Sunscreens are essential during pregnancy, and believe it or not, protecting your skin from the sun is even more important than it was prior to pregnancy. The reason for this is that the pregnancy hormones can potentially result in your skin becoming more sensitive to the sun.
The ultraviolet rays that are invisible to the naked eye are able to damage the skin, causing painful sunburns and damage to the DNA, which is a leading cause of skin cancer (melanoma).
However, some of the ingredients in sunscreens, specifically chemical sunscreens have a controversial reputation and for this reason, many prefer to avoid them.
But then the important question is: what sunblock is best to use during pregnancy? In this article, we will explore the different types of sunscreens and review some of the best options for pregnancy.
Why Protect Your Skin From the Sun?
Not only can ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun cause painful sunburn, but it is also associated with many common skin complaints including premature aging, which includes the likes of wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. In fact, some studies highlight that exposure to the sun may be responsible for 80% of the visible signs of aging (1).
Exposure to UV radiation is also responsible for an increase in skin cancers such as malignant melanoma. According to Cancer Research getting a sunburn just once every two years can triple your risk of developing melanoma (2).
There are two major types of harmful UV radiation:
- UVA – This is longwave radiation that is able to penetrate deeper into the middle layer of the skin (dermis) and is responsible for degrading collagen and premature aging.
- UVB – This is shortwave radiation that is responsible for sunburn. It also plays a key role in the development of skin cancer.
Types of Sunscreens
There are two major types of sunscreens that are categorized according to the mechanism they use. These are called physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.
Physical sunscreens are growing in popularity and unlike chemical sunscreens work by physically blocking the UV rays instead of absorbing them. Common ingredients used in physical sunscreens include minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
These work by sitting on the surface of the skin and result in the scattering and reflection of the UV light before it is absorbed by the skin.
Physical sunscreens are becoming increasingly popular since they provide protection almost immediately and are free from some of the more controversial ingredients found in the chemical variety.
Physical sunscreen advantages:
- Provides both UVA and UVB protection and naturally offers broad-spectrum protection
- Protects the sun as soon as it’s applied to the skin
- The preferred option for those with heat activated skin e.g. rosacea sufferers as it does not heat up the skin like chemical sunscreens
- The preferred option for acne-prone skin
Physical sunscreen disadvantages:
- They often leave a white cast on the skin, which many people find off-putting especially for those with darker skin tones
- Can offer less protection if not applied properly since light can easily pass through the gaps where none was applied
- Easily removed through sweat and moisture so must be re-applied more frequently
Chemical sunscreens also referred to as chemical filters are by far the most popular type of sunblock used and have been in use for many years. As their name suggests, these sunscreens contain various carbon-based chemicals that work by transferring the UV radiation into heat.
Common chemicals used in these products include Oxybenzone and Octocrylene and they are often classified by the type of UV they absorb e.g. UVA, UVB or a combination of both.
Chemical sunscreen advantages:
- Typically less thick than physical sunscreens and so is often preferred by those that wear cosmetics
- Less is needed to protect the skin as unlike physical sunblocks there are no “risk gaps” after application
Chemical sunscreen disadvantages:
- They are not immediately effective and must be applied at least 30 minutes before sun exposure
- Can potentially inflame skin conditions including rosacea since they change UV into heat and so can lead to flushing
- Re-application is also required more frequently in direct sunlight as it used up more quickly
- Safety concerns surround many chemicals used in chemical sunscreens as they could be absorbed by the skin into the bloodstream or ingested via hand to mouth contact
Is Sunscreen Safe During Pregnancy?
Protecting your skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation is always recommended, especially at times when you may feel your skin is more sensitive, which is common during pregnancy.
Some of the ingredients used in chemical sunscreens are controversial and their use has been linked to allergies and even hormone disruption. Oxybenzone has received most attention for its potentially negative effects and so many people prefer to avoid its use completely (3).
It’s worth noting that many different types of cosmetics also contain oxybenzone, so during pregnancy make sure to check your other products, as well as your sunscreen. For example, if you are on the hunt for a pregnancy safe moisturizer, you may want to avoid those that contain oxybenzone.
For this reason, many women advocate the use of physical sunscreens that contain minerals such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide for use during pregnancy.
To be on the safe side, you should always read the manufacturers insert and the packaging of any sunscreen you are thinking of purchasing before you begin using it.
What to Look For in a Good Sunscreen
With so many sunscreen products on offer and with marketing jargon often leading to confusion, here are the fundamental properties of the best sunscreens to use during pregnancy:
- SPF 30+ – Sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) above 30 offers the most protection from the harmful UV rays. There is little evidence that SPF factors above this provide any additional protection, hence why the FDA has previously considered banning them.
- Broad spectrum protection – For maximum protection ensure you use a broad spectrum sunscreen. This is a sunscreen that protects your skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
Ways to Protect Your Skin from the Sun
It’s important to remember that sunscreen is just one way to protect your skin from harmful UV rays and there are additional steps you can take to maximize your protection.
Re-apply Your Sunscreen Periodically
Most sunscreens provide instructions with regards to application times. Remember that while physical sunscreens will work almost immediately after application, chemical sunscreens will need to be applied at least 30 minutes before sun exposure.
Typically, you will need to re-apply your sunscreen every 2 hours, but this really depends on a number of other factors too. For instance, if you are perspiring heavily or external moisture is causing the sunscreen to be removed make sure to re-apply it.
Wear a Large Hat & Sunglasses
A large hat will not only provide your head, face, and neck with additional protection, but it will also help to keep you cooler. Equally, protecting your eyes delicate lens from the suns rays is also advised, this will also help protect the delicate eye area, which is more prone to sun damage and premature aging than other parts of your skin.
Avoid the Sun Between Peak Hours
The suns UV rays are usually most intense between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, therefore, it’s always advised that you avoid being in the sun during this period. So, if you are considering sitting in the sun while pregnant, it’s best to avoid it as not only will it put your skin at risk, but it can also lead to dehydration.
There are a variety of clothes designed to provide maximum coverage and many of them are designed especially for maternity wardrobes. Not only will they ensure your arms and legs are well covered, but many are made from lightweight and airy materials to ensure you don’t overheat.
Many of these also provide SPF 30 either by the material that they are made from, or ones that allow you to use a special laundry detergent that adds sun protection into your clothes.
Recommended Sunscreens for Pregnancy
Sunscreen technology is constantly advancing and new ingredients are released all the time. For this reason, it’s important to keep up to date with the latest innovations. However, during my pregnancy, I personally considered this the go-to list of safe sunscreens during pregnancy:
- Thinkbaby Sunscreen Baby SPF 50+
- Maelove Sheer Mineral Zinc Sunscreen
- Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen
- Burt’s Bees Sunscreen