As any pregnant person will tell you, the list of things that are off-limits during pregnancy is a lengthy one. (Of course skipping the spicy tuna rolls, iced lattes, and chilled glasses of rosé for nine months are all worth it in the end, but still.) That list also includes a subset of many common skincare products and ingredients that need to be avoided during pregnancy as well.
While things such as retinoids and benzoyl peroxide are clear no-nos, when it comes to sunscreen, the lines are a little blurrier. Make no mistake, you absolutely can—and most definitely should—be using sunscreen while you’re both pregnant and breastfeeding, but it is important to be a bit more selective about the type. Ahead, dermatologists Dr. Stacy Chimento, MD, and Dr. Jessie Cheung, MD, explain everything parents-to-be should keep in mind.
What Are the Types of Sunscreen?
Let’s start with a quick refresher as to the different types of sunscreens out there. There are two categories: chemical and physical (the latter of which are also referred to as mineral sunscreens). Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients—common ones include avobenzone, oxybenzone, and homosalate—that are absorbed into the skin. There, they work by absorbing UV rays and converting them into heat, which prevents the skin from burning, explains Chimento. On the other hand, physical sunscreens, which rely on minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are not absorbed into the skin.
Rather, they sit on the surface and work by reflecting or redirecting the damaging UV rays, she says.
Broadly speaking, they each have their own sets of pros and cons. For example, chemical sunscreens are traditionally more cosmetically elegant, while physical sunscreens tend to be less irritating for those with sensitive skin. If you’re not pregnant, the best sunscreen for you is the one that you like and are going to actually use every day, 365 days a year. (Because yes, you need to wear sunscreen every single day.) That being said, for those who are pregnant, there is a clear winner…
Which Types of Sunscreen Should Pregnant People Avoid?
Both dermatologists we spoke with agree that physical sunscreens are by far the better option for pregnant people. “There are ongoing studies about the safe threshold for the absorption of chemical sunscreen ingredients through the skin, which show that they can get into the bloodstream,” says Cheung. Indeed, in January of 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found six commonly-used chemical sunscreen ingredients are absorbed into the body; these findings prompted further research about the safety of these ingredients, which is still ongoing. Cheung goes on to say that oxybenzone, octinoxate, and homosalate are certain ingredients in particular that have been shown to impact hormones in animal studies.
But that’s by no means an excuse to skip ‘screen, pregnant or not. It just means that pregnant people (as well as anyone who may be concerned about systemic absorption of the ingredients in question) should stick with physical formulas. “Physical sunscreens simply sit on top of the skin, so there’s no concern around chemicals being absorbed and affecting either parent or baby,” says Chimento. It’s also worth noting that the two most commonly used ingredients in physical sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are the only two sunscreen ingredients deemed GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective) by the FDA.
Does This Apply to Those Who Are Breastfeeding?
In a word, yes. The chemicals in question can get into both the bloodstream and breast milk, says Cheung. “Physical sunscreens are inherently safer for those who are breastfeeding and for their babies, both while pregnant and breastfeeding,” she explains.
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