By Elizabeth Wasserman
It’s no secret that pregnant women love massage—feet, neck, hips, legs. And did I mention feet? Toward the end of my first pregnancy, I had become a regular at my neighborhood nail salon just to take advantage of the leg rubs that came free with all pedicures.
I also indulged in my fair share of prenatal massages, which were both gifted to me and by me (we all deserve a treat now and then).
At the time, I knew all about the benefits of massage for health, relaxation, mood, you name it. I figured that a more relaxed mom would lead to a less stressful in utero environment for my developing baby. What I didn’t know was that some of the resources I used for that pampering were directly impacting my health and that of my developing child.
Looking back now, I still wonder sometimes why no one told me any of this. How could I not have known? The truth is that the science around product safety and the health effects from what you put in, on, and around yourself is still emerging.
The Dangerous Details
What we know today is so much more than the information we had even five years ago, and more available to the public. For example, most people are aware that products containing parabens should be avoided. But do you know why exactly? Here’s a clue: hormone disruption. Used as preservatives, parabens are frequently found in water-based products like body lotions, conditioners, facial creams, shampoos, and scrubs. They can also be absorbed through the skin—our body’s largest organ—and into our blood and digestive system.
It’s known that parabens disrupt hormone function, which impacts every system in our bodies. Additionally, they have been linked to breast and other cancers, reproductive disorders, immune system function, and neurotoxicity. Yikes!
Here’s another fact I wish I’d known during my pregnancy: “fragrance” can be a euphemism for “undisclosed, trade-secret chemical cocktail.” Double gulp. On average, fragrances contain a minimum of 14 chemicals, which can cause everything from skin irritation and immune system damage to hormone disruption and neurotoxicity, especially if they contain phthalates.
What’s a phthalate, you say? Often found in fragrance ingredients and scented products like candles, lotions, and air fresheners, phthalates are a class of synthetic chemicals linked to reproductive and fertility problems in both men and women.
Expectant mothers should also be cautious when using essential oils. These oils are at their safest when naturally extracted and undiluted with fillers or solvents. Even then, it’s important to use them correctly. Pure essential oils are very potent and highly concentrated—it can take more than 12,000 roses to produce just 5 milliliters of rose oil! While appropriate amounts of essential oils are a natural way to make life smell deliciously sweet, their intensity means that some oils may be irritating or even dangerous to a pregnant woman.
What’s a Body to Do?
You may be asking yourself at this point whether choosing only products labeled with the terms “all natural” or “organic” is the way to go. The short answer is both yes and no. Ideally, all brands would be honest in their marketing claims and free of questionable ingredients.
Unfortunately, since the government doesn’t require safety testing of personal care products, brands can make greenwashed claims like “all natural,” while still using almost any chemical or synthetic ingredient they want, regardless of safety. The key is to always read the fine print on product labels. If there’s an ingredient with which you’re not familiar, check it out through sources like Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database (www.ewg.org/skindeep). Keep in mind, too, that an ingredient is not necessarily safe or helpful just because it is natural.
With so much information to keep track of, what’s a lotion-loving, pamper-craving mama to do? Simply follow this handy cheat sheet of tips and tricks.
First and foremost, keep in mind the choices you make today will impact your developing baby for a lifetime. Studies have revealed a shocking average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in umbilical cord blood. While you’re pregnant, your body is not just your own—it’s your baby’s, too.
Avoid products containing ingredients with the word “paraben” in them, like propylparaben, butylparaben, and methylparaben—some of the worst offenders.
Choose products scented naturally with pure essential oils and organic extracts, and avoid the ingredients “fragrance” and “parfum.”
Purchase your pampering essentials from brands or shops you can trust to make your health and safety a top priority.
Finally, with your arsenal of trusted products in hand, bring these safety-conscious alternatives along with you to your must-have massage appointments. Your therapist and your baby-to-be will thank you. Now, take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy yourself—that’s the whole point.