Can I Use Glycolic Acid While Pregnant?

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Glycolic acid is one of the most popular ingredients in skincare today, and for very good reason. As member of the alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) family, it boasts an incredibly small molecular structure, so it's able to penetrate skin far more deeply than other acids.

The powerful ingredient offers a long list of benefits and is found in everything from acne-fighting cleansers to anti-aging serums. In fact, the AHA is so ubiquitous that you may not even realize it's in some of your favorite products, and it likely wouldn't occur to you to question its use at different stages in your life. When you're pregnant, all of the habits and routines you once knew well come into question, and using glycolic acid is no exception.

Glycolic acid has an excellent safety profile for use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. "It is found in many over-the-counter skincare products that women of all reproductive stages have used without incident for decades," says Alicia Zalka, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Western Connecticut and the founder of Surface Deep, a glycolic-acid-based bodycare line.

It is considered so safe to use while pregnant that it's even a chosen alternative to many ingredients that are not okay to use during this time, like retinol. As with many activities during pregnancy, there are certain precautions that you should take when using glycolic acid. Here, you'll learn all about the beloved ingredient and the long list of benefits it can offer as well as what to be aware of when using it during pregnancy.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of AHA, meaning it's a chemical compound that removes the top layers of dead skin cells. It's derived from sugar cane and offers various benefits to skin, but it's different from (and essentially more capable than) other AHAs, like lactic and citric acid.

"What really makes glycolic acid special is that it has the smallest molecular structure of any AHA," explains Adam Luber, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Scottsdale, Ariz. "So, it's low molecular weight allows it to penetrate the skin easily and exfoliate the skin more deeply than any other AHA."

Although it's known mostly as an exfoliator, glycolic acid boasts a wide variety of benefits and uses. "The acid in its many forms is used (and not limited to) in treatments for wrinkles, pigmentation, acne, rough skin, razor bumps, and keratosis pilaris," Dr. Zalka notes. As an anti-acne agent, glycolic acid keeps pores clear and prevents blackheads by exfoliating dead skin cells and promoting cell turnover.

When you slough off the top layers of skin, it can also result in anti-aging benefits. You may experience smoother fine lines, as well as an improved tone and texture. You can find glycolic acid in many forms, including cleansers, serums, and at-home treatments. The AHA is also popular as a high-concentration peel at dermatologists' offices.

Is It Safe to Use Glycolic Acid During Pregnancy?

When it comes to using glycolic acid during pregnancy, the answer is generally: yes, you can still include it in your skincare routine. "The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists approves the use of over-the-counter topical products with glycolic acid," Dr. Luber says.

That said, be sure to consult with your healthcare provider to make sure you're being 100 percent safe and using an approved percentage (re: potency). "There are no well-controlled studies in pregnant women that quantify safety during pregnancy, so it is always important to run it by your obstetrician," Dr. Luber adds.

Benefits of Using Glycolic Acid During Pregnancy

Glycolic acid can be an incredibly useful tool in treating myriad skin concerns at any time, but because pregnancy can bring about new skin issues or heighten existing ones, the AHA can be particularly helpful during these nine months. Here, you'll find some of the benefits of using glycolic acid during pregnancy—and long after.

Reducing Acne

Your body goes through a lot during pregnancy, and the hormonal changes that occur can often bring about acne, even if you've never had it before. Just as glycolic acid can treat acne when you're not pregnant, it can also be a huge help when you're dealing with breakouts when you are.

"Glycolic acid product use would be more advisable than using retinol for acne while a woman is childbearing," Dr. Zalka adds. And often, your dermatologist will recommend glycolic acid as an alternative to acne treatments you may have used before that aren't safe for pregnancy.

Treating Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation and melasma, the freckle-like spots that are often caused by hormonal changes, are both very common skin conditions during pregnancy. Glycolic acid can help lighten these spots, thanks to its exfoliation of the top layers of skin.

"Think of this layer of cells as bricks tightly and collectively creating a brick wall," Dr. Zalka says. "Glycolic acid can loosen the connection between the bricks, as in removing the mortar holding them together, and this process leads to cell turn over." As cells turn over, they will essentially reverse previous damage, like hyperpigmentation and dark spots.

Enhancing Your Pregnancy "Glow"

There's a lot of talk about the "glowing" complexion that comes with pregnancy. Whether you're experiencing your best skin ever or you're still searching for your glow, glycolic acid can help.

Through the exfoliation of dead skin cells, the AHA can get rid of dullness and roughness. The result can be brighter, more healthy-looking skin.

Safety Precautions of Using Glycolic Acid While Pregnant

While glycolic acid is considered safe to use during pregnancy, there are still some unknowns. So it's best to err on the side of caution and take certain precautions to ensure the utmost safety.

"It's best to stick to lower concentrations, typically 7% or less, during pregnancy," Dr. Luber says. No studies have tested the effects of using higher concentrations of glycolic acid during pregnancy, but studies have shown detrimental effects on rat fetuses when exposed to high doses of the AHA.

To ensure that you're using a 7% or less concentration, look on the label of your glycolic acid products. This won't severely limit your options, as most over-the-counter glycolic acid skincare uses a low concentration. It does, however, mean that you will not be able to have any in-office glycolic acid peels during your pregnancy, as these contain a much higher concentration of the acid.

If you are ever unsure whether you can use a specific product or treatment, run it by your healthcare provider (typically a dermatologist) first.

A Word From Verywell

Glycolic acid can be a star in your skincare routine as it offers serious benefits to your complexion. And unlike other topical ingredients and even other AHAs, you can continue using it during every stage of your pregnancy. Just be sure to stick to a low concentration, and remember to always consult your healthcare provider before adding it to your regimen.

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