Is there such a thing as pregnancy-safe sunscreen?

When you’re pregnant, you start to second-guess every little thing you put on or in your body. You need to check the type and temperature of every food you eat, the ingredients of hair coloring and makeup, avoid all alcohol — the list goes on. You might not have ever thought about the type of sunscreen you used before, but now that you’re pregnant, you want to make sure you’re not absorbing any harmful chemicals.

Is there even such a thing as pregnancy-safe sunscreen? There is, and we’ll fill you in on what you need to know. The good news is that there are sunscreens that are safe to put on while pregnant — and they’re even more important to wear than ever.

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Sunscreen is essential for health during pregnancy

First, let’s establish that wearing sunscreen is just as important during pregnancy if not more so. Sunscreen protects against skin cancer, painful burns, and for pregnant people it can also prevent melasma.

Melasma is a skin condition that causes dark, discolored patches of skin, often on the face. It mostly affects pregnant people (even more so for people with darker skin) and does not affect your health, just your appearance. Sun exposure is the cause, and while it can fade away on its own after pregnancy, it doesn’t always, and there is no guaranteed way to make the patches disappear. The best way to avoid it? Sunscreen.

Chemical vs. mineral sunscreen

There are two types of sunscreen: Chemical and mineral. The one recommended for pregnant people is mineral (also called physical).

Dr. Tyler Hollmig, director of dermatologic surgery at University of Texas Dell Medical School in Austin, explains that the difference between the two types is how they go about reducing skin damage: “Chemical sunscreens act almost like a sponge, absorbing UV light, while physical [or mineral] sunscreens act more like a shield, deflecting the sun’s rays.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been looking more deeply into sunscreen ingredients since 2019 but has not indicated that any approved ingredients in either type of sunscreen is unsafe. However, since chemical sunscreens are absorbed into our bodies (meaning a fetus might absorb the chemicals, too), mineral sunscreens are recommended for pregnant people.

No matter which you use, the most important factor is that you do wear some. Dr. Hollmig says that the benefits far outweigh the theoretical risks even of chemical sunscreen.

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Ingredients in (or not in) pregnancy-safe sunscreen

The FDA has acknowledged there is insufficient research on how much absorption happens and how harmful the absorbed chemicals can be. They released studies in 2019 and 2020 showing the following ingredients do absorb into the body after a single use and can be found in the bloodstream weeks afterward:

  • Avobenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone

These sunscreen chemicals have all been found in breastmilk, according to the FDA:

  • Homosalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octinoxate
  • Oxybenzone

According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), oxybenzone is the most-concerning chemical to avoid.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the least-concerning sunscreen chemicals, according to EWG, because “few if any” particles absorb into the body. These are the two common active ingredients in mineral sunscreens. You need to look at the list of all ingredients, not just active ingredients, to make sure the six chemicals above are not on the list, even if the two safer ones are.

SPF and other considerations

Here are some more tips for choosing a pregnancy-safe sunscreen:

    • Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
    • At least SPF 30 is recommended.
    • Apply sunscreen more frequently if you’re also applying insect repellent (which can break down sunscreen) and if you’re going in the water, which can wash it off.
    • Even with sunscreen, avoid direct, prolonged sun exposure as much as possible.

So, is there such a thing as pregnancy-safe sunscreen? Yes, and you should be sure to use it. Look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient and avoid oxybenzone, and make sure to get a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

Before you know it, you’ll be taking your baby along to the beach with you on the outside and you’ll both be needing sunscreen for sunny, happy days of sandcastles and waves.

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