Pregnancy Skincare: What’s Safe To Use?

pregnancy safe skincare ingredients

The whole issue of “safety” when it comes to certain skincare ingredients during pregnancy is a touchy one and experts seem to have quite divided opinions on it, which doesn’t help when you’re looking for solid information on something at an already very confusing and anxiety-ridden time.

To help clear things up, I asked cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting to answer some of my burning questions about pregnancy safe skincare. Dr Sam trained at Cambridge University and UCL and became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians in 2002. She has her own practice on Harley Street and regularly contributes to dozens of magazines as well as presenting popular TV shows such as Extreme Beauty Disasters. Dr Sam has very kindly given us the amazing opportunity to ask her advice via a Twitter Q&A, so keep reading to find out how you can join in.

The main ingredients that seem to cause concern during pregnancy are retinol (Vitamin A, which has quite amazing effects on the skin in terms of plumping and de-lining and helping with pigmentation) and salicylic acid (a brilliant beta hydroxy acid that helps tackle acne in a big, big way). Salicylic has been shown to cause birth defects if taken in high dosages orally, and the same for Vitamin A.

Many experts and professionals say that these ingredients are perfectly safe at the (topically applied) levels you would see in a shop-bought, non-prescription product. Others warn to steer clear. My own two cents? I tend to avoid both during pregnancy, mainly because I’m a big “what if” sort of person and simply can’t deal with any added stress – especially if I have to try and find out what sort of strength an ingredient is being used at – but also because there are some great alternatives out there, in terms of effective ingredients. (See upcoming post, currently in editing mode but will be with you imminently!) So it’s not the end of the world, beauty-wise, to avoid them for nine months…

pregnancy safe skincare ingredients

saying that, I don’t particularly need salicylic acid when I’m pregnant, or retinol, for that matter, because my skin – luckily – tends to be almost flawless. Apart from during the first couple of months. Perhaps if I had very bad, self-confidence-ruining acne, and it was made worse by pregnancy hormones, I would feel differently. But that’s just my own view on the matter*. What about an expert opinion? Here’s what Dr Sam Bunting had to say in answer to my questions:

What are the most common skin complaints seen in pregnancy? Does pregnancy tend to worsen existing skin problems?

Dr Sam: “Acne and melasma are, by far, the most common complaints I see in the practice. There are also certain conditions that occur only in pregnancy – the most well-known being Prurutic Urticated Papules of Pregnancy, or PUPP. And of course the dreaded stretchmarks which affect as many as 90% of women during pregnancy.

Many sources say to completely avoid salicylic acid and retinol during pregnancy. Why is this?

Dr Sam: “I recommend ditching retinoids and salicylic acid during pregnancy. Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives – vitamin A plays an important role in development of your baby during the first trimester, so it’s important we don’t interfere with that. Salicylic acid (aspirin) is to be avoided in the oral form during pregnancy as it can affect baby growth, so I think the cautious approach is to avoid it topically given that we have good alternatives.”

What are good alternatives to look out for instead of salicylic and retinol?

Dr Sam: “I recommend adding in safe skin balancers to help control blemishes – I’d recommend niacinamide or Vitamin B3 (5% is effective) and azelaic acid – I’m comfortable using this on prescription at 15 or 20% strength, as its FDA Category B. As a bonus, they also help with pigmentation so are a winning addition. For the pigmentation-prone, Vitamin C and Alpha hydroxy acids are also safe.

Are there any specific products that you recommend professionally for pregnant women suffering with acne or breakouts?

Dr Sam: “Freederm Gel (see here) is a good, safe choice for active, inflamed blemishes. I also love Elta MD UV Clear sunscreen (see here) which combines physical sunscreen zinc oxide and blemish-fighting niacinamide in one easy layer. If acne is more active, there are safe, stronger things that can be prescribed through a dermatologist. For my acne patients in the clinic, I recommend planning to come off your retinoid onto a prescription-grade pregnancy–compatible regime before you start trying for a baby. This avoids things flaring up when you fall pregnant and have to stop your usual acne treatment abruptly.”

“As a final note, if you change nothing else about your routine in pregnancy, add daily sunscreen into the mix – its SO important. As many as 40% of women develop melasma or the mask of pregnancy and something as simple as using a physical sunscreen containing zinc oxide properly on a daily basis can prevent it.”

Do you have any skincare questions you’d like to ask Dr Sam? We will be on Twitter this Friday (27th January) from 2-3pm, chatting about skincare and pregnancy and answering queries. We were going to keep things pregnancy-specific, but depending on how much time we have, there may be space for more general questions too, so please come and join in!  Make sure you’re following me (@modelrecommends) and Dr Sam (@drsambunting) so that you see all of the questions and answers, and use the hashtag #askdrsam so that we can easily pick out the relevant tweets. If you can’t join us, then please leave your question in the comments below and I will try and ask them on your behalf!

*I should add that ultimately it is your face, your body, your pregnancy and your decision. If you are happy to spend time researching strengths of ingredients in certain products you wish to use, then there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Equally, I wouldn’t panic if I found out I was pregnant and I had been using shop-bought products with low levels of the ingredients above – in fact it happened to me both times. I just think that many people online, who may not be total beauty junkies or skincare enthusiasts, are looking for clear information and I hope that this is an easy guide.

© 2018 A Model Recommends®: all opinions are my own and any sponsored or paid posts will always be clearly marked as an AD in the title. I accept press samples and receive product and services to review as part of my job. *Outbound links are affiliate links, which means that I receive a very small percentage of any sale made. This does not affect my content in any way and does not cost you anything, but you are most welcome to Google the products on a new page if you prefer. Please see here for full "about" section and disclaimer. A Model Recommends and Ruth Crilly are registered trademarks.



  1. January 26, 2017 / 8:05 am

    Sorry, it’s first thing in the morning and my tram will leave anytime now.. can’t even read the full post, but that picture!!! Wowza!! Absolutely killing it, Ruth xx

    • January 26, 2017 / 8:46 am

      It’s an old one unfortunately! I was 20 weeks – wish I looked like that now! : )

  2. Rebecca
    January 26, 2017 / 8:19 am

    I’m not pregnant but great post :) could you ask dr Sam about nano particles in physical sunscreen? I’m confused about them,what the exact concerns with them are and how you know if they are in there?

  3. January 26, 2017 / 8:21 am

    I’m so surprised that anything applied topically is to be avoided! I never even considered it.

  4. Wendy
    January 26, 2017 / 8:37 am

    Hi Ruth, my pregnancy skin complaint is that I have a terrible patch of red angry eczema or psoriasis on my chin which won’t shift, I do suffer in the Winter but I put on Eucerin and it disappears, but this year it hasn’t moved it. Can Dr. Sam recommend something for me to try please?

    • January 26, 2017 / 8:46 am

      Oh I had that the first time! How weird!! xx

  5. January 26, 2017 / 9:27 am

    I did stay clear of both as well throughout both pregnancies, despite having horrible cystic spots aggravated through pregnancy hormones. Just like you I wanted to be safe rather than sorry and figured I woul deal with it afterwards. Now I have two healthy kids and a lot of acne scars to deal with…

  6. Esme
    January 26, 2017 / 11:17 am

    Hi Ruth,

    I’m almost 10 weeks and really struggling with the smells in skincare, to a point where I dread washing my face in the evening unless it’s a Liquid Gold night as that’s pretty much the only product at the moment that doesn’t make me gag.

    Can you or Dr Sam recommend any products that may not offend, it’s not only perfumed products it’s that chemical smell underneath (which I’ve never noticed before) which makes me heave.

    I’m also interested to know more about Rosehip oils as on some products it’s listed as Rosehip Oil (Vitamin A) which being a fellow worrier is causing me all sorts of should I shan’t I buy it anxieties. On that note are oils generally safe to use?

    Lastly, are mineral sunscreens ok to use? I ask as Dr Sam specifically mentions physical.

    Would really appreciate it if you could answer or pass onto Dr Sam as being so early on I’m not ready to take to Twitter with anything pregnancy related as it’s still very much a secret.

    Wishing you a happy and safe birth! x

  7. January 26, 2017 / 4:16 pm

    This is really interesting and I love Dr Sam! Steph x

  8. Ana
    January 26, 2017 / 9:33 pm

    Hi Ruth.

    You look great!

    I was wondering about essential oils in skincare. Is there any to be avoided during pregnancy. Some research has proved some essential oils penetrating deep and entering the bloodstream. I would love to hear Dr. Sam’s opinion on that.

    Thank you!


  9. Liane Tait
    January 26, 2017 / 9:39 pm

    You and Dr Sam both mention melasma – can you ask Dr Sam about how to treat it once you’ve got it? I have a patch around my eye which makes my already dark circles look even worse thanks to being pregnant in the summer. Thanks in advance!

  10. January 26, 2017 / 11:16 pm

    Good to know to come off these things if you’re even trying to get preggo. Will remember that.

  11. Laura
    January 27, 2017 / 7:46 am

    Great post! It would be also interesting to have some info about breastfeeding. Same ingredients should be avoided or are they safe once the baby is born?

    • Lenka
      January 29, 2017 / 9:23 pm

      I was wondering the same. I have just ordered the Retinoid from the Ordinary. And it wouldn’t occurred to me it could be a problem. But now I am on doubts.

  12. January 27, 2017 / 11:21 am

    Hi Ruth,
    A friend kindly passed this onto me (great to e-meet you) as she felt it was very relevant to what I am doing – trying to raise awareness about the toxic chemicals used in high performance sports wear fabrics, specifically sport and yoga bras (given how tight they are worn on the boobs) and potential associated health risks. We did a little video here:
    Bit like food labeling, so you know what you’re wearing! It would super cool to get your thoughts on it.. Many thanks, Su

  13. February 3, 2017 / 5:14 pm

    When it comes to pregnancy then I personally would avoid using retinol and salicylic acid, it’s just not worth the risk. And thanks for mentioning PUPPS, i’m on a mission to highlight this awful pregnancy skin condition after my daughter suffered with it horrible during her pregnancy. Nobody I spoke to had ever heard of it!

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