Safe use of Cosmetics and Personal Care Products during Pregnancy

Personal care products and cosmetics are used widely in all stages of life and pregnancy is not an exception.

Some chemicals used during the manufacture of such products may be associated with health hazards, both to the pregnant woman and the fetus.

Researchers recommend that healthcare professionals should be informing pregnant women regarding the safe use of cosmetics.

Therefore, Personal care products and cosmetics should be carefully selected and used during pregnancy.

Chemicals used in these products can enter the human body through the absorption from the skin (such as from the soap, shampoo, lotions and creams), mouth (such as the use of lipstick) and inhalation (such as perfumes and deodorants).

It also should be borne in mind that many of these chemicals are also widely used in the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industry.

Therefore, pregnant women can be exposed to such chemicals in many different ways without the knowledge and even with avoiding personal care products and cosmetics.

Why care should be taken during pregnancy?

Regulatory bodies all across the world have recommendations for safe use of harmful chemicals used as additives or preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products.

Therefore, many of such chemicals are either banned or present in a very low concentration and in general, the overall health risks (including the fetus) are low.

However, in many parts of the world, the manufacture and marketing of such products are still not properly regulated.

As a result, some personal care products and cosmetics may contain high levels of toxic chemicals and may not be safe to use during pregnancy.

These include some illegal products available online and in the international market (especially products like skin-lightening agents).

Which chemicals are harmful during pregnancy?

The following chemicals are thought to be harmful during pregnancy and should be avoided:


Retinoids are a group of chemical compounds derived from Vitamin A (also known as Retinol).

Tretinoin is a type of retinoids, commonly used in anti-wrinkle/anti-ageing creams and products to treat acne.

There are some reports of birth defects with the use of Vitamin A related products during pregnancy.

Therefore, no retinoid should be used by pregnant women, although it is not significantly absorbed through the skin.


Hydroquinone is used as a skin-lightening agent.

It is believed that a substantial portion (35-45%) of the hydroquinone (applied on the skin) is absorbed.

The safety data on the use of hydroquinone during pregnancy is limited.

Therefore, should be avoided by pregnant women.

Endocrine Disruptive Chemicals

What are Endocrine Disruptive Chemicals (EDCs)?

These are synthetic (‘man-made’) chemicals which have hormone-like properties and can affect the following:

– The endocrine and reproductive functions of the body,

– Increases the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers (such as breast cancer)

– Developmental problems in children.

Pregnant women are very vulnerable as EDCs can cross the placenta and affect the baby.

Parabens, Phthalates and Triclosans are the three EDCs widely used in beauty and personal care products


What are parabens?

Parabens are a group of chemicals commonly used as preservatives in many cosmetics and personal care products such as moisturisers, deodorants, shower gels, body creams and hair-care products.

They have anti-bacterial and fungicidal properties.

Therefore, they are effective as preservatives (to prevent the growth of microorganisms) and increase the shelf-life of these commercially available products.

It is also used as preservatives in food, beverages and in the manufacture of different medicines.

The four common types of parabens are:

– Ethyl-paraben (EP),

– Butyl-paraben (BP),

– Methyl-paraben (MP), and

– Propyl-paraben (PP).

They may be used alone or as a mixture of several parabens.

The use of paraben is legal in many parts of the world, therefore, widely used.

However, there is a legal limit set out by different regulatory bodies.

For example, according to the EU law, the maximum of 8g of paraben is allowed per kg of the cosmetic product manufactured with no single paraben is allowed over 4g per kg of such products.

What is the concern with parabens?

Parabens have estrogenic (female sex hormone) and anti-androgenic (male sex hormone) properties.

However, their hormone-like activities are significantly weaker than natural hormones.

They are considered as endocrine disruptive (ED) chemicals; i.e., they can interfere with the hormonal system of the body and cause health problems, especially when consumed in large quantities.

Paraben levels may increase as the pregnancy advances.

Studies indicated endocrine disruptive chemicals, such as parabens, may cause genital organ abnormalities if male fetus (due to anti-androgenic activity), recurrent miscarriage, low birth weight babies.


Phthalates are a group of chemicals used:

– as plasticisers to increase the flexibility of the strength of plastics.

– as solvents for many other chemicals.

They are widely used in the manufacture of many cosmetics and personal care products such as nail polishes, fragrances, soaps, shampoos, and hair-care products (hair sprays, gels and mousses), body lotion and body creams.

Exposure to phthalates can happen through the use of these products.

Apart from the cosmetic use, phthalates may enter the human body from a variety of sources such as food, plastics, medicines, water and air.

There are three types of phthalates are in commercial use:

– Dibutyl phthalate (DBP): primarily used as a plasticiser in nail polishes. They make the nails less brittle and, therefore, reduce the risk of cracking.

– Dimethyl phthalate (DMP): mainly used in different hair sprays. They can form a flexible film on the hair and make them less brittle and more resilient to cracking.

– Diethyl phthalate (DEP): this is the most commonly used phthalate in cosmetics and personal care products.

It is used in the manufacture of fragrances as solvent and fixatives.

DEP, therefore, used to retain scents (such as deodorants, perfumes, colognes and other fragranced products) and deliver chemicals in the form of aerosols.

Phthalate exposure has been associated with:

Preterm birth

– Congenital abnormalities of genital organs in boy babies (due to anti-androgenic effect).

– Neurodevelopment problems in girl babies.

– Mental health problems in the child.

– Thyroid dysfunction both in the mother and the baby.

How to reduce phthalate exposure?

The current law does not require a listing of all the individual chemicals used as a fragrance.

As a result, phthalates may not be mentioned separately in the label but included in the term ‘fragrance’.

Therefore, it is not possible to know if phthalates have been used as an ingredient.

If someone wants to purchase a product free of phthalates then they should look for cosmetic products which do not contain “Fragrance” as an ingredient.

Phthalate exposure may be reduced during pregnancy by avoiding or limiting the use of cosmetic products such as fragrances, nail polish, body lotions, and hair spray.

European Commission and regulatory authorities such as the FDA do not consider phthalates (used in cosmetics) to be a health hazard if the manufacturers follow strict regulations.


This is an antimicrobial agent (i.e., prevents the growth and contamination of bacteria in the consumer products).

Many health authorities across the world, such as the FDA (USA) have banned the use of triclosan in over-the-counter antiseptic solutions/ washes due to safety concerns.

However, many personal care products (such as some toothpaste and body lotions) still contain Triclosan.

Studies on animals have shown that triclosan exposure during pregnancy can cause hypothyroidism in the mother and the fetus. Some studies linked triclosan to low birth weight babies.

Therefore, products containing triclosan should better be avoided during pregnancy, unless further safety information is obtained.

Heavy metals

Mercury and lead are commonly used in cosmetics.

Mercury is allowed to be used in eye area products (such as eye shadows) as preservatives by many regulatory bodies such as FDA.

Lead is mainly used in the manufacture of different lip products (such as lipsticks and lip glosses).

Arsenic and cadmium can also be found in some cosmetics.

Exposure to these heavy metals may result in low birth-weight babies, miscarriage and stillbirths.

Some general tips for using personal care products and cosmetics during pregnancy:

1. Good health is the key to healthy skin and feelings of wellbeing.

Therefore, always focus on having a balanced nutritious diet, regular exercise and drink plenty of water. Do not rely on cosmetics and personal care products alone.

2. Always check the label with the listing of the ingredients of the product you are using.

Whenever possible, avoid products containing retinoids, hydroquinone, endocrine disruptive compounds (such as phthalates, parabens and triclosan), fragrance and heavy metals.

3. You may consider using natural or organic products.

However, please remember that although such products may not contain chemicals named above, but may have not been tested to check the pregnancy outcomes.

Therefore, more research is needed in this field.

Always check the ingredients on the label even if it says ‘natural’ or ‘organic’.

4. In the present world, toxic chemicals are present in many products of daily living, such as food, water, medicine, packaging, clothes, building materials and paints.

Therefore, exposure is inevitable.

However, the level of these chemicals is so low that they are unlikely to cause health problems, including pregnancy.

5. The main concern is the availability of unregulated products in the global market, available online or bought during travel abroad. They may contain a high level of toxic chemicals and pose a risk to health, especially during pregnancy.

6. If you are having a hair or a beauty treatment, always inform the beautician that you are pregnant. Ensure they have experience in using products safe during pregnancy.

7. Use a sunscreen lotion/ cream when exposed to the sun. This reduces the chance and severity of disturbing skin changes during pregnancy, such as melasma and hyperpigmentation.

8. The skin may become very sensitive during pregnancy to cosmetics and personal care products and may develop rash/ dermatitis easily. Therefore, please do not worry as they would settle down after childbirth. However, you should seek medical advice if things are getting worse.

Further reading


Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.


Journal article

Journal article