Do I have to break up with my vitamin C serum now that I'm pregnant?
Experts on how to tackle common skin ailments that pop up during pregnancy
Ah, motherhood. You spend nine months carrying another human inside you and the next 12 years cleaning up clothes, toys and random food stuffed into the pockets of your pants. Then come the glorious teen years when you’re reminded, daily, how horrible you are by your angsty teenager. Once over the hormonal hump, at the age of 18, you have a semi-grateful child who appreciates everything you’ve done for them. That’s best case scenario.
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They say pregnancy and motherhood change you. It’s not just in a metaphorical, existential way but physically too. The advertisements for maternity products show smiling pregnant ladies with glowing skin, shiny hair, and a hand on their belly. While many women are blessed, few talk about the not-so-wonderful reality of melasma and hyperpigmentation, terrible constipation, and backne.
When you’re pregnant, nursing or even trying to conceive, your lifestyle might endure some sacrifices, including giving up your previous favourites and adopting a new pregnancy skincare routine. It can be a major throwback to your teen years of acne eruptions, hyperpigmentation and skin discolouration, odd bumpy patches, redness, sensitivity and spidery veins popping up where there were previously none.
“Changes such as a sudden shine on your cheeks or pinkish, reddish lines on your stomach may occur. Stretch marks happen when your belly skin stretches to accommodate your baby bump. You’ll notice the linea nigra, a darkish vertical line that runs through the centre of a pregnant belly,” says Dr Geetika Mittal Gupta, cosmetologist and founder of ISAAC Luxe (International Skin & Anti-Aging Centre).
“When you’re pregnant, your body creates 50% more blood, resulting in increased circulation throughout your body, making your face appear brighter.”
You may find your skin type becoming more extreme. So if you have oily acne-prone skin, pregnancy could attract more breakouts. Dry skin could get drier and more sensitive, says dermatologist Dr Aradhana Dhawwan.
While your instinct would be to pick up your previous acne regimen and go-to acids to tackle the problem, it may not be possible. Pregnancy skincare requires some thought about the effects on the human you’re growing inside you. “Testing pregnant women to see the potential effect that products could have on the baby is unethical. So we don’t definitively know what pregnancy skincare should look,” explains Dhawwan. She adds that doctors err on the side of caution, telling people to keep things basic, but when skin problems do pop up, there are ingredients you can use to treat them.
“Retinoids are the multitasker which we use to combat most skin problems, whether it’s acne or hyperpigmentation. But during this period, you can’t use it in any form given the risk to the foetus. There are alternatives for each ailment,” adds Dhawwan.
If your pregnancy glow is MIA and your skin needs more than the basics, here are the products and ingredients you can use to tackle different skin problems.
For hyperpigmentation and changes in texture
Avoid: High-strength chemical peels, hydroquinone and topical retinoids
Changes in skin texture, hyperpigmentation and melasma are common during pregnancy. Melasma, the most prevalent, is when greyish-brown patches appear on the skin, larger than the dark spots left behind by pimples. Melasma patches are wonky and uneven, covering more surface area.
Hormonal melasma could be caused by pregnancy or, possibly, birth control pills. But melasma can also be caused by UV exposure, says Dhawwan. Hormonal melasma usually subsides once the pregnancy and nursing period is over and our hormones settle down. It’s caused by melanocytes — skin cells responsible for pigment — going into overdrive because of the influx of pregnancy hormones.
The best treatment for this would be hydroquinone and retinoids (including oral isotretinoin) but both Dhawwan and Gupta say these should be completely avoided during the period of conception, pregnancy and breastfeeding as they could potentially disrupt the embryo and cause birth defects.
Instead of taking any such risks, Gupta says glycolic acid and azelaic acid can help with skin brightening and skin pigmentation reduction. According to Dhawwan, vitamin C is a pregnancy-safe ingredient and a powerful antioxidant which can help with collagen stimulation, skin brightening, and evening out skin tone. She recommends sticking to low-dose L-ascorbic acid (pure topical vitamin C) at a maximum of 10% or vitamin C derivates (we’ve broken it all down here), again at the lower end of the dosage spectrum (15%) to avoid any potential irritation while your skin is already sensitive.
When it comes to pregnancy skincare, there are mixed opinions regarding the use of topical tranexamic acid. It’s best to consult your OBGYN and dermatologist to know if this product will be safe for you and your individual health conditions.
For the acne breakouts and leftover marks
Avoid: Retinoids, topical and oral, such as isotretinoin (the chemical composition, brand names vary), certain antibiotics and high doses of salicylic acid (especially chemical peels)
Excessive oil production, especially during the first trimester, is the main culprit for acne during pregnancy says Dhawwan. Our favourite topical treatments, like retinoids, may be off limits at the moment but all hope is not lost.
Benzoyl peroxide is a fantastic ingredient to use while combating acne and at a maximum of 5%, is safe to include in your pregnancy skincare routine. “This natural substance should be a go-to component for skin-plumping and moisturising, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It works wonderfully and presents no danger to either mom or baby,” says Gupta.
Niacinamide is another pregnancy-safe ingredient that can help with breakouts and keeping our pores clear, regulating oil production, and easing the redness caused by acne. Dhawwan recommends sticking to a 5% concentration and using it twice a week, building up from there if you’re a new user of this ingredient. Salicylic acid is another popular ingredient to fight acne that a lot of people used to be cautious about using, but as Dhawwan says, “In over-the-counter skincare cosmetic formulations, it’s at a maximum of 2% concentration and should pose no threat.”
For slowing down signs of ageing
If you’ve been following a skincare routine to combat signs of ageing like sun damage, wrinkles, and fine lines, you already know that you’re playing the long game here. In this context, setting aside your retinoids — whether pure tretinoin, retinol or retinal — for this short period of time isn’t a very big deal. You can always pick up where you left off once you’re done nursing.
In the meantime, you can choose other products that are pregnancy-safe, and while they may not have the exact same effect as a retinoid in terms of buffing our wrinkles and dealing with sun damage, they do work in their own way. First in your line of defence is regular use of sunscreen (more on this later) to protect your skin from sun damage and reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Our skin naturally produces ceramides, though these deplete as we get older. Using ceramide-rich products helps protect the skin barrier, and keeps the skin moisturised and healthy. Pair them with a humectant such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin, and your skin will hold onto hydration longer, plump fine lines and wrinkles, and stay supple. This will be extra beneficial for those with dry skin.
“Along with vitamin C, peptides are believed to stimulate collagen production, which naturally breaks down over time. They also have anti-inflammatory properties and can soothe skin irritation,” says Dhawwan.
For sun protection
Perhaps the most hotly debated product when it comes to pregnancy skincare is sunscreen. Are all chemical or organic sunscreens bad? Are mineral sunscreens, with their white cast that makes you look like you’re going to play cricket, the only option? The debate continues with the majority of experts advising you to stay clear of organic sunscreens during this time.
Mineral sunscreens are the ones that use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. They’re often referred to as sunblock, mineral or physical sunscreens. Chemical or organic sunscreens, on the other hand, use UV filters to protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays.
Now, being any shade of brown, it can be tough to find a mineral sunscreen that won’t leave you walking around like an extra on the set of a horror film. Alternatively, you can go for tinted mineral sunscreens. If you’re comfortable layering products, go over your mineral sunscreen with a BB cream or light foundation that’s closer to your skin tone.
You can create an elaborate pregnancy-safe skincare routine or keep things basic and ride it out until your little one comes into this world, it’s up to you. Everyone’s experience is different. And while we’re jealous of the ones who coast through pregnancy without a pimple in sight, we can take comfort in the fact that for almost every skincare conundrum, there’s a skin-safe solution.
A note of caution: This article is for educational purposes including input and advice from trained medical professionals. Please consult your healthcare provider before changing or trying any products. Your health and the health of your little one come first.