Pregnancy is a glorious and celebratory time for new parents—that is, until the terrifying realization sets in that there’s a lot to know, especially when it comes to figuring out what to avoid when pregnant.
While most people know the importance of eating the right foods and taking high-quality supplements when pregnant, awareness of harmful ingredients in common household products is lacking. In fact, most women are told little to nothing about the importance of reducing their exposure to harmful chemicals despite research showing they can have profound impacts on babies’ health.
Luckily, information about the potential negative effects of what you put on your body and the products you’re using is becoming increasingly more available so that women can take action into their own hands.
The good news is, there are many simple and easy shifts you can start making today that will positively impact your health and greatly reduce your exposure to harmful ingredients when pregnant.
Why It’s Important to Know What to Avoid When Pregnant
Common household products, like household cleaners, skincare and cosmetic products, cookware and kitchen items, paint, and even nail polish often contain harmful ingredients that have the ability to get into the bloodstream. They’re even more of a concern when you’re pregnant because they can transfer to the fetus through the placenta.
These products often contain endocrine (or hormone) disruptors, which can lead to lifelong health issues, birth defects, and pregnancy complications. Some also contain carcinogens, which are linked to cancer, or heavy metals, which are neurotoxins and can negatively impact babies’ brain development.
To help you reduce your exposure to harmful ingredients during pregnancy, I’ve compiled a list of 10 common product ingredients to avoid when pregnant, as well as information on how to make the shift to safer products.
While these changes are really important ones to make when pregnant, research shows reducing your overall exposure to harmful chemicals and contaminants can improve your health whether you’re pregnant or not. In other words, the shifts you make now will positively impact you and your families’ health long-term, which is a pretty cool bonus.
10 Harmful Ingredients in Household Products to Avoid When Pregnant
Lead is a heavy metal often found in color cosmetics like lipstick. Homes built before 1978 may contain lead-based paint, which could expose you lead if the paint chips or emits dust. Older homes or those with poorly maintained pipes may have lead in the water supply too. Exposure to lead is known to slow a child’s growth, both in utero and after birth.
How to Avoid Lead: Purchase color cosmetics from brands that do additional testing to make sure lead isn’t in the finish product. Find out your lead exposure by contacting your city’s water department for a water quality report, and testing the paint in your home if it’s older.
Pesticides are commonly used to prevent, destroy, and repel pests. They are most often found in home and garden products, non-organic food, water, and pet products that repel fleas and ticks. Exposure during pregnancy has been linked to poor prenatal growth, impaired neurodevelopment, birth defects, and leukemia, and preliminary testing shows a possible increased risk of autism.
How to Avoid Pesticides: Choose organic products, wash produce thoroughly before consuming, remove shoes before walking around your house (to avoid tracking in any lawn or garden products), and do not use chemical tick and flea products.
Most commonly found in receipts, plastic containers, and can liners, BPA is a known endocrine disruptor. Research links BPA exposure during pregnancy with behavioral problems later in childhood.
Toluene is a solvent found in paint, nail polish, adhesives, rubber, and gasoline. It’s a common source of air pollution where there is a lot of traffic. High levels of toluene exposure during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects, and may lead to retardation of mental abilities and growth in children.
How to Avoid Toulene: Use a safe toulene-free and formaldehyde-free nail polish. Avoid refinishing furniture and painting/breathing in paint fumes when pregnant. When filling up your car with gas, set it to automatic and walk away to avoid breathing in fumes. Get a high-quality air purifier to improve the air quality in your home, especially if you live in a busy city.
5. Synthetic Flame Retardants
Contained in carpet pads, non-stick cookware, sofa and upholstery foam, fast-food wraps, and electronics, synthetic flame retardants have been linked to cognitive and behavioral delays in children, according to new research. Also known as PBDEs, these harmful chemicals interfere with the thyroid gland, which controls metabolism, growth and brain development. They’re also linked to thyroid issues in adults.
How to Avoid Synthetic Flame Retardants: When making new purchases, seek out furniture and mattresses that are organic and/or do not contain synthetic flame retardants (especially crib mattresses). Use stainless steel cookware and utensils, and purchase from companies that have intentionally removed PBDEs from their electronics.
Found in antibacterial products like soaps, body wash, toothpaste, and even cosmetics, triclosan is widely used to kill bacteria and is linked to a poor formation of a baby’s reproductive system. It’s also a known endocrine disruptor that is linked to gut inflammation. Because triclosan does not break down easily when it gets into your body, it can travel through the placenta to your baby.
How to Avoid Triclosan: Always read the label on the personal care products you’re using and do not use them if they contain harmful ingredients such as triclosan. If a company doesn’t disclose their ingredients, don’t buy it. Choose safer personal care products and cosmetics, and use a safe, traditional soap that is not antibacterial.
Mercury is a heavy metal that is a known neurotoxin. Babies exposed to mercury in the womb can experience brain damage and vision and hearing problems. Mercury is commonly found in seafood such as shark, swordfish, and king mackerel, as well as dental fillings, thermometers, flourescent lightbulbs, and vaccines.
How to Avoid Mercury: Choose seafood that is lower in Mercury like salmon, shrimp, cod, and sardines. Swap out SCFL bulbs to more energy efficient LEDs, and use a digital thermometer rather than one filled with mercury.
Used as a preservative in cosmetics and commonly found in products such as shampoo, body wash, bubble bath, carpeting, and fabric softeners, formaldehyde is an environmental pollutant and known carcinogen that is also linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and low birth weight.
How to Avoid Formaldehyde: When it comes to personal care products, read labels carefully and choose safer options. Purchase solid wood furniture instead of pressed wood, skip air fresheners, and keep your home well ventilated during and after carpet installation.
Found in synthetic fragrances, nail polish, hairspray, and vinyl and plastic materials, phthalates are endocrine disruptors and can cause hormonal and reproductive problems and birth defects. Recent research has linked a child’s phthalates exposure to a drop in IQ scores later in life, along with reductions in processing speed, working memory and verbal comprehension.
How to Avoid Phthalates: Choose safer skincare and cosmetics products. Do not use synthetic perfumes, and instead opt for safer fragrances. Do not microwave or eat foods wrapped in plastic, opt for natural, unscented cleaning products and laundry detergents, store food in glass containers, and avoid plastics #3, 6 and 7, which contain phthalates and BPA.
Sunscreens come in two different forms: chemical and mineral filters. The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters such as oxybenzone. It also can also be found in moisturizers, lip balm, and makeup. Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor and can alter thyroid function, and has been linked to negative birth outcomes.
How to Avoid Oxybenzone: Chemical sunscreens should be avoided at all costs, especially when pregnant and with children. Check all sunscreens and makeup with SPF for chemical sunscreens, and switch to using products that only use mineral sunscreens.
Avoiding Exposure to Harmful Ingredients During Pregnancy
If possible, a few months before conception, prioritize swapping out your personal care products like soaps, lotions, and makeup, as these have the biggest impact as they are being absorbed through your skin.
From there, shift to swapping out conventional cleaning products for natural and toxic-free cleaners. You can then move towards trying out non-toxic cookware like stainless steel pans, glass food storage containers, and utensils.
Added bonuses? Try to invest in a good air purifier for the room you’re sleeping in, and when making new purchases for you and baby (mattress, sheets, baby food containers, baby care products, etc.) opt for safer alternatives that are organic, free of synthetic flame retardants, and contain no BPA or harmful ingredients like parabens or phthalates.
Tips for Reading Labels
- Check out the Environmental Working Group to look up brands and individual products before purchasing.
- If the item isn’t included on the EWG website, check the ingredients label. If any of the ingredients from this post or this list are included in the product, do not purchase it.
- If the ingredients aren’t disclosed on personal care products or cleaners, don’t purchase it.
- When in doubt, only shop with brands that are transparent, offer safer alternatives, and do additional testing to make sure harmful ingredients like heavy metals and parabens aren’t in the raw materials or finished products.
Safer Brands I Trust
The good news is that with increased awareness around the topic, safer products are more accessible than ever before. It doesn’t mean you have to make everything from scratch or rely solely on vinegar and lemon juice for all your household cleaning needs either. Brands like Beautycounter, Better Life, and Branch Basics are part of a greater mission to make safer products accessible to the masses.
When swapping out your cleaners and other household products for non-toxic products, here are some of my favorite safer brands I recommend.
- Household cleaning products
- Personal care products
- Kitchen products
- Nail polish
Interested in learning more about avoiding harmful ingredients? Check out my article 10 Harmful (But Common) Ingredients in Makeup and Skincare Products.