Sunbathing, Sunscreens, and Sun Exposure During Pregnancy

Sunbathing exposes you to ultraviolet rays which are dangerous for everyone, but more so when pregnant. Because of the increased hormone levels sunbathing is even more dangerous than before becoming pregnant.

Being pregnant causes hormone levels to increase, possibly causing the skin to become more sensitive. The UV rays can burn the skin if exposed for a long period of time. Skin cancer (melanoma) is caused by excessive exposure to the sun’s harmful rays. The more times the skin is burned, the chances of cancer developing increases.

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Sunbathing can also drain the body of much-needed fluids, causing dehydration and overheating. Denying a pregnant body of fluids, such as water, could cause undue stress possibly leading to pre-term contractions. An overheated body has an increased core temperature, which could cause birth defects.

The ultraviolet rays of the sun may also break down the much-needed folic acid in the body. Folic acid helps to reduce the chances of birth defects.

If the choice has been made that the risks are not great enough to deter one from staying out of the sun, there are precautions that can be taken to try to be as safe as possible.

Sunscreens during pregnancy

The effects of UV rays on the skin are well documented. Skin cancer, premature aging, and sunspots are all linked to sun exposure and overexposure. Sunscreens are the best option to block UV rays from damaging the skin, but are sunscreen products safe for use during pregnancy?

Sunscreens block UV rays by including one of three ingredients – oxybenzone, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide. Oxybenzone is the ingredient pregnant women want to avoid. In some research studies, oxybenzone has been linked to low birth weight in female infants. While these studies could not pinpoint oxybenzone as the sole reason for low birth weight, there is no reason to put your baby at risk if there is a viable alternative that is considered safe for use during pregnancy.

The reason oxybenzone cannot be pinpointed as the cause of birth defects is due to its effect on the skin. This chemical is used to help other chemicals absorb through the skin. Unlike zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which lie on the surface of the skin, products with oxybenzone permeate the skin allowing chemicals to absorb into the bloodstream.

In 2008, the Environmental Working Group found just shy of 600 sunscreens that contained oxybenzone including Hawaiian Tropic, Ocean Potion, Aveeno, and Blue Lizard. Some of the products considered unsafe were not sunscreens, but rather facial and body lotions marketed with SPF protection.

Pregnant women should read beauty labels for lotion, skincare products, lip balm, and lipstick. Surprisingly enough, the chemical can also be found in perfumes and hair conditioners. Oxybenzone has been linked to allergies, damage to cells, and disruption of hormones. A study performed by the CDC found traces of oxybenzone in 97% of participants. Women and young girls were found to have higher concentrations potentially due to the use of skincare and beauty products.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be found in stores alongside sunscreens and products containing oxybenzone. These are considered safe during pregnancy. Before buying any skincare products, pregnant women should read all product labels.

Sunscreen: Sunscreen of at least SPF 30 can help to prevent burning. Also, a good reminder is to reapply every 2 hours for maximum protection.

Hydration: Staying hydrated with plain water will keep the body cool. This will prevent overheating and dehydration.

Hat and Sunglasses: Wearing a large brimmed hat and sunglasses while outdoors will help reduce the exposure to the UV rays. The large hat will provide protection to the face, shoulders and neck area. Sunglasses can help to reduce the damage to the eyes.

Avoid the sun between 10am and 4pm: Between 10am and 4pm, the sun's rays are at their strongest. It is best to try to refrain from being exposed for any length of time between these hours.

The sun's rays are dangerous, even for the healthiest of pregnant women. Physicians will discourage sunbathing. As a safe alternative self-tanning lotions or sprays are always suggested.

Almost everyone old enough to slather on their own sunscreen knows over-exposure to the sun increases the risk of skin cancer later in life but sunscreen use minimizes the risk.  Even so, an alarming number of young people, especially young women, choose today’s tan over tomorrow’s health concerns.  Two studies in recent years suggest the wrong message is being sent.  They found stressing current and long-term beauty benefits of sunscreen rather than protection against health concerns that might not happen until well into the future is the more compelling message.

Here’s what you’ll look like

Researchers from the University of Surrey in Guildford, England, invited 65 young (ages 16 to 25) fair-skinned women from the United Kingdom to take part in a study of attitudes and habits regarding sun exposure and protection.  All young women completed a survey that revealed how well informed each one was about “sun safe beliefs” and what actions they take to be safe in the sun (sunscreen strength and use, staying in the shade, protective clothing, and such).  Each woman’s skin type was measured, too, to document her susceptibility to sunburn.

A photograph of each woman’s face was taken and then visually enhanced using digital sun-aging software.  Four aging scenarios were created for each face:

  • Visual/immediate future – Enhanced each face to reflect how the woman would likely look in her 30s if aging (1) naturally or (2) sun-aged.
  • Visual/distant future – Enhanced each face to reflect both natural and sun-aging at age 60.

Some of the women were given their current and future face projections as hard-copy photographs.  Others viewed their aging faces on a computer with three-dimensional (3D) technology and the women could manipulate themselves to get a view of what their future face might look like from every angle.

After each woman left the session, she was allowed to help herself to a bowl of sunscreen samples and leaflets discussing the sun’s role in skin cancer development.  The women did not know it but the number of samples and leaflets were counted before and after each helped herself to the items.

Women getting the 3D views of their future selves helped themselves to two times more sunscreen samples than those getting photographs.  They left with three times the number of leaflets and reported a 30% lower belief in the skin’s ability to heal after over-exposure to the sun.

Beauty, aging, sun, and tanning booths

A survey-only study published in 2014 by researchers at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found similar results.  The 406 college students in the study (75% female) represented a wide variety of racial/ethnic skin types and tones.

Survey questions were designed to assess each participant’s sunbathing or tanning-booth habits, sunburns in the previous year, concerns about his/her personal appearance now and in the future, and concerns about exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation and risk for cancer.

As in the photo-enhanced aging study, the Pennsylvania students were more concerned about how the sun and tanning-booth exposure affected their looks now and in the future rather than concerns about UV-related health complications later on.

Sun bunnies beware: Your sunscreen probably doesn’t work

Summertime is big business for the manufacturers of sunscreen products but an annual survey of them indicates they either don’t work as advertised or they contain products you’d probably rather not put on your skin. Or on your children’s skin.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released the findings of its 9th annual Sunscreen Guide, which describes its evaluation of more than 1,700 sun-protection products. The EWG is a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. The group specializes in research and advocacy on matters of toxic chemicals in the environment, corporate accountability, agricultural subsidies, and stewardship of public lands.

The EWG found that a good 80% of the 1,700 products it evaluated were worrisome. More than half of them, it states, would not be allowed for sale on the European market.

Of particular concern to the EWG is the Neutrogena line of sun-protection products, in spite of the company’s claim that it is the “#1 dermatologist recommended suncare brand.” All four sun-protection products on the Neutrogena website earned an EWG rating of 7, the worst rating on the EWG rating scale.

One cause for concern is the Neutrogena “Pure & Free Baby” sunscreen, described as being hypoallergenic and providing “special protection from the sun and irritating chemicals.” One particular preservative in this product is methylisothiazolinone (MI), which is known to be a potent allergen and is considered unsafe by European standards.

Read More:
Sun Spots
Are Tanning Beds Safe During Pregnancy?
Beauty Treatments During Pregnancy