Glycolic acid, a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane, is commonly found in cleansers, exfoliants, moisturizers and skin treatments designed to produce more smooth and youthful skin. Over-the-counter skin-care products containing glycolic acid are generally safe to use during pregnancy and may be specially suited to treat some pregnancy-related skin problems.
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Skin Changes During Pregnancy
Pregnancy affects your entire body, including your skin. Increased levels of pregnancy hormones progesterone and estrogen cause many women to have oilier skin and more breakouts when they’re pregnant. The same hormones can affect the skin’s production of melanin and cause darkening of the skin around the eyes, forehead, bridge of nose and cheeks (melasma, or “mask of pregnancy”). Sun exposure can make melasma worse.
How It Works
Glycolic acid functions primarily as an exfoliant. It penetrates the dead, damaged cells on the skin’s surface and loosens the glue-like structures that bind this dead skin to the rest of the epidermis (topmost layer of skin). This allows the dead cells to slough off, revealing fresher skin cells. The result is smoother, more youthful-looking skin. Glycolic acid also draws moisture to the newly exfoliated skin, giving the added bonus of moisturization.
With daily use, glycolic acid can improve mottled pigmentation. With long-term use and higher concentrations (up to 10 percent), it can penetrate to the dermis, the deeper layer of skin where wrinkles are formed. Glycolic acid may be helpful for acne-prone skin, reducing blackheads and pimples and smoothing scars.
Topical glycolic acid--that is, lotions and creams that are applied to the skin--at concentrations of 10 percent or less are safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding when used as directed. The FDA requires that skin-care products available for home use include less than 10 percent glycolic acid.
Glycolic-acid chemical peels are a different story. These treatments contain concentrations of 50 percent or more and should only be applied by professionals. The effects of such high concentrations haven’t been studied in pregnant women, so experts don’t know whether they put developing fetuses at risk. It’s best to avoid facial peels until after you have your baby.
Skin irritation and sun sensitivity are the major side effects to watch for. People using skin-care products that contain glycolic acid may experience redness, itching, burning, pain and possibly scarring. Pregnancy can increase your likelihood of developing abnormal pigmentation as a result of using glycolic acid.
If pregnancy has left your skin more sensitive than usual, you may wish to avoid glycolic acid. It might worsen skin sensitivity by causing skin irritation and removing the top layer of skin cells. The new skin revealed by glycolic acid use is highly sun-sensitive, so it’s critical to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Sunscreen can also prevent further discoloration and damage.