Can I Use Acne Wash While Pregnant?

Woman looking at acne on face in mirror

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If you’re pregnant and noticing some changes in your skin, know that you’re far from alone. The vast majority of pregnant individuals, almost 75%, report that their skin looks and feels different. And while pregnancy hormones can bring on some welcomed changes, like a flushed, healthy-looking “pregnancy glow,” others, such as acne, may be more of a bummer. Then, there’s the fact that there is a litany of things you should avoid while pregnant, so it may not be easy to know what your acne-fighting options are.

To help minimize any confusion and set you on the path to clearer-looking skin—without putting your baby at risk—we tapped the expertise of two board-certified dermatologists. Ahead, we’re discussing whether or not it’s safe to use an acne wash while pregnant, and what types of ingredients—baby-safe and not—to look for on product labels. Read on for all that intel and more. 

What Is Acne Wash?

Acne wash is a type of cleanser formulated specifically for treating and preventing breakouts—blemishes that pregnant people can be especially prone to developing due to a surge of hormonal activity. When you’re pregnant, your skin produces more sebum (natural oil). While this can result in the alluring aforementioned pregnancy glow, it can also make you more susceptible to acne.

“Hormonal fluctuations certainly put many people at risk for acne pimples,” says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at the Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. “There is a possibility that overproduction of sebum, mixed with dead skin cells and bacteria, can trigger new acne, or a flare in underlying acne for many people.” If you didn’t have acne before, you can still develop it. And if you’ve struggled with it in the past, you may be even more likely to break out while pregnant.

While you’re not destined to develop acne while you’re pregnant, if you do, it may worsen at a certain stage. “Acne during pregnancy is very common and can happen in the first, second, and third trimesters,” explains Neda Mehr, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Medical Director at Pure Dermatology Cosmetic & Hair Center in Newport Beach, CA. “[But] if you are dealing with pregnancy acne, expect that it may increase during the third trimester when androgen [hormone] levels are at their highest.”

Fortunately, there are numerous different kinds of acne washes on the market, including gel, cream, and foaming cleansers. The only catch is that while some are pregnancy-safe, others are not. The key to decoding which ones are kosher lies in their ingredient labels and knowing what to look for and what to avoid.

Is It Safe to Use Acne Wash During Pregnancy?

Safely treating breakouts with an acne wash while pregnant isn’t impossible, but, admittedly, having to be diligent with ingredients in cleansers’ formulas can be a challenge—one which you might already be primed for just based on all the other pregnancy limitations you have to follow. Some ingredients should be flat-out off limits while pregnant, while others are deemed safer options. 

“Avoid retinol and salicylic acid during pregnancy, both of which are staple products for acne-prone skin in non-pregnant people,” cautions Neda Mehr, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and medical director at Pure Dermatology Cosmetic & Hair Center in Newport Beach, Calif. “There are certain ingredients in many acne cleansers that are absolute no-no’s and should be avoided during pregnancy, especially the more common cleansers like salicylic acid.”

Still, there’s no need to let acne get in the way of your skin looking its best while pregnant. There are milder acne washes out there that contain less risky ingredients. You just have to practice smart skincare. While Dr. Nazarian concurs on the potential dangers of using a retinol or salicylic acid acne cleanser while pregnant, there are other options you can choose from in good conscience.

“Consider gentler cleaners with low levels of glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide,” Dr. Nazarian advises. “These can safely remove dead skin cells and decrease surface bacteria.” Like all things in pregnancy, she says, you should choose anything you apply on your skin, or ingest through diet and medication, carefully and ensure none of the ingredients are harmful in pregnancy. When in doubt, always seek out a pro.

Every pregnancy is different. Be sure to consult with a healthcare provider about your circumstances if you have any questions about using acne wash while pregnant.

Benefits of Acne Wash During Pregnancy 

As long as you’re using an acne wash with pregnancy-safe ingredients (more on those in a bit), the benefits are pretty straightforward: clearer skin. By keeping breakouts at bay, you’re also at less of a risk of developing postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (discoloration) or scarring that can result from inflamed acne blemishes.

Risks of Using Acne Wash While Pregnant

As we mentioned, the safest way to use acne wash while pregnant is to scour product labels for harmful ingredients—and to speak with a healthcare provider if you’re unsure about any of them. But if you come across any of the following ones, give the product a hard pass and move on to checking the next one.

Retinoids

Retinols, a type of retinoid, can work wonders on clearing acne for non-pregnant people, and provide a multitude of other skin benefits, but they can pose a significant risk to your unborn baby: birth defects.

“Oral retinols (like Accutane) are known to be extremely harmful to the growing fetus,” warns Dr. Mehr. “So make sure not to apply them topically to your skin while pregnant.” These include skeletal, cardiovascular, muscular, immune, and neurological malformations, which can cause lifelong challenges for your child, as well as result in miscarriage or premature delivery.

Salicylic Acid

The other ingredient that both doctors flagged to avoid in acne wash while pregnant is salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid known for its ability to clean deep down in skin’s pores.

“While salicylic acid is an excellent topical for acne while non-pregnant, its use for pregnant females is questionable and best to avoid,” Dr. Mehr cautions. Whenever an ingredient falls into the gray area of whether or not it’s safe to use while pregnant, it’s usually wise to not roll the dice and go with another option that you know for sure won’t harm your baby. 

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

Often added to skincare like acne washes, but not active ingredients, are a range of ingredients you should also avoid. Dr. Mehr advises against using products that contain known harmful chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, and harsh surfactants. They can disrupt your endocrine system, she cautions, which regulates your hormones involved in reproduction, growth, and metabolism, all of which can be detrimental to your growing infant, as well as your own health.

Pregnancy-Safe Alternatives

Finally, try not to get discouraged when trying to manage acne while pregnant. There are acne washes that are safe to use to help clear your skin without putting your baby in harm's way. Just follow the same approach while doing your research and keep an eye on the ingredients.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a popular alpha-hydroxy acid used to exfoliate your skin and help treat acne. Look for a low concentration in a mild acne cleanser. The small amount of it you’d be applying in an acne wash is widely considered safe to use while pregnant.

Benzoyl Peroxide

You can also look for a gentle acne wash with a low percentage of benzoyl peroxide, another acne-fighting ingredient. If you’re unsure of exactly how much to look for, ask a healthcare provider how much would be suitable for your unique skin and situation.

However, keep in mind that when it comes to glycolic acid and benzoyl peroxide, it’s an either/or situation. Dr. Mehr advises against using them both at the same time, since they’re both acne treatments and, therefore, have the potential to over-dry your skin.

Azelaic Acid

Another pregnancy-safe acne treatment and gentle exfoliant, azelaic acid has the added benefit of soothing inflammation and redness in addition to helping to rid your skin of acne-causing bacteria.

A Word From Verywell

The answer to whether or not you can use acne wash while pregnant isn’t a straightforward yes or no. It all depends on the safety of the ingredients in each cleanser option. While the right product can help you clear up and prevent acne breakouts, it’s what’s on the label that counts.

Some ingredients, like retinol, have been known to cause serious issues such as birth defects. And others are best avoided because potentially harmful effects to you and your baby can’t entirely be ruled out. To avoid any confusion and possible risks, it’s always best to discuss ingredients and formulas with a healthcare provider.

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8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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