Tips for Avoiding Sunburn During Pregnancy

Avoiding sunburn while pregnant illo

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Most people enjoy a day at the beach or the pool, where the warmth of the sun kisses their cheeks. While a little bit of sun provides much-needed vitamin D, too much is not good for anyone. And, if you are pregnant the risks increase.

Aside from skin cancer risks, pregnant women have a number of other risks to consider if they spend too much time in the sun. These risks include everything from burning more easily to becoming dehydrated and depleting folic acid stores.

Sunbathing Risks

When you are pregnant, the increased hormone levels coursing through your body cause your skin to become more sensitive and burn easier in the sun. In fact, your pigment-producing cells - you know the ones that give you a tan - are in overdrive causing your skin to become more susceptible to discoloration when exposed to the sun's UV rays. Instead of a tan, you could wind up with a plethora of freckles or even melasma, which are gray-brown patches often found on the cheeks. Combine that with the fact that pregnancy alters the immune system, and you can see why the risk of developing skin cancer is escalated when you are pregnant if you do not take precautions.

Sunbathing also can drain the body of fluids causing you to become dehydrated and overheated. This lack of fluids can then cause undue stress, which in turn could lead to pre-term contractions. What's more, when your body is overheated, your core temperature is elevated, which could cause birth defects.

And finally, the UV rays of the sun can break down the folic acid in the body, which reduces the chance of birth defects. This is risky to your baby's neurological development especially during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Take Precautions in the Sun

Despite the risks, many women simply cannot avoid being in the sun. Do not despair if this is your situation. As long as you take precautions, you should be fine. Even if you are just going to an outdoor picnic for an hour or so, you still need to be careful and take steps to protect your skin. Here are some suggestions on how to protect you and your unborn baby from too much sun exposure.

Use Sunscreen as Your Last Resort

According to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that evaluates the effectiveness of sunscreen, you should use sunscreen as your last line of defense against protecting your skin. Instead, you need to start by covering your body. This includes wearing a hat, sunglasses and lightweight clothing that protects your skin from the sun's rays. Then, apply your sunscreen as your final barrier of protection.

Bring Plenty of Water

You can keep your body cool and prevent overheating by drinking plenty of plain water. This also will help you stay hydrated. Remember, you do not want your core temperature to become elevated. And the best way to stay cool if you are going to be outside is to keep drinking water. You also may want to bring a battery powered fan to keep your body cool especially if it is an exceptionally hot day.

Avoid the Sun During Peak Hours

If at all possible, try to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun's rays are the strongest. Remember, the sun's rays are dangerous even for the healthiest of pregnant women. As a result, many doctors discourage sunbathing. If you find that you have to be in the sun, try to create a little shade for yourself and your unborn baby with a large, oversized umbrella.

Cover Your Bump

Yes, it is true that many pregnant celebrities snap photos of their string bikini-clad baby bumps on the beach. But, realistically, the wiser choice is a tankini or a one-piece maternity bathing suit. Because your protruding belly catches rays from every angle, there is a greater risk that it will get sunburned. Plus, if you do not want your linea nigra, or the pregnancy line that runs up and down on your belly, to get darker, you might want to cover it up.

Choose a Sunscreen Wisely

The effect of the sun's UV rays on a person's skin is well documented. In addition to the potential for skin cancer, these harmful rays can also cause sun spots and premature aging. As a result, sunscreens are often the best option for blocking out these harmful rays. But, just how safe are these sunscreens for pregnant women?

Typically, sunscreens block UV rays by including one of three ingredients -- oxybenzone, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Of these three ingredients, oxybenzone is the ingredient that pregnant women want to avoid. Unlike zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which lie on top of the skin, oxybenzone is absorbed into the skin and is often used to help other chemicals absorb into the skin, which eventually ends up in the bloodstream.

Dangers of Oxybenzone

According to the Environmental Working Group, many sunscreens, body lotions, lip balms, and lipsticks contain a dangerous chemical known as oxybenzone. Even some hair conditioners and perfumes contain oxybenzone. Not only has oxybenzone been linked to allergies, but it also has been known to damage cells and disrupt hormones. Yet, it is prevalent in a number of skin care products including sunscreens.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control performed a study in which they found traces of oxybenzone in 97 percent of the participants. What's more, women and young girls had the highest concentrations presumably because they use skin care products more frequently than men and boys. Consequently, you want to avoid any products that contain oxybenzone, especially while pregnant. Here are some tips for choosing a sunscreen while pregnant.

Read Every Label

As mentioned earlier, you want to make sure your sunscreen does not list oxybenzone on the back. This chemical, which readily absorbs into your skin, has been linked to low birth weights. It also is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases. Oxybenzone is also known to interfere with the body's hormones, which may, in turn, cause developmental problems in unborn babies.

Opt for Lotions Instead of Sprays

The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens has indicated that titanium dioxide is a possible carcinogen when inhaled in high doses. For this reason, the Environmental Working Group suggests that pregnant women (and everyone else too) avoid sprays. What's more, sprays make it too easy for people to miss a spot or to apply too little sunscreen.

Understand SPF Labels

It is tempting to let a super high SPF give you a false sense of security. For instance, the SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of the suns rays and an SPF 50 blocks 98 percent. So, don't think just because you put on SPF 100 that you are fully protected. Regardless of the SPF that you choose, you still need to reapply at least every two hours and more if you are in and out of the water a lot.

You Are Sunburned, Now What?

Just like selecting sunscreens, pregnant women have to be careful about what they put on their skin to treat a sunburn. For instance, a lot of products used to treat sunburns have lidocaine, which is a local anesthetic that numbs and cools the skin. Unfortunately, it is best to steer clear of any products containing this ingredient while pregnant. Of course, the best way to treat a sunburn is to avoid getting burned at all. But mistakes happen and if you are dealing with a burn, hopefully you will find some relief in the following suggestions.

Take a Cool Bath or Shower

Remember, your skin hurts because it has been burned and overheated. As a result, you might find some short-term relief by hopping into a cool tub or taking a shower with cool water. Although it won't make the pain go away indefinitely, it will provide you with some short-term relief.

Apply Aloe Vera

Pure aloe vera gel or oil works wonders on sunburns. And, if you keep it in the fridge until you need it, it will provide extra cool relief. You also might want to consider buying an aloe vera plant and harvesting the oily substance directly from the plant. Not only is this plant ideal for treating sunburns, but it also is great for any type of burn or skin irritation.

Add Something Extra to Your Bath

Some dermatologists recommend adding a small amount of apple cider vinegar to a cool bath. When added to the cool water, the vinegar acts as an astringent soothing your sunburn. Meanwhile, others recommend adding oatmeal to help soothe your burn.

Stay Calm

Remember that a sunburn is usually only skin deep. So, your unborn baby will likely not be affected by your burn. However, other aspects related to prolonged sun exposure could cause problems like overheating or dehydration. Finally, fevers are rare when recovering from a sunburn, but if you do develop a fever of 100 or more, you should contact your doctor. Otherwise, rest and allow your skin to heal and avoid any further exposure to the sun until you are completely recovered.

A Word from Verywell

Remember, you do not have to stay indoors all the time simply because you are pregnant. You absolutely should get outside and enjoy the sun and the fresh air. You just have to make wise choices and take precautions to protect your skin and your unborn baby. But, by all means, relax and have a little fun.

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Article Sources

  • "2019 Guide to Sunscreens." Environmental Working Group. https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/

  • "CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical." Environmental Working Group, March 2008. https://www.ewg.org/research/cdc-americans-carry-body-burden-toxic-sunscreen-chemical