Pregnancy-Safe Skincare: ' I tried a routine prescribed by an aesthetic doctor'
If you're currently cooking a baby but had your SPF, vitamin C, retinol routine sorted out a long time ago – then you might be feeling a little trepidatious about what needs to change.
The good news is that your entire skin set-up doesn't need to be altered beyond all recognition. However, as I quickly learned when I was pregnant, prenatal-safe skincare does mean that a few faves need to be put to one side for a while – much like gin and tonics with a grapefruit twist and cheese so soft you could use it for pottery.
Not sure what ingredients to avoid when pregnant? Or how to tackle the latest wave of hormonal acne? I caught up with the leading experts who breakdown exactly what is meant by 'pregnancy-safe skincare' as well as the ingredients to avoid.
Plus, I tried a pregnancy-safe skincare routine that was prescribed by a skincare doctor. Here's everything you need to know...
What is pregnancy-safe skincare?
The reason why some skincare is not safe for pregnancy is straightforward. 'Certain active cosmetic ingredients may be absorbed through the skin during pregnancy,' says Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible.
'There is increased systemic blood flow in the body whilst pregnant so absorption through the skin means that certain agents may pass into the bloodstream. Once in the circulation, they have the potential to cross the placenta and affect the developing foetus.'
'While topical skincare products or a ‘cosmeceutical’ are not legally classified or recognised as a ‘drug’, there is a lot of controversy surrounding what does or does not actually get absorbed into the body.'
The upshot? 'It's best to be cautious whilst pregnant.'
'Pregnancy skincare however is not as simple as just avoiding certain ingredients. During pregnancy, there are significant hormonal changes that can result in new or worsening acne, pigmentation, and an accelerated loss of collagen and elastin,' explains Dr Jo Mennie, who specialises in infertility, and pregnancy skincare at the Aesthetic Practice at Dr David Jack Clinic.
'There is also a change in the immune system during pregnancy which can be responsible for leaving the skin more sensitive. As such, unfortunately, some of your pre-pregnancy products may not work as well as they used to during your pregnancy and in the immediate years after,' she adds.
Is it safe to use skincare while pregnant?
'Absolutely. There is definitely no need to give up your skincare routine. Skincare has evolved in recent years and there are a number of effective ingredients that, with careful layering, can treat common skin concerns safely during pregnancy,' explain Dr Mennie.
'Acne, pigmentation, sensitivity and antiaging can all be targeted during this time. If possible, try and work on converting to a routine that is pregnancy and breastfeeding safe before conceiving,' she clarifies.
7 ingredients to avoid if you're pregnant
1. Retinoids (Retinol, and some acne medications such as Roaccutane)
'These should be avoided during pregnancy,' says Dr Mahto.
'Even though the absorption rates of retinol and prescription retinoid through the skin are low, there have been isolated case reports of retinoid-caused embryopathy [a developmental abnormality of an embryo or foetus] and general advice is that these are best avoided in pregnancy.'
What can I use instead of retinol, when pregnant?
The substitute for retinoids during pregnancy depends on your reasons for using them.
'For those using retinoids to help with acne, then I would advise an early consultation with a doctor specialised in pregnancy skincare. A safe and effective approach is to transfer to a high strength azelaic acid with or without benzoyl peroxide,' explains Dr Mennie.
'For those using retinoids to help with anti-ageing, then a pregnancy-safe approach would be to follow a careful layering of alpha-hydroxy acids at the correct percentages,' adds Dr Mennie.
Instead of retinol, ingredients such as lactic acid and glycolic acid are good options. You can also try Drunk Elephant's Protini Polypeptide Cream, which helps your skin to maintain its collagen.
2. Salicylic acid
Often used to fight acne, low concentrations of this are totally safe to use in pregnancy.
'There are no real studies looking at salicylic acid use in pregnancy but as very little is absorbed through the skin,' Dr Mahto says.
'In low concentrations of up to 2%, it's unlikely to pose a risk to the developing baby – but should not be used in high percentages such as those found in chemical peels.'
To be super safe, before using it, it's best to check in with your GP or a dermatologist.
Used as an ingredient to treat hyperpigmentation, it can only be prescribed by dermatologists or a GP. However, it's also found in many illegal skin bleaching creams that are imported from abroad. Steer clear as it 'is not safe during pregnancy,' says Dr Mahto.
This used to be used in some professional hair-straightening treatments, but its use became severely limited after it was found to be a carcinogen around 2014.
If, however, you do come across a product or treatment in which this is offered, step away.
'This is carcinogenic and may be absorbed into organs. You should not be using this pregnant or not,' advises Dr Goldfaden.
If you're looking for straight hair, try Bumble & Bumble's straight blow-dry balm. Activated by the heat of your hairdryer, it'll loosen up your curls.
This is a drug, as opposed to an ingredient, but is sometimes prescribed to treat acne. Use of it during pregnancy has been liked to birth defects, and so should be avoided, advises Dr Mahto.
Again, you could use a spot-fighting topical azelaic acid, instead.
When it comes to the safety of parabens, which are often used as preservatives in things like shampoo, there is some science that has pointed towards them elevating the levels of oestrogen in the body.
Research published by the University of Reading in 2012, for example, found the presence of parabens and aluminium in samples taken from women who had undergone mastectomies for breast cancer – although no definite causal link has been identified. As such, some women choose to avoid them during pregnancy.
For toxicologists who study the chemicals and their effect on living things, the mantra is 'the dose makes the poison.' Trouble is the general consensus on chemicals and parabens used in beauty products is that no one knows what that dose is.
'Originally testing on cosmetics compounds such as parabens was done on very high doses, once a dose was deemed safe it would be allowed into a beauty formulation. However, what we don’t know is the cumulative effects of low level dosing,' explains Toxicologist Dr Joanna Edwards, from UCL University.
In some studies 'parabens have been shown to cause cell changes in animals and thus should be avoided in pregnancy,' says Dr Goldfaden, who would advise eliminating them totally.
If you want to avoid parabens in your shampoo, try the Korres range. Made with organic plant extracts, it's a nourishing treat.
7. Chemical sunscreens
These are SPFs that contain oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate and can be found on the INCI list on the back of a product.
It's recommended you give them the heave-ho during pregnancy. 'This is due to their absorption into the bloodstream and concerns about hormone disruption,' says Dr Mennie.
Can I use Vitamin C serum while pregnant?
'Vitamin C is a hero ingredient and absolutely safe to use during pregnancy,' reveals Dr Mennie.
'It is a firm recommendation for all expectant mothers I see in clinic. Make sure you look out for a product at a concentration of 10% and in the active form l-ascorbic acid.'
'Not only does vitamin C boost collagen and elastin production – helping keep skin bouncy and youthful, but it also inhibits the overproduction of pigmentation. Pigment overproduction is a common sequela of the late stages of pregnancy and can take several months to years to disappear.'
'This so-called "mask of pregnancy" or "melasma" is better prevented through vitamin C use and a mineral-based SPF. Mineral or ‘physical’ sunscreens are sunscreens that contain the ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide,' she adds.
Is hyaluronic acid safe during pregnancy?
'Yes. Hyaluronic acid is safe to use during pregnancy. Hyaluronic helps to bind water molecules to the skin surface, giving all day long hydration and helping maintain that pregnancy glow,' says Dr Mennie.
Is CeraVe cream safe during pregnancy?
'Yes this moisturiser is safe to use in pregnancy. Be careful to check the ingredients of your other CeraVe products though as some would not be safe to use in pregnancy owing to retinols or unknown concentrations of salicylic acid,' reveals Dr Mennie.
'I tried a doctor-prescribed, pregnancy-safe skincare routine'
For me, the idea of a 'pregnancy glow' is about as real as a unicorn. With more and more blackheads living rent-free on my nose, my usual moisturiser not cutting it, and a patch of melasma resembling leftover marmite on my top lip, it's safe to say I'm in dire need of an expert to overhaul my skincare routine.
Taking the guesswork out of what my new routine should look like is Get Harley. An online consultation platform, it gives you access to London’s most sought-after skincare experts (whose waiting lists are usually months-long) for just £30, and in as little time as a week. The type of pros you have access to are award-winning Dr Sophie Shotter, psycho-derm Dr Alia Ahmed as well as celebrity facialists such as Debbie Thomas and Nichola Joss.
Its premise is simple. You send off details of your current routine along with images of your skin and the list of issues you want to address. Matching you to the correct expert, you're then booked in for a digital consultation. Another plus of this platform is that dermatologists and aestheticians are also able to offer prescription-only products from the likes of Dr Obagi and Skinbetter Science, who are seen as the gold standard in skincare.
Get Harley hooked me up with Dr Jo Mennie, who could not be more qualified for the job. A Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Registrar Doctor, she currently specialises in pregnancy skincare at the Dr David Jack Clinic located on Harley Street, London.
After a 45 minute consultation, where I laid bare the long list of new issues I'm currently facing, this was the routine Dr Mennie prescribed me.
With the products promptly arriving a few days later, I was all set. My new routine was made up of 4 steps in the morning and 3 steps in the evening, coming in at a cost of £373 for three months.
Pregnancy beauty: AM
1. Cleanse your skin
'A good place to start with reducing pore size is an acid-based cleanser. Lactic acid has slightly larger molecules than glycolic so takes longers to penetrate the skin and is, therefore, less likely to cause irritation,' says Dr Mennie.
She recommends Cosmedix Elite RX Clean Exfoliating Cleanser. Enriched with shea butter, clarifying tea tree oil and peppermint essential oils for added hydration to keep skin healthy and glowing.
2. Apply actives
Because of the melasma that is appearing around my top lip Dr Mennie says vitamin C is a must as it will help to prevent any current pigmentation from getting worse during the summer months.
I had given up on my usual vitamin C in the first three months of my pregnancy due to irritation, but Dr M says it's worth giving it another shot – but this time on a lower dose. FYI 10 percent is the minimum percent of L-ascorbic acid you need to apply to achieve results.
'Obagi Professional C Serum 10% has very minimal other ingredients so it's less likely to irritate your skin. Start twice a week and work your way up to every other day for two weeks. Then, if you don't experience any irritation, switch to using it every day,' she advises.
3. Moisturise with day cream
'This has niacinamide in it, which is really safe in pregnancy and a good product to help with pigmentation. It's also not a thick moisturiser so it pairs well with your SPF,' explains Dr Mennie.
Forming a breathable anti-pollution shield, the formula is supported by a next-generation blend of palmitoyl tripeptide-9 and marrubium vulgare extract, supercharged with antioxidants and age-defying peptides. Caffeine, moringa extract, raspberry seed oil and acai oils provide nourishing protection.
4. Protect with SPF
One of my main issues is that my skin has been so sensitive. Dr Mennie says that is common amongst her patients and is usually related to the use of chemical SPF, which can irritate hormonal skin and cause breakouts. She recommends switching to a mineral one, which is far less likely to irritate my skin as it's not being absorbed. It also won't interfere with your pregnancy.
She recommends the below mineral formula as not only does it have zero-tolerance for sun damage, guarding against harmful UVA, UVB and infrared rays, it also helps promote a clear complexion and is really lightweight.
Pregnancy beauty: PM
1. Cleanse (again)
Dr Mennie advises that I can still remove my make-up with my normal cleanser, just as long as I follow with the Cosmedix Elite RX Clean cleanser that I will be using in the morning. This will help to really tackle those pores.
2. Apply actives
Because I've still been using an acid peel every three weeks or so (my beloved Drunk Elephant Baby Facial, FYI) Dr Mennie said I should be fine with a glycolic serum in the evenings and that this will help to promote elastin and collagen production.
'Glycolic acid serum is a great anti-ageing acid and will work well with the lactic acid in the cleanser,' she explains.
Designed for experienced AHA users, this gel+ keeps problematic complexions clear and helps to firm and plump the skin while ensuring that breakouts become less frequent.
'Finally, because you'll now be using actives in your routine on a regular basis, it's important to make sure you don't let the skin dry out,' says Dr Mennie.
This firming moisturiser contains a patented amino acid that is proven to build skin volume while the ingredient prodew helps cushion skin with moisture and strengthen the skin barrier.
Fulfilling your complexion’s ever-changing needs is no easy feat. Glowing skin might sit at the top of your wish-list, but sometimes life gets in the way – that's why Get Harley is so brilliant because it's so easy and quick to use.
Not only that, but with so much conflicting info and products available, the decision fatigue is real. That’s where this new generation of ultra-personalised skincare services steps in (others include Lion/Ne, Renude and Skin+Me). These digital-first beauty companies are able to whip up precise routines so that the products you use truly meet your needs.
As for the routine Dr Mennie prescribed, so far so good. Yes, it's pricey. But, if you have a set budget, you can relay that info back. All the experts on Get Harley aren't paid a commission if you buy the products, meaning that you're not being sold to unnecessarily.
I was wary of using the glycolic every night, but Dr Mennie was right, I haven't had any issues in terms of redness or irritation. The SPF has been a gamechanger, too. It's super lightweight and hasn't caused any breakouts. I'll certainly be sticking with this routine for the foreseeable.
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