As if you don’t already have enough things to worry about while trying to conceive, tacking your skincare regimen onto that list might seem a bit ridiculous, or annoying at best. The unfortunate truth is, certain chemicals found in skincare products can cause complications during pregnancy, so it’s best to avoid them while on your journey to conception. 

But how do you know which products are safe and which ones to ditch? We’ve wrangled up some of the most important skincare guidelines to follow while trying to get pregnant so you can rest assured that you’re making the best decisions for you and your (future) baby.

skincare tools

Skincare Ingredients to Avoid When Trying to Conceive

1. Retinoids

If the idea of shelving your trusted skincare routine came as a shock to you, avoiding retinoids during pregnancy may be something you have heard before as it’s more commonly talked about. Retinoids, a synthetic form of vitamin A, are absorbed by the skin and transformed into retinol. They can be used topically or taken orally. 

Generally speaking, it is orally-consumed retinoids that have been proven to cause a 20 to 35% increased risk of congenital defects. Research has also documented 60% of children displaying neurocognitive disabilities when exposed to retinoids in utero. While over-the-counter retinol products and topical creams contain much lower doses than prescription-strength medications, it is still widely advised to avoid all retinoids when trying or during pregnancy.

This is a bummer, we know — especially because of retinol’s ability to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, as well as treat common skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis. But, thankfully, alternatives like Azelaic acid are TTC and pregnancy safe, so ask your healthcare provider about making the swap. 

2. Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is a chemical used in prescription medication to lighten skin that has hyperpigmentation, usually from melasma or chloasma. Research shows that the skin can absorb between 35-45% of the hydroquinone in these products, which is why it is best to avoid them while TTC. 

If you're worried about melasma during pregnancy, the suggestion — for now — is to wear mineral sunscreen and minimize sun exposure. And the good news is, most cases of melasma will fade or disappear after pregnancy. 

3. High-Doses of Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is one of the most popular over-the-counter ingredients used to combat acne and blemishes. So, if you’re gasping at this being on the “avoid” list, don’t panic. This really only applies to products that contain higher doses of the acid, such as peels, masks, and oral medications. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has deemed it safe to use over-the-counter products that contain topical salicylic acid. Phew! 

esthetician applying mask on a woman

4. Formaldehyde

While formaldehyde itself is rarely used as a preservative chemical in makeup and skincare any more, there are certain formaldehyde-releasing chemicals still found in certain products. These “formaldehyde releasers” breakdown, or decompose, in the body and release formaldehyde, having potentially dangerous effects on a baby in utero. 

Some of these more commonly used chemicals include:  

  • bronopol
  • DMDM hydantoin
  • diazolidinyl urea
  • hydroxymethylglycinate
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • quaternium-15
  • 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane

Lasers, fillers, and Botox should also be postponed until after pregnancy.

If, like us, you don’t have time to decipher the ingredients on every single product label, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep® Database is a fantastic resource to check whether your personal care products are TTC-safe.  

5. Phthalates

Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can be found in countless makeup and skincare products. Research has shown that prenatal exposure to phthalates can cause disruptions in hormone levels, such as thyroid hormones, sex hormones, and 25-hydroxyvitamin D. 

These types of hormonal disruptions can cause issues for the mother, including preterm births, preeclampsia, and glucose issues. They can also negatively affect the baby, causing infant cryptorchidism, infant hypospadias, and growth restrictions. 

Phthalates are more often found in cosmetics than skincare products, and one of the more common ones you might find on a makeup label is diethyl phthalate (DEP). So keep an eye out or ask your physician for a list of commonly used phthalates. 

Be the expert in you.

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Think Dirty® is another app committed to helping consumers identify the potential risks associated with the personal care products they use every day, and it’s as easy as scanning the item’s barcode! 

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Safe Skincare Ingredients For TTC and Pregnancy

Now that you know what to look out for and avoid, let’s do a rundown of safe ingredients and products to use while trying to conceive or while pregnant. 

To start, most over-the-counter skincare and acne treatments are generally safe. ACOG has confirmed that you can safely use topical products that contain: azelaic acid, glycolic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid.

We know all the changing hormones and stress can cause acne flare-ups, so don’t stray away from typical skincare treatments. Make sure to continue taking care of yourself and your skin—washing your face twice a day, patting it dry, moisturizing, wearing sunscreen (we’ll talk about that in a sec), and avoiding picking and popping and all the other things that can cause scarring. 

As for sun protection, mineral-based sunscreens are generally recommended. This includes sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These minerals sit atop the skin and do not get absorbed like chemical sunscreens, keeping you and your future child(ren) safe from harmful ingredients. 

Check With Your Healthcare Provider

As always, the best rule of thumb is to check in with your physician about any products that you are unsure about! Whether it is an ingredient on this list or not, always feel free to reach out to your healthcare provider as a resource; they can give you the most accurate and up-to-date information with your best interest in mind.

Brighid Flynn is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia where she lives with her husband and puppy. She is just beginning her journey toward motherhood.