Congratulations on becoming a soon-to-be mom! You’re about to embark on a wonderful journey filled with exciting new changes in your life–and your body! From nutrition to exercise and personal care, pregnancy comes with an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts in order to keep both you and baby happy and healthy. But what about sun exposure? Is your sunscreen safe for pregnancy? Are they taken into consideration?
While sunscreens remain the best form of protection from ultraviolet (UV) rays, many contain questionable ingredients that can have adverse effects on you and your baby’s well-being. So, the question is: are sunscreens really safe to use during pregnancy? What’s the best way to protect yourself and your baby from the sun’s damaging rays? Read on to find out!
What skin changes occur during pregnancy? Many changes occur inside the body during pregnancy, so it’s not surprising to also notice some common external changes in the first few months. Higher hormone levels and increased blood flow can cause a number of noticeable skin changes, such as:
1) Darker skin Hormonal changes during pregnancy increase the amount of melanin (the “tanning” hormone) your body produces, which protects the skin from UV light. You may notice that your freckles and moles are more noticeable and your areolas, nipples and labia have darkened. About two out of three expecting moms will experience this change. The increase in pigmentation can also cause melasma, also known as “pregnancy mask,” which causes dark spots to appear on the face. In fact, over 50% of pregnant women will develop melasma during pregnancy. Hyperpigmentation of the skin, which is very common when expecting, can also be heightened and aggravated by sun exposure, so using a natural and effective sunscreen that is safe for pregnancy is important to control it, especially during the first trimester.
2) More sensitive skin Higher hormone levels can disrupt the skin’s protein balance, making it thinner (especially around the belly) and more sensitive to UV rays, sunburns and skin reactions. Also, because the layer around the belly is thinner, UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin, can potentially impact the growing fetus.
3) Other visible skin changes
When you’re pregnant, your blood flow and body weight increase, putting more pressure on your legs and veins. And because your skin is stretching faster than usual, it may prompt the appearance of stretch marks (which appear in 90% of pregnant women), varicose veins or spider veins. You’ve probably noticed that the sun can actually cause scars and stretch marks to stand out more. Your skin tone will darken but not the scars, resulting in tanned skin with white or reddish marks (depending on how long you’ve had the stretch marks). We all know that sunbathing exposes you to harmful UV rays, but even more so during pregnancy, because your skin becomes more sensitive and reactive to environmental factors, including the sun’s rays.
How UV rays can affect your pregnancy
Beyond skin damage, prolonged sun exposure can cause a number of other health concerns for a mom and her growing baby, including:
1- Depletion of folic acid in the body, which is crucial for fetal development and reducing the likelihood of birth defects According to a study published in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology, a lack of folic acid can cause physical deformities in fetuses, such as spina bifida, a spinal cord defect. Getting enough folic acid is extremely important, especially during the first trimester.
2- Overheating and dehydration Studies have shown a link between exposure to high temperatures, lower birth weight and preterm births, which can negatively affect a baby’s normal development. Heat also causes the mother’s blood vessels to contract in order to cool down, which then reduces the amount of nutrients that reach the fetus.
3- Potential damage to the unborn baby’s neurological functioning When an expecting mom (from the time of conception up until twelve weeks) is exposed to the sun for long periods of time, her core temperature and that of the fetus rise, causing potential neurological damage to the growing baby. Bottom line? Stay hydrated and in the shade as much as possible. Avoid prolonged tanning sessions, especially when UV rays are at their peak, to prevent heat stroke, dehydration and further health complications.
With all that said, what can you do to best protect yourself and your unborn baby under the sun?
Learning how sun care products can affect you and your baby’s health, which sunscreen ingredients to avoid and what pregnancy-safe sunscreens to choose from will ease your mind. According to Environmental Working Group (EWG) studies, many common skincare products (including sunscreens) contain potentially harmful ingredients and contaminants that can affect your growing baby. Since what you apply topically can be absorbed into your skin, it is important to choose a sunscreen free of ingredients of concern.
Using sunscreen while pregnant: What to look for While pregnancy can require extra precautions when it comes to sun exposure, that doesn’t mean you can’t spend any time outdoors! All moms-to-be can enjoy the sun with natural ingredients! In fact, getting a dose of vitamin D is essential for your health and that of your growing baby. Since the fetus receives all of its vitamin D directly from its mother, a bit of sun for proper immune function and absorption of calcium and phosphorus isn’t a bad thing! However, moderation is key. Too much sun exposure can adversely affect your baby’s well-being. While wearing protective clothing and avoiding overexposure certainly helps, sunscreen remains one of the most efficient forms of sun protection.
Here are five tips for choosing the best sunscreen when pregnant:
1 - Opt for a “broad spectrum” mineral sunscreen A sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) measures protection from UVB rays, but doesn’t shield the skin from deep-penetrating UVA rays. Because the skin on your belly stretches and becomes thinner during pregnancy, it is important to choose a broad-spectrum mineral (or physical) sunscreen containing non-nano zinc oxide, which naturally protect against both UVA and UVB rays. According to EWG, non-nano zinc oxide sunscreens are considered the safest option for pregnant women. The ingredients form a protective coat on top of the skin to reflect the sun’s rays instead of being absorbed, versus protecting the skin via chemical reaction, which is the case with chemical sunscreens.
2 - Avoid high SPF sunscreens: SPF 30 is the way to go! Don’t let a super high SPF fool you. Contrary to popular belief, high SPF sunscreens might not be as safe as we think. A sunscreen’s SPF measures protection from UVB rays, but not the deep-penetrating UVA rays responsible for premature skin aging and melanoma. In fact, most sunscreens sold in America do not offer enough protection against UVA rays. High SPF products even more so. An SPF index of over 50 contains a higher dose of chemical filters which can easily be absorbed into the body. Further, a high SPF sunscreen can give a false sense of security by making people believe they are getting better sun protection over a longer period of time, when in fact they aren’t. When used correctly, an SPF 30 sunscreen will block 96.7% of UVB rays, while an SPF 70 will block 98.5%, only 1.8% more protection for over double the SPF value*.
3 - Read the ingredients label carefully
Make sure that nothing that goes on your skin contains any ingredients of concern. Take the time to read the product labels carefully to see what’s hidden in your sunscreen. EWG classifies potentially harmful sunscreen ingredients according to their health risk level:
Oxybenzone Hazard score: 8 (high) Oxybenzone is a very absorbent chemical ingredient found in the majority of chemical sunscreens, according to the EWG’s sunscreen database. It is known to be an endocrine disruptor, even for newborns, and has been linked to low birth weights.
Octinoxate Hazard score: 6 (moderate) Octinoxate can penetrate deep into the skin and have hormone-mimicking effects on the body. It can interfere with cellular signaling and cause biochemical changes. Octinoxate studies have shown it to directly impact the reproductive hormones of animals tested.
Homosalate Hazard score: 4 (moderate) Homosalate is a common fragrance ingredient and a sunscreen agent found in nearly 45% of U.S. sunscreens. Under the sun, this chemical can break down into harmful byproducts that can penetrate deeper into the skin and alter normal hormonal function.
Octisalate Hazard score: 4 (moderate) Octisalate is a chemical that can penetrate the skin and cause skin allergies.
Benzophenone-2 (BP-2) Hazard score: 4 (moderate) A fragrance ingredient and chemical UV absorber, benzophenone-2 can cause many skin reactions such as acne, burning, blisters, dryness, rash and redness, as well as stinging and swelling.
Octocrylene Hazard score: 3 (moderate) Octocrylene can cause skin allergies, interfere with cellular signaling and cause biochemical changes.
Avobenzone Hazard score: 2 (low) Because this ingredient breaks down under the sun, avobenzone is considered a potential skin allergen.
Other ingredients of concern found in sunscreens
In addition to chemical filters, there are other potentially disturbing ingredients in some sunscreens. Check the label for these ingredients:
Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) Hazard score: 9 (high) A study by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate can accelerate the development of skin tumors when applied to skin exposed to sunlight. According to the EWG’s Skin Deep® Cosmetics database, vitamin A is added to nearly 12% of U.S. beach and sports sunscreens, 15% of SPF moisturizers and 5% of all SPF-rated lip products.
Parabens and/or methylisothiazolinone (MIT) Hazard score: 7 (high) Parabens, often replaced on product labels by methylisothiazolinone (MIT), are sunscreen preservatives that can cause skin or allergic reactions and have shown evidence of neurotoxicity. MIT is used alone or in mixtures with a related chemical preservative called methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI), a skin sensitizer and allergen.
4 - Be careful with aerosol sprays and tanning oils According to EWG specialists, aerosol sunscreens can pose serious inhalation risks, as harmful ingredients can enter the bloodstream through the lungs and affect your baby directly. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), titanium dioxide is considered a safe ingredient when used in cream format, but can be a “possible carcinogen” when used in sprays. If inhaled, it can potentially pose a health threat by entering the bloodstream through the lungs. Tanning oils should be avoided altogether as they usually contain very minimal sun protection and can contribute to sunburns.
5 - Apply the right amount and reapply often Don’t forget to apply a generous amount of sunscreen (about 30 ml–the equivalent of about two tablespoons) every two hours and reapply every time you go in the water. Apply sunscreen in overlooked areas of the body: the back of the neck, ears, lips, feet, underarms, under bathing suit straps and sunglasses. For the face and lips, you can use a zinc oxide sun stick® rather than a sunscreen to facilitate and smoothen the application, especially when you’re on the go.
In recap: Additional sunbathing tip: Wear a one-piece or tankini under the sun. Because your prominent and sensitive belly catches rays from every angle when you’re lying down, it’s more likely to get burned.
Enjoy a pregnancy-safe sunbathing experience There are many ways to enjoy some fun under the sun without compromising your baby’s safety, including using sunscreens that are safe for pregnancy. Many moms-to-be don’t know that what they put on their bodies is just as important as what they put in their bodies. In addition to wearing protective clothing, staying hydrated and in the shade and avoiding sun exposure as much as possible during the first trimester, choosing the right type of sunscreen while pregnant is crucial for you and your baby’s safety.
*According to EWG
Want to know more? Download our Free Guide to Safer Sunscreens and learn everything you need to know for the safest sunbathing experience!