Cosmetic Ingredients to Avoid While Pregnant

In their well-researched “Complete Organic Pregnancy,” authors Deirdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu suggest that women avoid the following 14 cosmetic ingredients during pregnancy:

  1. Antibacterials
  2. Coal Tar
  3. Diethanolamine or DEA
  4. Ethoxylates
  5. Formaldehyde
  6. Glycol Ethers
  7. Metals: Lead and Mercury
  8. Parabens
  9. Petrolatum
  10. Phenylenediamine or PPD
  11. Phthalates
  12. Silicones
  13. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or SLS
  14. Toluene

In compiling the list above, the authors consulted Susan West Kurz, a renowned holistic beauty expert, author, and co-founder of “Dr Hauschka Skin Care.”

Ingredient Consensus

Other independent decision makers, researchers, and clean beauty manufacturers have come up with similar lists. Though these lists don’t pertain specifically to pregnancy, they do help us to better understand what cosmetic ingredients are worth avoiding.

It’s important to understand that there are essentially two classes of so-called “ingredients to avoid while pregnant.”

  1. In the first class, we have ingredients that are so widely accepted as not advised for pregnancy that blanket statements can be made about their disuse. These include:
    • Retinoids
    • Salicylic acid
    • Hydroquinone
    • Phthalates
    • Formaldehyde
  2. In the second class, we have ingredients that are less widely accepted as not advised for use during pregnancy or even in cosmetics at all. In this gray zone, we have directly conflicting opinions among experts, but an arguably growing movement that calls for greater overall ingredient transparency and higher standards from cosmetics manufacturers.

Some critics argue that clean beauty suffers from a misinterpretation or exaggeration of studies, or that it fails to define what “clean” even means, while others argue that cosmetics are indeed poorly regulated and packed with bad ingredients.

Ultimately, then, it’s up to a pregnant mother to determine what she feels most comfortable avoiding or including in her personal care routine, and the following summary of information should help.

A Concise Chart

Some pregnant women spend hours looking into what cosmetic ingredients they should avoid while pregnant, and different experts have very different opinions.

So this chart isn’t a commentary on any individual company, but is simply a concise summary of what some pretty sensible people and organizations have come up with.

In practical terms, it could help you decide whether a particular ingredient is worth avoiding, or isn’t so bad after all.

Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)XXX60%
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)XXX60%
Coal Tar DyesXXX40%
Essential OilsXX40%
Fragrances, SyntheticXXXX80%
Oxybenzone, Arobenzone, OctinoxateXXX60%
Polyethylene Glycols (PEG)XXX40%

The David Suzuki Foundation:

The David Suzuki Foundation suggests avoiding the following cosmetic chemicals in its “Dirty Dozen” list. (The Foundation’s supporting research can be found here.)

  1. BHA and BHT
  2. Coal tar dyes: p-phenylenediamine and colours listed as “CI” followed by a five digit number
  3. DEA-related ingredients
  4. Dibutyl phthalate
  5. Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives
  6. Parabens
  7. Parfum (a.k.a. fragrance)
  8. PEG compounds
  9. Petrolatum
  10. Siloxanes
  11. Sodium laureth sulfate
  12. Triclosan

National University of Natural Medicine:

Writing for the National University of Natural Medicine, Naturopathic Physician and NUNM graduate Dr. Christina Baghdanov seconds avoiding all of the 12 ingredients above, here.

Target Clean Beauty Brands:

Target is well-known for working with established but budding brands. Their “Clean Icon” indicates the exclusion of the following certain harmful ingredients, according to in-store signage:

  1. Phthalates
  2. Propylparabens
  3. Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  4. Oxybenzone
  5. Aluminum
  6. Butyl-Parabens
  7. Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde-donors
  8. Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)
  9. Retinyl palmitate
  10. Hydroquinone
  11. Triclosan
  12. Triclocarban
  13. BHA and BHT.

The Drunk Elephant:

The Drunk Elephant omits six ingredient classes from all of their cosmetic products, as thoroughly explained here:

  1. Essential Oils
  2. Alcohol
  3. Silicones
  4. Chemical sunscreens [avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, octisalate]
  5. Fragrance & Dyes
  6. Sodium lauryl sulfate

Beauty By Earth:

Clean beauty manufacturer Beauty By Earth makes available a list they call, “The Dirty Dozen; 12 of the Most Toxic Ingredients Commonly Found in Beauty Products.” The ingredients that made their list are:

  1. Parabens
  2. Sulfates
  3. Synthetic Fragrances
  4. Synthetic Dyes
  5. Petroleum
  6. Formaldehyde & Formaldehyde Releasers
  7. Heavy Metals
  8. Tricolsan
  9. Propylene Glycol, Butylene Glycol
  10. Phthalates
  11. Oxybenzone, Arobenzone, Octinoxate
  12. Retinol

Women’s Care Center:

Oregon-based Women’s Care Obstetrics, Gynecology and Midwifery Center suggests avoiding beauty and skincare products with these ingredients while pregnant.

  1. Retin-A, Retinol And Retinyl Palmitate
  2. Tazorac and Accutane
  3. Benzoyl Peroxide And Salicylic Acids
  4. Essential Oils
  5. Hydroquinone
  6. Aluminum chloride
  7. Formaldehyde
  8. Chemical sunscreens
  9. Tetracycline
  10. Dihydroxyacetone

Though this list is clearly different than the other purely ingredient-based lists above, we still find that some of the ingredients elsewhere listed as to-be-avoided also appear here, including essential oils, aluminum, and formaldehyde.

What these cosmetic chemicals are

1. Coal Tar

Found in makeup and hair dyes, coal tar has been deemed carcinogenic (cancer-causing) when applied to the skin.

2. Diethanolamine, or DEA

DEA and its compounds such as triethanolamine (TEA) are used in shampoo and other similar products and are suspected to be cancer causing chemicals.

In August 2020, the U.S. FDA wrote of a 1998 study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) that “found an association between the topical application of DEA and … cancer in laboratory animals.”

In the same statement, however, the agency also noted that it “believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics.” (And here we have an example of the line between ingredients that are broadly not-recommended for use during pregnancy, and ingredients that evidence suggests one might be better off doing without.)

“Consumers wishing to avoid cosmetics containing DEA,” the FDA writes, could do so by reviewing ingredient labels for any of these things:

  • “Cocamide DEA
  • Cocamide MEA
  • DEA-Cetyl Phosphate
  • DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate
  • Lauramide DEA
  • Linoleamide MEA
  • Myristamide DEA
  • Oleamide DEA
  • Stearamide MEA
  • TEA-Lauryl Sulfate
  • Triethanolamine”

3. Ethoxylates

This class of several hundred different surfactants is derived from petroleum. Polyethylene glycols are the most common and are easily identified by the letters “PEG,” followed by a number.

4. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers show up in multiple cosmetics from mascara to nail polish and it can be absorbed through the nails and skin. Among the names this ingredient appears under are “quaternium-15,” “DMDM hydantoin,” and “diazolidinyl urea.”

5. Glycol Ethers

Glycol ethers often occur in perfumes and deodorants and are listed under the acronyms DPGME, EGME, EGEE, DEGBE, and PGME. They are believed to be reproductive hazards.

6. Parabens: Methyl-, Ethyl-, Butyl-, and Propylparaben

Parabens are the most commonly used cosmetic preservatives. Evidence suggests that parabens mimic estrogen in the body and thus disrupts hormonal activities. High levels of parabens have also been discovered in breast tumors. Parabens are banned in Europe but virtually unregulated in the United States.

7. Petrolatum

Some lipsticks, creams, baby ointments, petroleum jelly and eye shadows include petrolatum. As its name suggests, petrolatum is derived from petroleum. Critics say is prevents the skin from breathing properly.

8. Phenylenediamine, or PPD

Hair dyes specifically include this ingredient, which can cause skin and breathing irritation. It’s also believed to be a carcinogen and is banned in Europe.

9. Phthalates (Diethyl-, Diethyl Hexyl-, Dibutyl-)

Phthalates are another petroleum derivative. Phthalates have been linked to sexual maturation disorders in young men and women. They’ve been found to cause liver cancer in animals. Phthalates are used in some nail polishes, hair sprays, gels, lotions, and other cosmetic products to keep them smooth and soft.

10. Silicones

Silicone itself isn’t toxic but its production process involves butyl glycol which is best avoided.

11. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, or SLS

SLS is a foaming agent used in shampoos and toothpastes. It’s so prevalent that it’s almost entirely unavoidable. Thankfully, it isn’t the worst ingredient on this list or that you could come in contact with.

12. Toluene

Toluene is found in nail polishes and can irritate the skin and respiratory tract.

If your interest in the safety and cleanliness of cosmetic ingredients during pregnancy brought you here, you’re likely on the right track already.

That heightened interest and awareness of what you’re putting in and on your body will serve you very well throughout pregnancy and motherhood.

Congratulations and good luck.

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