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Chemicals to Avoid When You’re Pregnant or Breastfeeding

A guide to choosing the right products for baby and you.

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Coupled with the joy of becoming pregnant is the unfortunate realization that keeping your baby healthy means avoiding sushi, cold cuts, wine, and countless other delicious foods and beverages. But the “no list” doesn’t stop there. The daily skin-care products that expecting and breastfeeding mothers put on their bodies can be harmful to their babies too. “Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit to worry about,” says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist in NRDC’s Health & Environment program who researches industrial air pollution, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals.

While health professionals can clearly explain the risks from eating raw fish (particularly those contaminated with mercury), they know less about the ingredients in makeup, perfume, lotions, shampoos, and many other potions we use every day. What’s more, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate personal care products. The agency’s website explicitly states: “Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market.”

Instead the FDA relies on the cosmetics industry to self-police in a set of laws that many—including members of Congress—consider severely outdated. This lack of oversight makes it even tougher for consumers to monitor what they are exposing themselves and their children to. Mothers need to be careful—because that adage “You are what you eat” can also apply to what you spray or slather on.

Protect growing bodies.

Our skin provides a frontline defense against the bulk of chemicals we encounter every day, but some still sneak through. In fact, many lotions and cosmetics are engineered to work their way through layers of skin. Some could eventually get into the bloodstream and from there reach the developing fetus or a mother’s milk. “We don’t really know all of what’s in these products, but the fact that they are engineered to be absorbed into the skin on purpose makes us concerned,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist in NRDC’s Health program.

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Babies in utero and newly out of the womb are growing critical systems, including the reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. Cells in the fetal brain, for instance, are busy forming vital connections and establishing the organ’s final architecture. Nutrients taken in by the mother nourish these various systems, but unfortunately many unwanted chemicals can travel the same routes. “The fetus will be absorbing stuff it’s exposed to in its environment to make the building blocks of cells, bones, and anything else that grows,” Sass says. Researchers have in fact shown that chemicals used in personal care products can wind up in umbilical cord blood and in infants.

Read between the labels.

To reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals from that tube of concealer or bottle of scented moisturizer, carefully read the ingredients. Switching to low-chemical beauty products has been shown to cut blood levels of certain harmful substances after just three days.

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You can control only so much, though. Companies are not required by law to disclose the ingredients of perfumes, cosmetics, and lotions, so it’s impossible to know if the product label shows the full list.

Here are some common culprits to avoid.

Phthalates: This class of chemicals, typically found in nail polish and many cosmetics containing fragrance, can disrupt hormones and alter development in a growing baby. “The term fragrance hides many, many ingredients,” Sass says. The company selling the product may not know what the ingredient really is, either, since that “almond fragrance” may come from another manufacturer. Look for products marked “phthalate free” or “unscented,” and avoid those that use generic terms for fragrance, such as “parfum.

Parabens: These are antimicrobials used as preservatives to prevent bacteria and mold from growing in cosmetics. They mimic estrogen and have been found in tumors. Parabens can also damage DNA in sperm. On labels, you can spot the most common parabens used in cosmetics: ethylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutyl paraben.

Triclosan: Many antibacterial hand and body soaps contain this hormone disruptor, which is a pesticide. And here’s the thing: Washing with antibacterial soaps is no more effective than using regular soap and water to kill germs. Fortunately, after six years of litigation by NRDC, in 2016 the FDA banned companies from marketing antibacterial soaps that contain triclosan, among 18 other unsafe chemicals. Unfortunately, this ban excludes health care antiseptics, hand sanitizers, and soaps used in food handling.

Beware of “natural.”

Don’t believe words like natural and green, Sass says. “These are totally made up, unregulated words.” In addition, just because an ingredient is plant-based doesn’t mean it was grown naturally. That aloe vera and ginkgo biloba root on the label could just as well have been cooked up in a lab or sourced from a country where production lines are unregulated. Plus, not all botanical ingredients are safe: Some, like those related to soy, clover, or hops, can disrupt endocrine systems. “If botanical ingredients are as biologically active as they claim, then that’s also a concern,” Sass says. For more direction in the shopping aisles, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, or browse products that have been screened by the Made Safe Toxicant Database.

Spray with caution.

In the regulatory world, chemical-based insect repellents are considered pesticides—part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s turf—so they must be labeled as such. Use these with caution. “If you’re not in a Zika hot spot or headed to a bug-infested place, you likely don’t need hard-core repellents,” Rotkin-Ellman says. Read the bug-repellent guide offered by the Environmental Working Group. If you cover up with long pants and sleeves, you’ll need less product.

It’s also best to use lotions or wipes instead of spray-on versions of repellents—or spray-on versions of sunscreen, for that matter. In fact, the FDA has warned against the use of sunscreen sprays on children due to the risk of inhalation. So stay away from those chemical-dispersing nozzles. “When you breathe something in, the lungs’ job is to get everything in the air right into the bloodstream and send it to organs in every part of your body,” Sass says. That’s good when it comes to oxygen, but not when it comes to sunscreens and pesticide-containing bug repellents.

Speak up.

There are, of course, bigger safety measures pregnant and breastfeeding mothers can take beyond what goes in the shopping cart. Ask your favorite cosmetics companies to make their products safe and their ingredient lists transparent, and stand with organizations like NRDC that are pushing for policies that put public health first.

“It's going to take collective action to really protect our bodies and our children from these kinds of chemicals and to make sure the products on the market are safe,” Rotkin-Ellman says. 

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