Pregnant women know how important it is to pay extra attention to the foods, medications and beverages they put into their bodies. But certain cosmetics have been found to contain chemicals that can seep through the skin and have adverse effects on unborn children. Most products are safe to use, but there are a few ingredients expectant mothers should watch out for.


Retinoids are a type of vitamin A often used in anti-aging moisturizers or makeup that help accelerate cell division. Four published case studies have linked them to birth defects. Also suspected to cause birth defects is oral retinoid isotretinoin, used in the acne medication Accutane.


Hydroquinone is a chemical found in skin-whitening ingredients that is also used to depigment the skin while treating conditions such as chloasma and melasma. Studies have not found the use of the product to be associated with birth defects, but because 35 to 45 percent of the ingredient is absorbed when applied to the skin — a much higher amount than other ingredients —, a safe pregnancy program at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, recommends staying away from it if expecting a child.


Phthalates are a chemical used in a variety of products including air fresheners, detergents and cleaning products. They’re also used in cosmetics such as nail polish to hold color and scents. Studies have found that the ingredient can affect hormonal systems during pregnancy resulting in disruption to fetal development. But they are hard to avoid: The U.S. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that phthalates are often not listed on product packaging because a loophole in the law allows manufacturers to add them to fragrances without letting consumers know. For this reason, pregnant women should stay away from fragrances or products containing fragrances.

Salicylic Acid

Part of the aspirin family, salicylic acid is used to treat skin disorders such as acne and can be found in products including cleansers and toners. While small amounts used topically in skin-care products are thought to be safe, high doses taken orally have been shown in studies to cause birth defects and various pregnancy complications. Face and body peels may contain more of the acid, so check with your your doctor or dermatologist before undergoing a treatment.

Bottom Line

Most cosmetics, including sunscreens, hair removers and makeup, are safe for pregnant women to use, as long as they don’t contain retinoids or hydroquinone. Pregnant women should stay away from fragrances, as they could contain phlalates.