Whether it starts in an exam room or the bedroom, sparks joy or fear, culminates in a marathon labor or an impromptu surgery, pregnancy is surely one of the most wildly unpredictable and uniquely personal experiences of a person’s life. But there is one constant, a common thread linking every mom-to-be charged with growing a human being inside their body: Pregnancy is a season of sacrifice. For 40 weeks, we surrender our vices; we modify our diets, our workouts, our medical decisions, even our beauty routines.
Ironically, it’s this last one, beauty — a trivial footnote to some — that tends to trip many of us up. Unlike, say, retiring our corkscrew, the changes we’re supposed to make in the beauty realm aren’t clearly laid out by most doctors. In fact, some of the “rules” around “pregnancy-safe” beauty are frustratingly debatable, open to interpretation, and more cryptic than any crib assembly instructions.
It’s a puzzle worth solving, because beauty matters. Our favorite products have the power to inspire and uplift; to deliver joy in a lipstick bullet or zen in a pot of cream. They play an integral role in some of our most celebratory moments and enduring memories. Moreover, research shows that our appearance (and how we feel about it) impacts our self-esteem, social interactions, quality of life, and more. It’s never about prioritizing our looks over our baby’s health: Whether we’re scrutinizing sunscreens, weighing concealer options, or mulling a root touch-up, we want to get it right. For both of us.
But how can we make smart decisions when the information available to us is inconsistent, unclear, or worse yet, tainted by sneaky marketing claims and scare tactics? This question is precisely what inspired us to create Romper’s first-ever pregnancy beauty awards. Over the past several months, our team has enlisted a diverse group of style-savvy moms — a veritable village of discerning medical professionals, makeup artists, hair stylists, beauty editors, brand consultants, and entrepreneurs — to nominate the products they found to be safe, efficacious, and even luxurious, both during pregnancy and right after, in that vulnerable and intimate postpartum period.
Our vetting process
Which brings us to part two of our product-selection process: After our nominating committee cast its votes for standout formulas across seven categories, our medical advisers — Chicago-based OB-GYN Dr. Kiarra King and New York City dermatologist Dr. Anna Karp — vetted each and every formula, giving us a grand total of 75 winners.
Our ultimate goal here is to cut through the noise: to provide unbiased facts about the ingredients found in popular beauty products and to clear up pesky misconceptions along the way. While we’ve endeavored to be as transparent and unambiguous as possible, it’s worth noting that, barring a handful of strictly off-limits ingredients — all oral and topical retinoids, hydroquinone, alpha arbutin, bimatoprost (found in lash serums like Latisse), oral tranexamic acid (TXA), spironolactone, cysteamine, triclosan, methylisothiazolinone, talc — your own level of acceptable risk is still the deciding factor. “Pregnancy-safe beauty is largely about the level of caution that you, as a pregnant woman, personally want to take, knowing that the systemic absorption [of a topically applied product] is low but hasn’t been well-studied,” says Karp.
Romper’s List Of “No” Ingredients
- Oral and topical retinoids
- Alpha arbutin
- Oral tranexamic acid (TXA)
For obvious ethical reasons, clinical trials are not conducted on pregnant women, so there’s little data on the safety of cosmetics in pregnancy (including ingredients that are classified as drugs, like UV filters and acne meds). Instead, animal studies typically inform doctors’ recommendations. Generally, with ingredients that pose no known risk to a fetus, “those that don’t show high absorption through the skin are considered safe,” explains Karp, especially when they’re being used at low percentages on small areas for a short time. “But there is a gray zone with ingredients that just don’t have enough data behind them — and usually we say to avoid products like this, out of an abundance of caution.”
How we think about controversial ingredients
One questionable family of ingredients is parabens. Found in myriad beauty products (as well as in foods and pharmaceuticals), these highly effective, non-allergenic, broad-spectrum preservatives are used to stave off mold, fungi, and bacteria, thereby extending the shelf life of our favorite creams, shampoos, mascaras, and more. While parabens can penetrate the skin (trace amounts have turned up in blood, urine, and tissue samples), they’re quickly metabolized and excreted (they don’t accumulate in the body) — and experts say that their presence in the body isn’t necessarily harmful.
As you may have heard, lab and animal studies have found parabens to be weakly estrogenic (meaning, they can act like estrogen) — but per this 2019 review of paraben safety data, no study has ever conclusively found them capable of disrupting hormones in the human body. One study frequently used to stoke the public’s fear of parabens reported reduced sperm counts and other reproductive issues in rats exposed to butylparaben during development. Often omitted from the narrative, however, is the fact that the rodents were force-fed large quantities of the paraben every day for several weeks.
Nevertheless, certain beauty brands, aiming to skirt the controversy, have removed parabens from their products, subbing in alternative preservatives and labeling their goods “paraben-free.” But it’s important to realize that replacement preservatives may be less effective than parabens and/or less well-studied, according to a Washington Post piece on paraben safety.
Our medical experts, erring on the side of caution, included parabens on their best-to-avoid ingredients list, but they admit that the safety data is largely inconclusive and that more studies are needed. “Any studies that have raised concerns have been animal studies, where the parabens were mostly administered under the skin or orally, not applied topically, and in doses much higher than those used in cosmetics,” notes Karp.
After carefully considering the science — including statements from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a group of scientists responsible for evaluating the safety of cosmetic ingredients in the United States — we elected not to ban paraben-containing products outright from our list. For anyone who wants to limit their exposure, we’ve noted which two winning products contain parabens.
Phthalates are another class of ingredients worth mentioning. This family of manmade compounds is found in household items like plastic packaging and even in food. In the beauty space, phthalates have traditionally been used in personal care products to enhance lubrication and make fragrances last longer. Some types of phthalates are endocrine disruptors and have been linked to certain developmental and reproductive abnormalities — though, again, much of what we know about phthalates comes from animal studies.
Here’s the really tricky thing about phthalates: When they’re used as a fragrance component, they don’t need to be spelled out on labels — even though they could make up a considerable portion of the product. The good news: Many companies have voluntarily removed phthalates from their formulas — and we’ve prioritized those that declare themselves phthalate-free. If a winner contains fragrance, but does not disclose possible phthalates, we make note of it in the product description.
There were a handful of other ingredients that our doctors highlighted as being potentially problematic. Googling them will turn up all sorts of disturbing claims, and it can be challenging, we realize, for the average beauty consumer to separate fact from conjecture in this realm. To gain clarity on these substances, we enlisted the expertise of four cosmetics chemists: Krupa Koestline (founder of KKT Consultants); Kelly Dobos, an adjunct professor of cosmetic science at the University of Toledo; and the duo behind Chemist Confessions, Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu.
Based on their input, we compiled the following list of notable ingredients that fall into that aforementioned gray zone: parfum (the phthalate risk is compounded by the allergen potential associated with select fragrance constituents), PEG/PPG (a diverse group of humectants and emulsifiers that has been deemed safe by the CIR but may contain trace impurities if not properly purified), and chemical sunscreen filters (such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone), which have been shown to enter the bloodstream and may or may not pose a threat. All in all, we don’t have the evidence to promote or discourage their use in pregnancy.
Since there is debate surrounding these chemicals — and our experts can’t guarantee that they’re completely benign, particularly during and after pregnancy — we’ve flagged them in winning products to help guide your selections. If you’re concerned, we suggest talking to your OB-GYN and/or dermatologist before using products that include these ingredients.
Ultimately, as any expecting mom who’s ever succumbed to a spicy tuna roll craving will tell you, there’s an element of risk assessment in all aspects of pregnancy. Some of us aim to avoid every potential threat while others are willing to take their chances here and there. Our intent is to arm you with the facts and leave the decision-making to you. Because if there’s one thing a woman should never relinquish, during this season or any other, it’s her fundamental right to choose.
Photographer: Graydon Herriott
Art Director: Shanelle Infante
Set Stylist: Amy Elise Wilson