A friendly PSA on clean beauty and pregnancy

I’ve used clean beauty and personal care products for years. Once my partner and I decided to try to get pregnant with our first child, I committed to using clean products, including cleaning and other household products, exclusively. During my current pregnancy, I’ve gone a step further by educating myself and becoming more selective about what classifies as “clean.”

I love that brands like Sephora offer a clean label to make it easy to find safe products, but turns out, their standards aren’t always as discerning as I’d like. Instead, I now rely on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. It’s an incredible resource for finding out how clean your products actually are; you simply search for a product or brand, and the results include a 1 out of 10 overall rating as well as detailed categories for cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies, etc. It might sound like information overload, but it’s actually extremely user friendly. Look for the label EWG Verified which is their highest stamp of approval.

I’ve been so surprised by the results of my searches, and it’s really helped me make decisions about where to spend my money. (For the record, Beautycounter and Honest Beauty are the safest brands I’ve come across.)

Needless to say, I’ve been phasing out some of my old products in favor of cleaner replacements recently. As I’ve been reading labels on the new products, I noticed something that makes this process even more tricky: just because a product is clean, it’s not necessarily safe during pregnancy. For example, I ordered Honest Beauty’s Vitamin C Radiance Serum, which is EWG Verified, but after getting it in the mail and reading the packaging, I realized it contains Gallic Acid, which is considered unsafe during pregnancy.

I’ve written before about product categories and specific ingredients that are unsafe (or questionable) during pregnancy. From that list, I’ve found that two categories tend to be the most troublesome:

  1. Any products that are smoothing or brightening tend to contain either alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Most alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are considered unsafe during pregnancy, except for glycolic acid (7% concentration or lower) and lactic acid (5% concentration or lower). AHAs that shouldn’t be used during pregnancy are mandelic acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid. Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) is the category of acids that classifies salicylic acid, which you should avoid during pregnancy.
  2. Sunless tanner. Some sources say that sunless tanner sits on top of the skin and isn’t absorbed, so it’s safe. I’ve found other sources that say dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, could penetrate the skin. Most of the “cleanest” sunless tanners I’ve found contain DHA, so be on the lookout if that’s an ingredient you’re hoping to avoid.

Admittedly, finding conclusive information on this topic can be a confusing and frustrating process. When in doubt, look it up or check with a dermatologist or another expert you trust.

Gift guide for expecting moms

It’s that time of year! Below are the best products I used during (and after) pregnancy, plus a bonus gift idea that I regret not getting while I was expecting. Happy Holidays!

This pregnancy pillow helped support my growing belly and aching back and hips during my last two trimesters. And after the baby is born, the pillow can be used for breastfeeding, as a baby lounger (create a circle, cover with a blanket and place the baby in the center) and as a protective bumper when the baby is learning to sit.

We used our yoga ball throughout pregnancy, labor and postpartum. I swapped out my desk chair and sat on the ball while I worked. It helps strengthen your lower back, supports your pelvis and helps with the baby’s position (which is super important towards the end of pregnancy). During labor, I kneeled on it and leaned forward over it for support. You can also bounce on it during contractions to help speed things along. After our baby was born, an Occupational Therapist suggested that we bounce our daughter face up on it to help relieve gas. I was always too nervous to try to balance her on the ball like that, but my husband did it basically every night for the first two months. It was sometimes the only way she would fall asleep. (We got ours from TJ Maxx; they have really good prices.) Here’s a great article on choosing the right sized ball based on your height.

I love, love, love The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth and recommend it to everyone I know. It is so comprehensive, so accessible and such an easy reference guide. Don’t be intimidated by the word “natural” in the title; Genevieve gives advice that’s appropriate for all types of birth plans, not just non-medicated ones. The book has recipes, simple descriptions of complex healthcare terms and great advice for maximizing your health during and after pregnancy. I loved the ritual of reading the book at the beginning of every week, and the content was always spot on for the growth of the baby, how I was feeling and the decisions we were making at each stage.

Everyone swears by Hatch Belly Oil to nourish the skin and help prevent stretch marks. It’s made with calming botanicals like calendula, which is healing and soothing for the skin, so it’s safe for mom and baby. It’s a little on the pricey side, so it would be the perfect luxurious gift!

Beautycounter is the only clean brand I know of that’s Environmental Working Group (EWG) Verified for its skincare and makeup products. EWG is an amazing resource for information on a product’s toxicity, allergens, supply chain and animal testing policies. Clean products are important for everyone, but especially while pregnant, breastfeeding and even before trying to conceive.

I think MORROW+MINT has the most gorgeous alternatives to the utilitarian nursing bras that we’re all accustomed to. The brand focuses on designing bralettes that are as comfortable as they are beautiful. What an uplifting way to support a new mom! You can buy their gift cards online.

Other than not getting acupuncture to help with morning sickness during my first trimester, my only regret from pregnancy is not keeping a pregnancy journal. I love the idea of chronicling your pregnancy journey, your transition into a mother and all of the little details (cravings, dreams, growth milestones, etc.) that you’ll never want to forget. This Growing You journal is such a sweet, gender-neutral heirloom that can later be passed on to baby.

Surprising personal care products that are no-nos during pregnancy

I’m currently 17 weeks pregnant, and over the past few months, I’ve done a ton of research about what I should and shouldn’t be doing to protect my baby. Admittedly, I’ve been pretty frustrated that the care from my doctor has focused so much on testing and risks — which might be because I’m 35 and considered a “geriatric” birther — and much less on the day-to-day decisions I make that really define my overall health.

When my partner and I first started to think about even thinking about conceiving, I asked my doctor what I should be doing to prepare my body. She said “take prenatal vitamins.” End of list.

Similarly, I’ve been advised by my doctor to stay active, hydrate and rest, but honestly I would’ve done those things anyway. Don’t get me wrong; I love my doctor. Her bedside manner is incredible, and I never feel rushed or silly asking her questions. But I have been disappointed with the overall healthcare system and its lack of a more holistic approach.

An enormous body of knowledge exists ranging from diet during pregnancy to which positions to sleep in to advice on the best exercises to prepare you for childbirth. One category that was a huge aha moment for me was the safety of personal care products.

Switch to clean personal care products

Over the past few years, I’ve made a conscientious effort to switch to clean products. If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend that you consider it, particularly if you’re planning a future pregnancy. Based on everything I’ve read, you should make this change prior to getting pregnant to give you body time to process the chemicals and toxins before conceiving.

Go through your bathroom cabinet

Aside from whether your products are clean or not, you should evaluate everything in your beauty arsenal through the lens of pregnancy. I can’t tell you definitively what is and isn’t right for you, but there are a few products that you should be aware of so that you can make an educated decision for yourself. I wish someone had given me this list when I first started trying to conceive!

  • Sunscreen — Skin protection is incredibly important to maintain throughout pregnancy. You might want to consider switching from a chemical- to a mineral-based formula. I found this article helpful in understanding the risks.
  • Any type of skin or teeth bleach — Many women see a rise in skin discoloration during pregnancy and turn to skin brighteners. Be really careful with the treatments you choose. One active ingredient in skin lighteners and dark-spot treatments that should be avoided is hydroquinone.
  • Retinoids — You’ve probably heard that retinol isn’t safe to use during pregnancy; this goes for oral as well as topical treatments.
  • AHAs and BHAs — Most alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are considered unsafe during pregnancy, except for glycolic acid (7% concentration or lower) and lactic acid (5% concentration or lower). AHAs that shouldn’t be used during pregnancy are mandelic acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid. Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) is the category of acids that classifies salicylic acid, which you should avoid during pregnancy.
  • Sunless tanner — I haven’t been able to find conclusive answers one way or another on the safe use of sunless tanners during pregnancy. Some sources say that sunless tanner sits on top of the skin and isn’t absorbed, so it’s safe. I’ve found other sources that say dihydroxyacetone, or DHA, could penetrate the skin. Without long-term studies that indicate otherwise, I’ve decided to avoid sunless tanner altogether.
  • Nail polish — The good news is, many mainstream brands are now offering 3-free nail polish, which means they omit DBP (dibutyl phthalate), toluene and formaldehyde. Each of these chemicals has been shown to be dangerous to both birther and baby. Here’s a great reference on brands and formulas that are okay to use.
  • Essential oils — This is another controversial topic because there haven’t been enough studies to indicate whether or not essential oils are safe during pregnancy. But there are a few things to keep in mind. First, pure essential oils are highly potent and effective therapeutic treatments; just because they’re natural does not mean they’re safe to use for everyone. Be sure to do your research before using them while pregnant or breastfeeding or around children and pets. According to Essential Oils and Aromatherapy, an Introductory Guide, you should avoid essential oils completely during the first trimester of pregnancy and consider avoiding them throughout your entire pregnancy. Anecdotal evidence links some oils to miscarriage, and the hormonal content of some oils can disrupt a pregnancy or affect the development of a fetus. That said, I’ve listened to podcasts of very experienced doulas and midwives who swear by the use of essential oils to treat morning sickness and various aches and pains throughout pregnancy. Bottom line: Do your research and decide what’s right for you.

When in doubt, check with your dermatologist

I read this tip from the blog Chronicles of Frivolity, and I thought it was so smart. She recommends that you make an appointment with your dermatologist as soon as you find out you’re pregnant so that you can check the safety of the products you’re using with a professional. Reading tiny product labels with confusing 18-syllable chemical formulas is incredibly overwhelming, particularly when you feel like one wrong move could have a serious impact on your growing baby. Do yourself a favor and book that appointment!

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so I encourage you to do what I’ve done: when in doubt, Google. I can’t always find the definitive answers I’m looking for, but I usually can decide whether a specific product is questionable, and if it is, I stash it away in my dedicated “open after breastfeeding” bathroom drawer.

I hope this helps as you’re navigating your own pregnancy beauty routine!