I've interviewed 1,756 brand founders during my tenure as a beauty editor, and almost every woman who started a natural or clean beauty brand tells the same story: "I got pregnant, started reading the labels on my beauty products, and quickly realized nothing was natural enough for my growing fetus. So I started my own line." I've heard this story so many times that whenever I go into a meeting with a new clean beauty brand, I have to mentally prepare myself to hear it again without just saying it for them.
So when I got pregnant myself (with some help from science, I think it's important to note), I assumed I'd immediately drop my favorite products and switch to coconut oil and water. But then I didn't. Instead, I talked to my OB and dermatologists about what ingredients to avoid while pregnant, and I kept everything else the same.
What I'm Skipping, Per the Experts
First, the scary stuff. NYC dermatologist and mother of two young children Dr. Dendy Engelman breaks down what products you should skip if you're expecting: first, and most importantly, prescription medications like Accutane, Retin-A, and tetracycline. These are no-brainers, and your doctor probably warned you that they're not safe for pregnancy before she prescribed them. Diethanolamine, a foaming agent that can pop up in shampoos and body wash, is another one to look out for — I checked my labels for this guy, and fortunately didn't find it. Dihydroxyacetone (DHA) is another no-no — sorry, folks, this is self-tanner. Fortunately, it's not my thing, but if it's yours, you should probably pause while pregnant. Keep an eye out for formaldehyde, which is basically embalming fluid that also happens to be found in some nail polishes. "Look for nail polishes labeled three-free or five-free, which do not use this chemical," Dr. Engelman said. "Jin Soon nail polishes are a great brand without formaldehyde." Finally, there's oxybenzone, a chemical sunscreen ingredient, which I stay away from anyway. (I'm firmly in camp mineral sunblock.) And then there are the in-office procedures: you'd be hard-pressed to find a doctor who would perform a laser treatment or inject you with filler while you're pregnant. Womp, womp.
But I'm Not Freaking Out Over Most Things
Dr. Engelman and I chatted about the ingredients that scare a lot of pregnant women but aren't necessarily a big deal: fragrance, BPA, parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate, and diazolidinyl urea (to name a few). "The truth is, in large doses they are lethal, but the amounts we are exposed to are not generally not enough to have an everlasting effect," she explained. And that brings up another point: many of the beauty meetings I've attended over the last 15 years have focused on how hard it is to get ingredients to penetrate into the skin. Sure, your skin is your largest organ, but its primary function is to hold your insides together while keeping everything else out. And if you're thinking about recent sunscreen absorption studies, know that most dermatologists think they're too small and inconclusive.
Sometimes Clean Products Are Better Anyway
Personally, I tend to go for clean beauty products that cover a large surface area — like body oil, which I'm slathering on by the gallon. I'm partial to True Botanicals Pure Radiance Body Oil and Mustela Stretch Marks Prevention Oil, and Dr. Engelman swears by Bio-Oil. The chic maternity brand Hatch recently launched beauty, and the line includes a so-good-there's-a-waitlist Belly Oil and Belly Fix sheet mask. Yes, you read that correctly. (Though now I'm thinking about slapping every sheet mask in my stash on my abdomen.)
I switched to natural deodorant a few years back — not so much because I'm afraid of aluminum but because I believe in healthy sweating and I'm lucky that Native and Schmidt's both work well for me. (I love both brands' vanilla scents.) My favorite hair products right now just happen to be Rahua, another natural brand — the Hydration Shampoo and Conditioner have been saving my hair, which has become unusually dry. And I'm loving Necessaire The Body Wash, a vitamin-packed formula that lathers just like the foaming agent I'm supposed to avoid. So fine, my routine isn't loaded with toxins to begin with, but . . .
Glycolic Acid? Yes, Please
While my body routine is pretty clean, I draw the line at my face. I've spent years searching for the best ingredients to zap fine lines and erase dark spots, and I believe you need serious technology to see results. When I found out I was pregnant, I tucked the retinol into the back of my medicine cabinet, but I certainly haven't given up my favorite glycolic acid. I use a daily antioxidant like SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic or Skin Better Science Alto Defense Serum, and I haven't changed my makeup at all. If skincare products have a hard time penetrating, makeup, which sits on top of layers of skin care and mineral sunblock, certainly isn't going to end up in my bloodstream, let alone my fetus's bloodstream.
Let's Talk About Mom Guilt
I feel confident that doctors know what they're talking about. I trust their advice — I really do. But that hasn't kept me from feeling a little guilty about using glycolic acid and my favorite mascara. I've even talked to other beauty editors who gave up everything they loved when they were pregnant and wouldn't test anything new — and when part of your job is testing products, I'm left wondering how they made that work for nine months.
Maybe this pull between doing what's best for my job and what's best for my kid is a sign of things to come. Or maybe as women we're looking for ways to feel worse about our choices, not better. I eat clean, I exercise, I'm getting plenty of sleep and limiting my stress. And my beauty routine is actually a lot cleaner than I realized. My glycolic acid brings me joy, and my doctors say it's fine. Still, every time I open my medicine cabinet, I think about all the natural brand founders, and I feel a pang of guilt. That doesn't mean their philosophy is right and mine is wrong, or vice versa. I support their choices as women and as mothers, and I hope they can support mine.