recommended for use during pregnancy. We’ll look at a few common products below:
When it comes to treating acne outside of pregnancy, there are many options. Vitamin A (retinol) and vitamin A derivatives (such as retinoic acid and isotretinoin) are often referred to as “retinoids”, and can be found in some acne treatment products. It’s well-known that the drug Accutane® (a pill taken by mouth that contains isotretinoin) can cause birth defects in pregnancy, but it’s less clear if topical retinoids (like gels or creams) have the same effects. When applied on the skin, usually much less of the medication makes it into the bloodstream. This means less of the medication would make it across the placenta to the fetus. However, even though the risk with topical use is different than when taking a pill, women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breast-feeding should discuss this with their healthcare provider.
This relative of aspirin can be found in some beauty products, including cleansers and toners. Low dose aspirin (less than 81 mg/day), taken by mouth, has been well studied in pregnancy and does not appear to increase the chance of birth defects or other pregnancy complications. When applied on the skin, the amount of salicylic acid that enters the body would be much less than when a woman takes low dose aspirin. The amount that can be absorbed depends on the health of the skin, the levels (dose) of active ingredients, the area exposed (how much skin comes in contact with the product) and how often you use it. It’s important to use as directed by the product label or by your healthcare provider. When used as directed, it is unlikely that topical salicylic acid would pose any risk to a developing baby. Too much of this ingredient can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache, problems with breathing, abnormal heart rhythm or coma, and can be fatal.
In general, when used as recommended, the amount of dye that is absorbed by the healthy skin of the scalp is small and is not expected to cause problems in a pregnancy. However hair products made outside of the US might have dangerous substances or contaminants such as heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, nickel, arsenic or mercury. So it may be best to avoid beauty products made in other countries. Gloves should be worn to protect the skin on your hands, although this does not protect the scalp, neck, forehead, ears, and eyelids. If a temporary dye gets into your eyes, minor irritation is expected. For semi-permanent and permanent dyes, effects on the eyes can be more serious, which is why it is recommended that these products are not to be used to dye eyebrows or eyelashes. If eaten (ingested), effects can be minor irritation of the mouth, nausea, vomiting, allergic reactions, and possibly chemical burns. It’s best to keep these (and all) products out of the reach of children, and to wash any areas of the skin where dye was present.
So, can beauty products be used in pregnancy? Absolutely, depending on the specific ingredients, how much you use, and how often you use it. When in doubt, ask a professional.
If you suspect you had a toxic exposure to a product, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. If you have questions about everyday exposures during pregnancy or breastfeeding, call MotherToBaby at 1-866-626-6847.
Chris Stallman is a certified genetic counselor based in Tucson, Arizona and proud mother of three. She is the new host of The MotherToBaby Podcast, a show answering moms’ questions with evidence-based answers about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Listen to the episode on beauty products in pregnancy and breastfeeding on iTunes, Google Play Musicor Spotify. She currently works for The University of Arizona as a Teratogen Information Specialist at MotherToBaby Arizona, formerly known as the Arizona Pregnancy Riskline. Her counseling experience includes prenatal and cardiac genetics. She has also served as MotherToBaby’s Education Committee Co-chair.
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Androidand iOSmarkets. Also, make sure to subscribe to The MotherToBaby Podcastavailable on iTunes, Google Play Music, Spotifyand podcatchers everywhere.