Reading a skincare label can be overwhelming. Some ingredients with unpronounceable, scary-sounding names turn out to be a moisturizing plant seed oil, while innocuous-seeming ingredients, like “fragrance,” are often packed with some truly terrifying unknowns. Trying to decipher what’s safe and what’s not while pregnant is next-level research.
To make things easier, we enlisted the help of Ava Shamban, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Beverly Hills and founder of AVA MD. “The dermis is our filtration system, guarding what comes in and out with many ingredients, chemicals, actives and other substances transferring through the cells to our lymph, endocrine and blood systems,” Dr. Shabman explains. “We want to ensure we know what we are putting in and on our body that has the capacity to be transferred.”
Along with educating yourself and taking in her medical expertise, Dr. Shamban stresses that it is vital to communicate with your healthcare provider to make empowering decisions that are right for you.
What Are Parabens And Why Are Parabens Bad?
Parabens are chemical preservatives used in skincare and makeup to give products a longer shelf-life and keep bacteria and mold away. Though their function is commendable, they do have an ick factor when it comes to our health. “Parabens have been long on the radar of health care providers because studies have found them present in the tissue of cancerous tumors,” says Dr. Shamban. One of the biggest concerns of using parabens is that they might be endocrine-disrupting, causing a hormonal imbalance and potentially increasing the risk for breast cancer.
Do Parabens In Skin Care Cause Cancer?
The major issue with parabens is that they are used as preservatives in places beyond lotions or foundation, including some of your favorite snacks. The higher levels of parabens found in cancerous tumors could have been ingested, rather than absorbed through the skin. “To my knowledge, a direct connection between skincare products and increased risks of developing breast or other cancers hasn’t been conclusively found,” adds Dr. Shamban. In fact, one study found no connection between topical application of parabens and a higher risk of cancer.
Should You Avoid Parabens In Skin Care?
Given that there is a potential for harm, and with so many paraben-free alternatives available, being extra cautious can’t hurt. “It is widely understood that higher levels of exposures over time are usually the greater concern, and there are some good quality choices in products without these ingredients present,” Dr. Shamban explains.
Scan skin and hair product labels for the most commonly used parabens (methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben) and if you’ve discovered that parabens are lurking in your skincare, don’t panic. “The levels of these parabens in consumer products are very low, usually less than 0.3% when the FDA has safety standards at more than five times that,” says Dr. Shamban.
What Are Phthalates?
Used as softeners, or lubricants in personal care products, phthalates have been studied vigorously over the last two decades or so. The findings have been alarming, with research finding a correlation between certain phthalates and reproductive and neurodevelopmental problems, as well as male fertility issues. What’s more, phthalates have been found in amniotic fluid, suggesting they can pass from parent to fetus in utero and can cause miscarriages, according to one Harvard study.
As with parabens, your greatest risk for exposure doesn’t come from your skincare, but rather from plastics, including food containers. “Phthalates are listed as ‘chemicals of concern’ because it’s not known whether they transfer transdermally into our cells and bloodstream,” Dr. Shabman says. What is known is that cosmetics can transfer parabens (in small quantities) through inhalation, or even ingestion, which is entirely possible if you’ve ever slathered on face cream as you ran out the door.
“Fragrance” As A Skin Care Ingredient
“‘Fragrance’ is an overarching term that is often considered a ‘trade secret’ but can be any mixture of chemicals and compounds, including acetates, formaldehyde, and phthalates,” Dr. Shabman cautions. Because brands don’t have to disclose their formulations, they get a free pass to hide potentially harmful components. Sometimes even the brands aren’t aware of what goes into their fragrance, as they buy it from a separate manufacturer, rather than producing it themselves.
“The concern is that many of the thousands of potential chemical compounds used in fragrance can be possibly linked to a whole host of allergies and chemical sensitivities at best, and a range of endocrine disruption, cancers, birth defects, toxicity, respiratory issues or infertility at the worst,” Dr. Shabman says. So whenever you see “perfume” or “fragrance” on the ingredient list, it’s a good sign you should avoid the product altogether.
Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate Safe For Skin?
The lather-producing surfactant is found in most shampoos, as well as some toothpastes and lotions. Though considered relatively safe, it is a well-known irritant and can cause dryness and exacerbate eczema, issues that can come up during pregnancy.
Though taking care of your health is especially important during pregnancy, all of these skincare nasties are just as potentially harmful for folks who aren’t pregnant. Fortunately, there are already conscientious skincare products available with transparent ingredient lists free of the bad stuff and loaded up on the ones skin loves.