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Retinol is an ingredient found in many over-the-counter skin care products. You might not hesitate to use topical products containing retinol during pregnancy. But this common ingredient can be harmful to your developing baby.

Read on to learn more about retinol and pregnancy, and for ideas on safe alternatives you can use during pregnancy.

Retinol is a retinoid subtype derived from vitamin A. Unlike retinoids which require a prescription, retinol is sold without a prescription as an ingredient in skin creams, gels, serums, lotions, and more.

Retinol has pro-aging and anti-acne effects. Retinol works by stimulating the production of collagen and elastin deep within the inner layer of the skin (dermis). The increase in collagen can reduce fine lines and wrinkles and make mature skin appear smoother.

Retinol also works to exfoliate the skin’s surface by removing dead skin cells, debris, and bacteria, which can help clear up blemishes.

The use of retinol is not recommended during pregnancy.

Take your prenatal vitamins and eat a well-balanced diet that includes foods containing beta-carotene (from dark leafy greens or red, orange, and yellow vegetables), which is a safe form of vitamin A. If you are pregnant , always ask a doctor or health care professional before taking any supplements.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin essential for supporting fetal growth. It supports fetal eye health, immune system and skeletal growth.

When you ingest vitamin A or vitamin A derivatives, such as retinol, they cross the placenta and are absorbed by the fetus.

So why is the use of retinol during pregnancy discouraged?

Vitamin A can build up to toxic levels if you have too much of it in your system. Excess amounts are stored in the fatty tissues and liver of the body rather than being eliminated daily.

Even though retinol is used topically – on your skin – it can be absorbed into the bloodstream and may contribute to vitamin A toxicity.

It is not known exactly how much vitamin A a developing fetus needs or when this important nutrient becomes harmful.

As a precaution, most doctors recommend eliminating the use of retinol products during pregnancy for this reason. They may also recommend that you stop using retinol while you’re trying to conceive and while you’re breastfeeding.

Retinol used in over-the-counter products has not been shown to cause birth defects.

However, medications containing retinoids, such as isotretinoin (brand names: Absorica, Absorica LD, Claravis, Amnreason, Myorisan, or Zenatane and formerly known as Accutane), have been shown cause a condition in the fetus called fetal retinoid syndrome (FRS) which can cause serious birth defects.

If you are taking these medications, your doctor will ask you to participate in the iPLEDGE program to prevent pregnancy.

FRS causes a range of physical and mental development problems. They can vary from mild to severe.

Problems caused by FRS include:

  • growth delays before birth or during infancy
  • skull and facial (craniofacial) malformations, including cleft palate and hypertelorism (widely spaced eyes)
  • small droopy ears, missing ears and hearing loss
  • central nervous system problems, such as hydrocephalus
  • developmental delays and learning disabilities
  • microcephaly
  • heart abnormalities
  • problems with the kidney gland, thymus, and parathyroid gland

Because of these known risks with oral retinoids, doctors also recommend avoiding products containing retinol during pregnancy. The exact level of risk to the fetus from retinol use is unclear.

There are many products that contain alternative ingredients that you can replace with retinol during pregnancy.

These include:

  • glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid that exfoliates the skin and has beneficial effects on acne
  • azelaic acid, another acne treatment that contains anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties
  • hyaluronic acid, which can help reduce wrinkles and hydrate the skin

All-natural moisturizers containing ingredients like green tea, aloe vera, and shea butter can also help keep skin soft and hydrated during pregnancy.

Read the ingredient list on each product before buying and using to make sure it is safe during pregnancy.

It is unclear whether retinol is safe to use while breastfeeding. For this reason, it is not recommended.

If you are not breastfeeding, you can resume using retinol after your pregnancy ends.

Topical use of retinol and retinoids can contribute to high levels of vitamin A in the body. During pregnancy, it can cause serious damage to the fetus. Oral use of retinoids greatly increases this risk.

Fetal retinoid syndrome (FRS) is a condition caused by taking retinoids during pregnancy. FRS can cause physical and mental development problems in a baby.

Currently, there is no clear understanding of how much retinol is safe during pregnancy. For this reason, pregnant women are recommended to avoid the use of products containing retinol during pregnancy and lactation.