Is Sunscreen Safe for Pregnant People?

Two doctors share what every expectant parent needs to know about the link between some sunscreens and cancer, birth defects, and developmental delays in babies. Plus: How to choose the safest sunscreen for you and your baby. (We make your shopping easy!)

Toxins in lunch meat, pesticides in baby clothes, nail salon fumes, carcinogens in skin care: Things you may not have even considered before you got pregnant suddenly become panic-inducing once you’ve got a little one on the way. One major concern for many pregnant women? Sunscreen.

While there is no direct evidence that regular sunscreens are unsafe for pregnant women, there is valid reason for the concern and many pregnant women are choosing to avoid them, says Steve Vasilev, MD, MBA, FACOG, FACS, FACN, ABIHN, ABOIM. Dr. Vasilev is a gynecologic oncologist and medical director and professor at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA.

“If you pick up most sunscreens, you will find a lot of chemical names, like avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone, which have been associated with toxic effects, including cancer, in the long run,” says Dr. Vasilev. “So it’s understandable why pregnant women would want to avoid them—it’s better to err on the side of safety, especially when there are other options available.”

However, not everyone is as concerned and the risk these chemicals pose to pregnant mothers and their babies is small compared to the risk of skin cancer—the most common cancer in US adults, says Jason Castillo, MD, dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine. “Sunscreen use is generally considered safe to use in pregnancy and based on current recommendations from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), everyone over the age of six months old should use sunscreen,” he says.

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Why pregnant women need to wear sunscreen

Dr. Castillo says sunscreen’s biggest benefit for pregnant people “is helping to protect against the development of all types of skin cancer but especially melanoma.” Fact: Melanoma is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in pregnancy and is more likely to become metastatic in pregnant women, making it potentially deadlier, according to a study published in Obstetric Medicine.

Wearing daily sunscreen also protects against common skin concerns during pregnancy, including wrinkles, “age spots,” and melasma, he says. Melasma is a condition that causes hyperpigmentation (skin darkening) on the face, arms, and belly from sun exposure and is more common during pregnancy.

“Melasma and more is why I advise pregnant patients to have strict sun protection and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 with long-acting UVA protection every day,” says Dr. Castillo.

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Chemical vs. physical sunscreens

So, yes, sunscreen is a must—but before you grab a bottle, you should know that there are two main types of sunscreens:

  • Chemical sunscreens, which are absorbed into the skin and use certain “UV absorbing” chemicals to neutralize the sun’s rays.

  • Physical sunscreens, which sit on top of the surface of the skin and use minerals to reflect the sun’s rays.

While the AAD doesn’t differentiate when it comes to sunscreen safety, it is important to understand the risks and benefits of both types, says Dr. Vasilev. (Below, we link you to a list of doctor-recommended physical sunscreens.)

The problem with chemical sunscreens during pregnancy

A slew of recent research has highlighted concerns associated with the chemical compounds avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone that may affect pregnant women.

These chemicals are known “endocrine disruptors,” which means they interfere with hormone function in the body and can cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and developmental disorders in children, according to a report published by the Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy group. They can remain in the body for a long time—research done by the FDA has found evidence of these chemicals in the breast milk and urine of women who recently gave birth.

One birth defect that has been linked to oxybenzone—a chemical used in over 70% of chemical sunscreens—is Hirschsprung’s disease, according to a study published in Reproductive Toxicology. This is a defect present at birth affecting the nerve cells of the large intestine, making it difficult or impossible for the baby to pass stool. It is a medical emergency, requiring immediate surgery, and can be fatal or cause lifelong disability.

Here’s some relief: You can avoid exposure to hormone-disrupting sun protection products. Shop our list: The 6 Best Hormone-Safe Sunscreens, Recommended by Doctors(Almost all are under $20!)

How to choose a sunscreen safe for pregnancy

“I always recommend physical sunscreens to my pregnant patients,” says Dr. Vasilev. “Avoid the chemical ingredients and look for a mineral sunscreen with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.” On their own these can be drying, irritating and leave a white cast—the main reason many people don’t like them—so he advises looking for a formulation that includes gentle skin-friendly materials like aloe and vitamin E.

Whichever type of sunscreen you choose, Dr. Castillo says it’s important to choose one that is labeled broad-spectrum (protecting against both UVA and UVB rays), SPF 30 or above, and is water-resistant.

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When pregnant women shouldn’t wear sunscreen

An important caution about sunscreen: Pregnant women have a higher need for vitamin D, yet sunscreen can cut vitamin D production in your skin by 95%—so it’s still important to get some sun exposure on your bare skin, says Dr. Vasilev.

“We are in the middle of a vitamin D deficiency epidemic, with a 30% deficiency rate even in those who live in the sun-belt,” he says. “This is a huge problem for pregnant women because we know that vitamin D affects many cellular functions as a hormone, and influences over 3,000 genes. Most importantly, people who have lower levels in their blood have a much higher risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and cognitive impairment as we age.”

Get 15 minutes of sunshine—without sunscreen—every day and if you’re low on vitamin D, consider adding a supplement.

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Staying safe in the sun while you’re pregnant

Pregnant women shouldn’t rely on sunscreen as their first line of sun defense, say our docs. In addition to sunscreen, make sure you’re practicing these sun-safe habits:

  • Limit time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Wear a sun hat, sunglasses, and UV-protective clothing when you’re outdoors for extended periods of time
  • Bring a source of shade, like a beach umbrella, when you’re spending time outdoors
  • Avoid tanning, either outdoors or in tanning beds

“Ultimately each situation is unique, so the best advice for pregnant women is to see a board-certified dermatologist with any questions regarding the best type of sunscreen for your skin,” says Dr. Castillo. “They can help you make an informed choice based on your particular sensitivities, risk factors, family history, and pregnancy history.”

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Sources

Steve Vasilev, MD, gynecologic oncologist and medical director of Integrative Gynecologic Oncology at Providence Saint John's Health Center and Professor at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA

Jason Castillo, MD, dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine

American Pregnancy Association: "Vitamin D and Pregnancy"

The Environmental Working Group: "The Problem With Chemicals in Sunscreens"

Reproductive Toxicology: "Can oxybenzone cause Hirschsprung's disease?"

Obstetric Medicine: "Melanoma in pregnancy"

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, MS, is an award-winning journalist, author, and ghostwriter who for nearly two decades has covered health, fitness, parenting, relationships, and other wellness and lifestyle topics for major outlets, including Reader’s Digest, O, The Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and many more. Charlotte has made appearances with television news outlets such as CBS, NBC, and FOX. She is a certified group fitness instructor in Denver, where she lives with her husband and their five children.