The average adult uses nine personal care products every day. If I think about my own beauty routine, it adds up to much more. In the shower alone I use a face wash, body wash, exfoliator, shampoo, and conditioner. Once I’m out, the lotions, face creams, sunscreen, perfume, hair products, and makeup come into play. I can’t even seem to choose just one lip colour, instead opting to blend a few to get the perfect shade.
Does that sound familiar? Unfortunately, there are potentially toxic chemicals hiding in our makeup, sunscreen, skincare products, and everything else we slather on. The risks associated with each are potentially more hazardous for pregnant women — which is why it often takes the responsibility of growing another life for us to take a serious look at our personal care products.
“We should avoid risky ingredients at all stages of our lives,” said Paul Pestano, a senior database analyst for the Environmental Working Group, an organisation that researches and educates consumers about toxins in personal care products. “However, pregnancy may be a period in which women should be particularly careful.”
Pestano notes that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine warn that exposure to toxic chemicals before conception and during pregnancy can have significant and long-lasting effects on reproductive health. Problems can include infertility, low birth weight, and pre-term birth.
EWG suggests that pregnant women try to minimise their exposure to all ingredients that have been associated with adverse health effects, especially those known as endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors can interfere with the body’s normal hormone functions and potentially affect the development of the unborn child.
Luckily, there are quality brands out there making non-toxic cosmetics. As a pregnant woman myself, I find it’s easier to make responsible choices if I understand the reasons behind each warning. So I decided to do some research into the cosmetic ingredients I should avoid. I spoke to Tata Harper, the founder of her own safe and natural skincare line, and a representative from Beautycounter, which bans more than 1,500 questionable or harmful chemicals from its products.
If you’re expecting, too, here is a list of the ingredients, where you’re likely to find them, and an explanation of why they are potentially harmful.
Commonly found in: body lotion, shampoo, face cleanser, body wash, foundation, and pomade.
Why you should avoid it: “The most significant concern about parabens is their ability to mimic estrogen, a hormone responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics,” Tata Harper explained. “The EU banned parabens in products intended for children, so pregnant women should be mindful of what countries with more progressive chemical policy are doing.”
Commonly found in: nail polish, synthetic fragrance, and hairspray.
Why you should avoid it: Phthalates can interfere with our bodies’ normal hormone functions. Often they’re hiding under the innocent-sounding “fragrance/parfum” written on your ingredient list, though. “Look for companies who fully disclose fragrance ingredients,” a spokesperson for Beautycounter said. Anything with undisclosed fragrance can mask a combination of hundreds of different ingredients.
Commonly found in: mascara, hair dyes, foundation, fragrances, sunscreens, pharmaceuticals, shampoo, and lotion.
Commonly found in: eye shadow, lipsticks, moisturisers, diaper creams, blush, and face powder.
Why you should avoid it: These chemicals are used as preservatives in cosmetics and can act as hormone disruptors. There’s evidence that they could lead to developmental problems, making pregnant women and infants especially vulnerable.
Retinyl Palmitate and Retinol (Vitamin A)
Commonly found in: moisturisers and anti-aging skin care.
Why you should avoid it: Retinoids are a type of vitamin A that prevents skin collagen from breaking down, thus making them a popular anti-aging tool. But consuming high doses of vitamin A during pregnancy has been shown to possibly cause birth defects, leaving doctors to recommend women avoid these products during pregnancy. Some oral retinoids, like the prescription acne medication Accutane, are known to be very dangerous for the fetus and should only be taken when you’re not pregnant or planning to be.
Commonly found in: sunscreen, moisturiser, and aftershave.
Why you should avoid it: Oxybenzone can act like estrogen in the body, and it’s been shown to alter sperm production in animals. It is also associated with endometriosis and allergic reactions. The skin absorbs oxybenzone in significant amounts when we use sunscreen that contains it, and a study from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detected it in more than 96 percent of the US population.
Other troubling studies have found traces commonly present in mothers’ breast milk. The Beautycounter spokesperson warned: “Just because a sunscreen is marketed towards children, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safer.”
Commonly found in: shaving cream, antibacterial liquid soap, soap bars, and toothpaste.
Why you should avoid it: “This is a major watch out for pregnant women as there is strong evidence that this chemical is an endocrine disruptor that can cause hormonal imbalances resulting in everything from birth defects to cancer,” Harper cautioned.
Products without hydroquinone or glutathione to try instead: It’s best to avoid skin-lightening creams altogether while pregnant. Instead, be sure to wear a safe sunscreen to protect yourself from any sun damage or pregnancy-related skin discoloration.
Diazolidinyl Urea (Formaldehyde)
Commonly found in: sunscreen, lotion, conditioner, and shampoo.
Why you should avoid it: “This is a commonly used preservative that releases formaldehyde into products. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen,” Harper warned. This ingredient is known an “in situ” reaction, she explained, meaning the original chemical turns in to something else once it’s in the formula. So be warned: formaldehyde won’t appear on the ingredient list, but diazolidinyl urea will.
1,4-Dioxane (PEG or Sodium Laureth Sulfate)
Commonly found in: bubble bath, shampoo, liquid soap, and hair relaxers.
Why you should avoid it: “1,4-dioxane is classified as a probable human carcinogen according to the International Agency on Research for Cancer,” Harper told us. “But you won’t find it on any ingredient list because this chemical is the byproduct of the process that is used to make certain types of surfactants, such as sodium laureth sulfate, and is considered an incidental ingredient not requiring ingredient disclosure.”