How to Safely Exfoliate Your Skin While Pregnant

Image of a pregnant person applying a topical cream to belly.

Getty Images / damircudic

Is there any aspect of your body that pregnancy doesn't change? The process of growing a human can impact everything from the size of your foot to your preference for barbecue potato chips. Your skin goes through changes during this time, too. And while it may be sensitive to many topical products during pregnancy, your complexion might just benefit from one easy ritual: exfoliation.

Consider exfoliating a preventative measure. Getting rid of the dead skin cells on the surface can help keep skin smoother, fresher-looking, and even clearer by way of dislodging pore congestion. And there are easy ways to do it. Your body's largest organ actually resurfaces itself, cyclically releasing flaky upper cells and producing new skin cells that come to the surface approximately every month or so. Why help it along? Because the process can slow with age. But there are certain pregnancy-safe acids, enzymes, and sloughing tools that can give your glow a big boost.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to exfoliate and smooth skin: There’s physical exfoliation, which you can do with a tool, like a dry bristle brush. Or you could use a product made with natural exfoliating particles or granules that "scrub" away flaky cells. On the other hand, chemical exfoliation relies on topical ingredients to dissolve dead cells.

The act of physical exfoliation might offer the most options for you during pregnancy, as you can do it with a tool or a topical product. “The idea is to use something mechanical to remove the top layers of dead skin cells,” says Kavita Mariwalla, MD, a dermatologist at West Islip, New York's Mariwalla Dermatology.

Chemical exfoliation doesn’t require physical objects or bits to smooth the surface. The process typically involves acids and chemicals that work to dissolve the connections between skin cells on the outer layer so they release more easily, Dr. Mariwalla says. “You can use anything that is more acidic than the skin, whether that is a fruit enzyme, or an acid solution or cream.”

Commonly used acids in over-the-counter exfoliating products are alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), like glycolic and lactic acids, and beta hydroxy acids (BHA), like salicylic acid. Certain fruit enzymes, like pineapple and pumpkin, are also commonly used ingredients in skin-smoothing products.

But before you go shopping for new exfoliating treatments for your face and body, check out which ingredients are most recommended by dermatologists, and what methods might be best for smoothing that pregnant belly.

What To Know Before Exfoliating While Pregnant

Pregnancy can complicate the otherwise simple process of exfoliation, as expecting parents are generally cautioned to avoid certain acids and exfoliating ingredients. Professionals might recommend a pregnant person evaluate exfoliating products to vet what’s safe before use, says Ellen Marmur, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare. “Many ingredients can pose potential danger to the unborn child and you should again consult with a doctor,” Dr. Marmur says.

The good news is that many methods of physical exfoliation are considered safe for expecting parents. And there are also sloughing acids that dermatologists say are safe to use.

However, it's also important to consider the frequency of exfoliation. “I don’t recommend heavy exfoliation during pregnancy,” Dr. Mariwalla says. “The skin changes a lot and exfoliation can lead to more sensitized skin, dryness and redness.” Consult with your doctor before you engage in any exfoliation.

“I would not exfoliate more than once every two weeks,” notes Dr. Mariwalla, who prefers gentle products rather than abrasive tools. “Treat your skin in the most gentle way you can, because your skin responds to things differently when pregnant, and rebounds much more slowly if you do over-do it.”

It’s also a great idea, if you’re using a topical product, to test it on a small area of skin first. Rub a bit on, say, your forearm; leave it on for the recommended time, remove, then see if you have an adverse reaction before continuing.

What Exfoliants Should You Avoid When Pregnant?

While exfoliating tools and many products with natural mechanical polishers (like crushed nutshells, for example) might still be fine to use while pregnant, there are a couple of ingredients many dermatologists recommend skipping. But again, opinions may vary, so always consult with your own healthcare providers, too.

Retinol

One of the most common ingredients used, in part, for its ability to prompt skin cell turnover is retinol, which can be found in products for both face and body. Retinol is a type of retinoid, and retinoids are varieties of Vitamin A. When applied to skin, they can support the turning over of skin cells to produce a smoother-looking surface. While they’re proven effective, they're not typically recommended topically for pregnant people.

Salicylic Acid

A common acid that’s often used to exfoliate and clear acne-prone skin is salicylic acid. The beta hydroxy acid is effective at clearing pores, helping remove dirt and debris, but it’s not recommended by all dermatologists during pregnancy.

“Retinol products, benzoyl peroxide, and salicylic acid are not recommended for use while pregnant because some scientists believe they can be absorbed into a person’s bloodstream, which can lead to birth defects,” Dr. Marmur says.

Opinions on these ingredients may vary, as can the amount of acid that's actually used in a single product. So talk with your healthcare providers about potential absorption and estimated risks.

How to Physically Exfoliate Your Skin While Pregnant

To physically loosen and remove dry, dead cells, you can use a body brushing tool, or a product generally referred to as a "scrub." “The most common methods of physical exfoliation include using items like loofahs, dry brushes, and anything with a textured surface that buffs away dirt/dead skin cells,” Dr. Marmur says.

If you'd rather massage in a topical product, look for ones with gentle, gritty granules or powders. “Another common method of physical exfoliation is using particles such as walnut pieces, coffee grounds, sugar, microbeads, etc., to remove impurities from the skin’s surface,” offers Dr. Marmur.

For the Body

The simplest way to physically smooth the skin while pregnant is by using a mechanical tool, like a gentle brush or sponge, and running it softly in massaging strokes over limbs. “Body/dry brushes, loofahs, and other physical exfoliators are considered to be good for body exfoliation when pregnant,” says Dr. Marmur. “Although, it is recommended to be gentle with them, especially on the stomach area.”

The dermatologist also cautions to clean the products regularly to avoid bacteria buildup. Try washing with soap, and allowing to dry before another use. And don't leave any brush sitting in a puddle of water, or it may compromise cleanliness.

Remember to go easy on your skin. You don't have to scrub it daily, maybe just once a month, suggests Dr. Marmur. Accompany the act with the daily habit of massaging the body with a natural moisturizing cream or butter for added hydration and softness.

For the Face

Dry brushing is great for the body, but for your face, think about using a gentle cloth as a physical smoothing tool. Massage your skin with it when removing a cold cream or face mask. Or you can also shop for cleansers or scrubs that have all-natural granules or powders in them. Frank Body Original Face Scrub relies on crushed coffee grinds and clay to freshen complexions.

How to Chemically Exfoliate Your Skin While Pregnant

Don't feel like massaging your skin with a tool? A topical product might be easier, or faster, for you. Chemical exfoliators are products that use different acids or chemicals to dissolve dirt and grime, Dr. Marmur explains. And you don't really have to spend a lot of time massaging them in with fingers, as the exfoliation doesn't require the physical friction in order to work. Just consider specialized products and ingredients for different parts of the body. 

For the body

Think about applying an exfoliant to your limbs before you shampoo and condition your hair; just those few minutes are typically enough to get smoother results. You can find gentle bottled exfoliants, like Mama Mio Tummy Rub Scrub that’s made with physical exfoliants like pumice sand, along with papaya extracts for their exfoliating enzymes. Such a product offers up the benefit of dual exfoliation.

For the face

Lots of moisturizers and serums made with acids get the green-light. “Many acids are thought to be safe to use for exfoliation during pregnancy, such as citric, glycolic, and lactic acids,” says Dr. Marmur. Paula's Choice, for example, makes a glycolic acid-fueled exfoliating gel that you can apply to the face with a cotton pad. This isn't necessarily a daily treatment. To avoid potential irritation, talk to your dermatologist about how often you should be exfoliating topically while pregnant.

A Word From Verywell

The benefits of exfoliation have been documented. And you may even find that your skin feels drier during pregnancy and could use a good sloughing. But there are a lot of ways to go about it. As every pregnancy is different, and not every pregnant person will respond the same way to the same ingredient, it’s important to note that exfoliation can, and should, be customized.

No matter what, consult with your dermatologist or healthcare providers before using topical products and physical methods of exfoliation to make sure you’re all comfortable with the techniques, tools, ingredients, and dosages.

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