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Skincare Safety During Pregnancy

By Amalah

Hi Amalah,

Here’s my situation. I am about 4 weeks pregnant — yep, we were trying so I and my impatient self took a test the day BEFORE my period was supposed to start and it was negative. But I just had a feeling, so the NEXT DAY I used a more expensive brand test and it was positive! Yay!

My question, though, is about safe skincare. My nature is not to be a freak-out case about things like caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and other things that have a tiny risk for pregnant women. When I was pregnant with my 3-yr-old son I cut back a little on caffeine, soft cheeses and cold cuts, and eliminated alcohol and sushi, but pretty much just lived life as usual. But I’ve had 3 unexplained miscarriages in the past year, so my new mindset is to be cautious — still drinking one cup of coffee a day but cutting all the other stuff completely.

I’ve read about the tiny risks of retinol and salicylic acid in skin products. Until now I’ve been using Neutrogena Anti-Wrinkle moisturizer with retinol and sometimes their blackhead and wrinkle reducing scrub with salicylic acid. What do you recommend to replace these two products for my combination, pregnant, skin? And what do you think about the warnings in the first place?


– V

A Warning About Warnings

Let me start off with my thoughts about the warnings in general: they aren’t talking about the products you’re using. The warnings are about the heavy-duty, concentrated, prescription-strength versions, and even then the warnings are a little vague and tend to fall into the “eh, better to be overly safe than sorry” category of pregnancy warnings. And as you know, this is a HUGE category.

I have VERY STRONG OPINIONS about how pregnant women are treated these days: we’re somewhere between ultra-valuable and delicate Ming vases and complete hayseed dumbasses who can’t be expected to understand concepts like “pasteurization” so they tell us just to avoid “soft cheese” even though the texture of the cheese has NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. (Raw-milk unpasteurized cheese that has been aged less than 60 days is what you need to avoid, and it’s really easy, because it’s ILLEGAL to sell raw-milk cheese that’s been aged less than 60 days in the U.S. But visit any pregnancy message board on the Internet and you’ll find women asking whether it’s okay to have cream cheese on their bagel.)

A lot of the warnings seem to be based on the idea that women aren’t responsible enough to understand MODERATION. A occasional glass of wine is probably ok, but what if someone thinks “occasional” means “one every other hour”? Oh noes! Teh babies! A thin nightly application of an over-the-counter acne cream with a small amount of salicylic acid is okay, but then what if pregnant women forget to tell their doctor about their prescription for Accutane? (Which…you should never, ever, EVER take during pregnancy. There’s no grey area about that one.)

(Oh, and did you know you have a higher likelihood of contracting a food-borne illness from McDonald’s than from a nice sushi restaurant or a wedge of Brie? It’s true, and yet nobody is telling pregnant women to give up their Big Macs…just those “weird” foreign foods. How INNNNTERESTING!)

ANYWAY. I have gone off on a wild tangent. Personally, I don’t believe you need to worry about the products you’re using. Over-the-counter non-prescription strength versions of retinol and salicylic acid are extremely unlikely to cause birth defects, and I used both during my pregnancy with Noah. (Hope in a Bottle exfoliating moisturizer and a retinol eye cream that I can’t remember the name of anymore.)

So What Can You Use on Your Skin?

If you find that the nagging worry just won’t go away, however, there’s no sense in stressing about your SKINCARE products just so I can prove a point about ridiculous pregnancy warnings. Treat yourself to Philosophy’s Purity Made Simple facial wash and Hope in a Jar moisturizer, which work great for my combination AND pregnant skin and contain no suspect ingredients, and tell yourself that you need to spend the extra money right now for the good of the baby.

And I suppose this is as good a place as any to finally address the Cosmetics Database site by the Environmental Working Group, that I seriously get weekly emails about from people who are either Pissed As Hell or Terrified Out Of Their Wits. Yes. There’s some scary stuff on there. But no, I’m not throwing out the contents of my makeup drawer just yet, as I’ve yet to fully make up my mind about the site. There’s some very good information on there, DEFINITELY, but a lot of it is lacking in the necessary context. Why no links to the studies they reference as proof of the dangers? Or even just excerpts or summaries of the methods and findings? It’s all a little too “WE’VE read the studies so you don’t have to, now take our word for it” for me.

Anytime anyone starts talking about toxicity and carcinogens and what-have-you, it’s very important to consider the LEVELS it would require to cause harm. Just like a lot of old studies about artificial sweeteners would have required a real-world equivalent of 350 cans of diet soda a DAY to replicate the results seen in lab mice, I wonder if many of the warnings about trace ingredients in moisturizers and powder compacts are a tad overblown at the levels we really use them at. Plus, I simply flat-out disagree with some of the EWG’s pet causes, like all the dangers in sunscreen, for example. But we do agree that added “fragrance” is crap. So. Visit the site and poke around, and make up your own mind. I certainly do fall into the “better safe than sorry” group about a lot of stuff (usually anything I use on my kid — I’ll toss out anything that bears the slightest hint of risk), but I’m also a skeptic who enjoys my patch of middle ground.

But finally — and I should have started with this before getting up on my little pet soapbox — I am very sorry for your losses this year, and can completely see where the extra worry is coming from. BUT! It’s unbelievably unlikely that your miscarriages were caused by anything external that *you* did. And I’m sure you know that, but I figured I’d remind you one last time, which hopefully you find vaguely less annoying than all those people who remind you to “enjoy your sleep while you still can, mwa ha ha haaaa!” Idiots.

Don’t forget to visit Amalah’s Weekly Pregnancy Calendar.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • jodifur

    March 28, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    So much of the pregnancy warnings depend where you live also. In Europe, they are told a glass of wine a week is fine. A friend of mine had a Japanese OB and he said sushi was fine. America goes to the extreme for everything. Even my ob admitted the reason they say no liquor is b.c they are worried if they say in moderation, women will drink too much.
    I am also sorry for your loss.

  • Wallydraigle

    March 28, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    I think if one more person tells me in a condescending tone, “Now, remember–no alcohol for you!” I will get medieval on their hineys. And I’m pretty sure that won’t be good for the baby. I’m a responsible, grown woman with a respectable IQ. Most pregnant women probably are. Why do we get treated like preschoolers?

  • Cassandra

    March 29, 2008 at 11:39 am

    So, I totally didn’t know about that website until just now, and now I’ve spent hours figuring out that everything I own is going to give me cancer/cause organ failure.

  • sarawr

    March 29, 2008 at 2:25 pm

    So, I had (past tense for reasons that will become clear) a friend who, during her third pregnancy in two and a half years, loudly lamented the fact that she could not drink. As her replacement for a glass of wine was a joint, I was a bit hasty in letting her know that the occasional small glass of red wine would probably okay. At our next get-together, she told me she’d looked into this fact and discovered that I was right, thanked me profusely, and proceeded to drink eight glasses of wine. A bottle and a half of wine, in one sitting, while five months pregnant. She was drunk. Not the kind of drunk you get when you have two ounces of red to be polite at a dinner when you’ve been teetotaling for eight months, but the kind of drunk you get at the Kappa Kappa Whatever house during freshman year when you’re looking for a cooler identity.
    A few bad apples spoil the bushel, is what I’m saying. Apparently, some pregnant women can’t apply common sense to questions of moderation and harm. I hate those women, because they are the reason I got kicked out of a restaurant when I was pregnant — not for drinking, but for being in a place that served alcohol with a popped-out navel; the owner was “uncomfortable” because of idiotic people like the aforementioned. Feh.

  • Amy Corbett Storch

    March 30, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    sarawr — those stories, BOTH OF THEM, are crazy, although deep down I’m totally not surprised. I once got scolded by the *parking valet* outside a sushi restaurant because he didn’t think I should be eating there.
    And yet…I also once watched a very pregnant woman smoke heavily and drink straight whiskey at a friend’s birthday party, with the excuse that she did it with her other two pregnancies and “they turned out fine.”
    In sum, some people are dumb, but I’m not, so back the eff off.
    (And Cassandra — same results here, which is why I kind of have a hard time taking it that seriously. We’d all be long dead by now, honestly. In fact, the only product I own that has a really LOW risk number is Bare Escentuals — which is also the only product I own that actually caused me fairly serious problems! The irony!)

  • leahkay

    March 31, 2008 at 8:20 pm

    My OB told me eating sushi while pregnant was FINE so long as I wasn’t getting it from sketchy joint with no refrigeration. “Think about what pregnant women eat in Japan!” she said, and, yeah, she’s right. That said, miscarriages have a way with screwing up one’s idea of what’s acceptable and what’s not, so don’t let anyone pressure you into eating/wearing/doing things you don’t want to do just to prove you’re not paranoid.

  • bunnybunny

    April 2, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Yep, it grinds me too how not only people think you’ve lost your common sense… but especially how total strangers think they have a right to opine on your condition.
    However, you also have every right to freak out about anything you want, including skincare. Particularly after everything you’ve been through – and I’m so sorry about your miscarriages.
    I’m a makeup artist and the two most important things (which you are doing) are exfoliation and moisturizing. If going totally chemical-free helps you sleep at night, you can easily replace those products with Lush products… you can practically eat their ingredients and their skincare is quite sophisticated. They have Angels on Bareskin and Mask of Magnaminty for exfoliation and a skin cream called Gorgeous that comes with a huge price tag (80 bucks) but is a really great product.
    If you don’t necessarily want to go full-on natural, I also find the staff at Kiehls very good – they can tell you exactly what the ingredients are and even where they came from. They’re also uber-generous with samples so you can try before you invest.

  • Andrea

    October 16, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Oh my god I got so excited when I read this. I feel the inherent truth in everything you say here, but it would be much easier to get my family off my back if I can point to some sources for things you mentioned, like the specific cheese definition (“Raw-milk unpasteurized cheese that has been aged less than 60 days is what you need to avoid”) and the thing about McDonalds vs. sushi. Please help!

  • Melissa

    October 26, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Every day I love you more and more, Amy. This post had me laughing out loud; I am only 10 weeks but mostly get treated like a simpleton these days… I had feta on a pizza inadvertently around week 6 and freaked out because I was sure the LISTERIA WOULD KILL MY BABY.
    Now? Not so much. I think I am finally calming down as I near the end of the first trimester, and becoming a strong, competent earth mother who eats tuna occasionally, mercury be damned.

  • sunshine

    December 1, 2013 at 3:19 am

    What a great response!

  • Liz

    March 25, 2014 at 11:40 am
  • Raya

    November 5, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Thank you, this post offered me some much-needed reassurance. I am 10 weeks along and just realized that my wonderful Tarte Amazonian Clay Tinted Moisturizer contains Retinyl Palminate (something that I didn’t even think to check earlier because Tarte is toted as a “holistic” brand). I also found out that one of my moisturizers (another seemingly “safe” brand) had salicylic acid. Although I was using TINY amounts of both products, I could not shake the feeling that I was “poisoning” my baby. My obgyn clinic told me that it was “probably fine” but to stop using it just in case. That didn’t really make me feel better…the first trimester hormones do not prompt rational thinking. There is so much hysteria surrounding pregnancy that I am finding myself irrationally stressing out about things I have never even conceived of before…and I am an educated, reasonable adult – or at least I like to think of myself as one! 

    Did anyone else use small amounts of retinol/salicylic acid and end up with perfectly healthy babies? I would love to hear some happy stories!