When you’re pregnant, you’re constantly on the lookout for things that might harm your baby’s development. A safe pregnancy starts with avoiding harmful substances you put in your body. This includes things like cigarette smoke, alcohol, and high-mercury fish. But what about the things you put on your body, especially your skin?
If you have a regular skincare routine that includes retinol products, you might wonder, “Is retinol safe during pregnancy?” Learn more about retinol use during pregnancy — and why you may need to skip some of your favorite beauty products.
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What Are Retinol and Retinoids?
Retinol is a cousin to retinoid, a derivative of vitamin A used in skincare products. Retinoid products are available by prescription for:
- Treating acne.
- Treating psoriasis.
- Reducing fine lines and wrinkles.
- Reducing hyperpigmentation.
- Improving skin texture
Retinoids come in various forms (and names) depending on their use. Here are the three most common ones for skincare:
- Tretinoin (also known as Retin-A) is a topical retinoid cream used for mild acne and as an anti-aging treatment. This requires a prescription.
- Isotretinoin sounds similar, but it’s an oral pill and a powerful retinoid that treats severe acne. This too requires a prescription.
- Retinol is a weaker form of retinoid. It has similar cosmetic advantages, but it’s available in over-the-counter products. You don’t need a prescription for products made with retinol.
Is Retinol Safe During Pregnancy?
Retinol and retinoids come from vitamin A. Even though vitamin A is essential, high amounts are dangerous for pregnant people. In high doses (more than what you can get through your diet), vitamin A increases these risks to your baby:
- Birth defects, including heart and eye problems.
- Intellectual and developmental disabilities.
- Premature birth.
The safety of retinol and retinoid products during pregnancy depends on their strength. Retinol products contain low levels of the active form of vitamin A, so your doctor might OK these during pregnancy. Topical retinoid products are much higher in active vitamin A than retinol products, so they pose more risk for pregnant women.
And retinoid products you take by mouth are even more dangerous for your baby than those used topically. You should never take isotretinoin or other oral retinoids to treat acne or anything else if you are:
- Considering pregnancy.
If you take isotretinoin or oral retinoids and you become pregnant, stop using them and tell your doctor immediately.
Researchers don’t know as much about topical retinoid products and pregnancy. Topical retinoids are prescription creams or lotions and include:
- Tretinoin (Retin-A) for anti-aging and acne.
- Adapalene for acne treatment.
- Tazarotene for acne and psoriasis.
You apply these to your skin, so there’s less chance of the active ingredients getting in your blood. Still, a small amount gets into your body through your skin. To be completely safe, you should avoid topical retinoid products during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Over-the-counter retinol-based skin products are likely safer during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They come in a cream or lotion that’s applied to your skin. And they’re nowhere near as strong as prescription retinoid creams or lotions.
Since different retinol products vary in strength, ask your doctor for their recommendation.
The Safest Skin Care Options During Pregnancy
Some people’s skin glows during pregnancy and needs nothing to enhance it. But it’s also common to have more breakouts and dark patches that develop on your face. If these bother you, talk to a dermatologist who can recommend skin care options that are safe during pregnancy.
These might include:
- Topical benzoyl peroxide.
- Azelaic acid.
- Topical salicylic acid.
- Glycolic acid.
- Oil-free makeup and lotions.
- Gentle cleansers.
Also, many companies produce non-toxic makeup, skincare, and hair care products that are great to use during and after pregnancy. Not only are these free of retinol, but they’re also free from endocrine disruptors, ingredients that may affect how your hormones work.
Research on endocrine disruptors suggests they might cause developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their sources include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic bottles and containers.
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) used as flame retardants in furniture, mattresses, and carpets.
- Dioxins from herbicides.
- Triclosan in liquid body washes and hand sanitizers.
- Phytates in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, nail polish, and hairsprays.
- Parabens in cosmetics and many personal care products.
These chemicals are widespread. They make their way into everyone’s body and are hard to avoid. Pregnant women and new moms have detectable endocrine disruptor levels in their blood, urine, amniotic fluid, and breastmilk.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid exposure to everything that might be dangerous to your baby when you’re pregnant. But a good place to start is by avoiding retinoids and other potentially risky beauty products.
If you’re already reading labels for the things that go into your body, take it a step further. Start checking the ingredient labels on the skincare and personal care products you put on your body too.
American Academy of Dermatology. Retinoid or Retinol? LINK
March of Dimes. Isotretinoin and Other Retinoids During Pregnancy. LINK
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Skin Conditions During Pregnancy. LINK
National Institutes of Health National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Endocrine Disruptors. LINK
International Journal of Molecular Sciences. Oestrogenic Endocrine Disruptors in the Placenta and the Fetus. LINK
About UPMC Magee-Womens
Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.
Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.