Pregnancy Information Center

Information, Symptoms, Treatments and Resources


Chemicals and Other Toxins to Avoid During Pregnancy


How to protect your baby from harmful substances in the environment

Updated on February 9, 2015.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH


When you’re pregnant, you share everything with your growing baby. The placenta, the organ that grows in your uterus, connects your baby to you and acts as a lifeline, providing nourishment and oxygen. But other, potentially harmful things can also pass to your baby via the placenta, which may raise the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects and other developmental problems after birth.

That’s why it’s crucial to be mindful of what you’re exposed to when you’re expecting, whether through your skin or in the environment. But before you run around throwing out beauty and cleaning products, take note: “The majority of toxins that pregnant women are concerned about are not very harmful,” says Manijeh Kamyar, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in Las Vegas, NV, and a visiting professor at the University of Utah. “Very few exposures that pregnant women have on a daily basis are going to cause problems to their babies,” she adds.

There are some things pregnant women should definitely avoid until after baby comes. For others, the jury is still out. That’s because performing research studies on pregnant women is tricky — and when it comes to exposing them to unhealthy compounds, unethical. Whether a product is a definite “no” or a “not sure,” here’s what you need to know when you’re ...


Getting ready for the day:

Check your acne and skincare products.

When it comes to your beauty routine, the best thing you can do is read labels, says Jim Betoni, DO, FACOOG, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist practicing at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, ID.

“Most ingredients, even ones in acne medications, are probably OK. Such a small amount of the product reaches the baby when it’s applied to your skin that it likely won’t cause problems,” Betoni explains, noting that acne medications taken by mouth are different. As an especially serious example, if you have been prescribed a strong acne medication called isotretinoin (Accutane), you absolutely should not take it during pregnancy — risks to a developing baby include miscarriage and heart defects, among others.  

To look into what’s in your products, check the ingredients against the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database from the Environmental Working Group. This online resource rates the safety of cosmetic ingredients and explains their potential risks. Perfume, for example, contains chemicals called phthalates, which are being studied for their effects on fertility and fetal growth. 

In general, “if you don’t have to use something during pregnancy, don’t,” Betoni says. “We don’t know how safe everything is, so if you can avoid it, avoid it,” he explains.


Preparing and eating food: 

Beware of Bisphenol-A (BPA). 

BPA is a chemical that’s been added to products for years. It’s primarily found in the lining of food cans and in consumer plastics, such as reusable water bottles and food storage containers. Over the past decade, studies have found that BPA exposure may be associated with breast cancer, prostate cancer, fertility issues, neurological problems and more.

In 2012, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of BPA in making baby bottles and sippy cups. But fetuses may still be exposed to this toxin through your exposure. And, although many plastic containers are labeled "BPA-free," new research from the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that a common BPA replacement, BPS, may have similar effects.

“Exposure to BPA may or may not be safe,” Kamyar says. “None of the animal studies have shown an increased risk for health problems, but the safe amount of exposure isn’t known,” she explains. Recent human studies looking into BPA and its effects on fertility and the fetus aren’t clear, either. 

“The thing that makes me nervous about BPA is that it stays in your body for a long time,” says Betoni. Both Betoni and Kamyar agree it’s best for pregnant women to avoid BPA when possible because of the potential risks. Here are a few tips:

  • Avoid polycarbonate plastics. These are labeled with number “3” or “7” in a triangle on the bottom. Use stainless steel, glass, or porcelain containers in their place. Many plastic containers are labeled "BPA-free," but new research from the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that a common BPA replacement, BPS, may have similar effects.
  • If you can’t stop using these plastics, don’t microwave foods in them or wash them in the dishwasher. Over time, these products may break down and release more BPA.
  • Cook and eat fresh foods rather than canned ones. 


Doing home improvement projects:

Be leery of lead in paint.

If you have to paint your baby’s nursery, as long as you’re using new paint, you should be safe, though the smell might make you nauseous. This is because lead was common in paints before 1970, but it’s not used now — and for good reason. Lead crosses the placenta and research shows that lead exposure can lead to poor pregnancy and fetal health outcomes

However, if you live in an older house, you should enlist help if you need to remove old paint to minimize your chance of lead exposure. 


Out and about: 

Steer clear of secondhand smoke.

Regular exposure to secondhand smoke can be dangerous for developing babies. “Secondhand smoke contains carcinogens and nicotine. This can increase your chances for a miscarriage, stillbirth, or low-birth weight baby,” Kamyar says. Secondhand smoke also raises your child’s chance for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and for having learning and behavioral challenges as they grow.

Pay attention to pesticides. 

Studies aren’t clear on pesticides and pregnancy, either. A major exposure to pesticides would likely pose the biggest risk to a developing baby, say experts — for example, if you applied the chemicals to agricultural crops yourself. But breathing or ingesting small amounts may not be as risky. 


Are you keeping your baby safe?

Most likely, yes. Even though toxins are all around us, the average exposure is incidental, and won’t affect your little one. “The comforting thing is knowing that these risks come from high levels of exposure. Hardly any toxins cause complications with just one exposure,” Kamyar explains. 

It’s still a good idea to dodge chemicals when you can. “The best way to avoid toxins is to be aware of your surroundings,” she says. If you have questions about what you’re being exposed to and what’s in your products, “Read labels and talk to your doctor.”


What to do if you think your chemical exposure is significant

If you work with chemicals in a plant or live on a golf course where pesticides are used daily, you might think twice. “If you’re concerned about your toxin exposure, meet with a genetic counselor,” Betoni suggests. “This expert will review your possible exposures and test you to see if there’s a high enough level to cause complications during your pregnancy,” he explains. 


Published on December 30, 2015.


Jenilee Matz is a freelance medical writer living in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC. She earned her master's of public health degree from the University of South Carolina and previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reviewed by Shira Goldenholz, MD, MPH on August 14, 2015.
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