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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 [email protected].

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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