Chemicals and pregnancy

Some pregnant women worry that being exposed to everyday chemicals may harm their baby. There is no official guidance about this, but here we explain more about any potential risks and what you can do to protect yourself and your baby.

Are chemicals harmful to my baby?

It’s natural to be worried about your baby during pregnancy. But the risk of household chemicals harming you or your baby is very low. It’s important to remember that we are exposed to both natural and man-made chemicals in our day-to-day lives. Even the water we drink contains a mixture of chemicals. Therefore, it is not possible to live an entirely chemical-free lifestyle.

There are some things, like alcohol, cigarettes and illegal or recreational drugs, which contain chemicals that we know can be very harmful in pregnancy. There is clear evidence that stopping these activities is one of the best things you can do to protect your baby’s health during pregnancy and after they are born.

However, some women are concerned about how chemicals found in everyday household items can affect their pregnancy. These include chemicals found in:

  • cosmetic products including moisturisers, shower gels and hairsprays 
  • cleaning products
  • air fresheners
  • paints or glues
  • chemicals used to preserve furniture.

But research shows that usual levels of exposure to chemicals found in everyday household items are low. They have not been proven to have a significant impact on a baby’s development.

The best thing to do is try to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle as much as possible and not worry too much about household chemicals that are very hard to avoid. For most people, it would be very difficult to stop using these entirely. But if you are worried, you could try to focus on limiting how often you use them.

How can I limit my exposure to chemicals at home?

Cleaning products

When you use cleaning products, try to ventilate the room during and after cleaning by opening the windows to get some fresh air. If you are cleaning your oven, make sure the room is well ventilated and read instructions carefully. Many oven cleaners produce a lot of fumes from strong chemicals.

Some products say they are free of ‘harmful’ chemicals or label themselves as ‘natural’. This does not always mean they are completely safe. If you are very worried about using cleaning products, you could try using completely natural products instead. White distilled vinegar is a great natural cleaner and you can add lemon or herbs to give a nice smell. Baking soda can also be a great cleaner, especially on ovens.  

Painting

It is unlikely that painting with modern paint or being around paint fumes will harm your developing baby. This is because the risk from most modern household paints is very low. However, the risk may be slightly greater from solvent-based paints and older paintwork. These could contain traces of lead. You could avoid using solvent-based paints and stripping old paintwork while you are pregnant.

But if you do want to paint while you’re pregnant, here are some tips for reducing any potential risks:

  • Any small risk to your baby would be greatest during your first trimester. This is when your baby's organs start developing. As a precaution, you could wait until at least the second trimester of pregnancy to do any painting.
  • Use water-based paints instead of solvent-based ones and spray paints.
  • Make sure any room you paint in is well ventilated by opening all the windows and doors.
  • Wear protective clothing like gloves, long trousers, face masks, long-sleeved tops and goggles.
  • Avoid drinking or eating in the room you are decorating and wash your hands thoroughly when you have finished.

Hair dye

Chemicals can also be found in hair dye. Some women worry about dying their hair during pregnancy. But the amount of chemicals in hair dye is very low. The colours in permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes are not highly toxic.

If you’re worried, there are some things you can do to reduce any risk even further. For example, many women wait until after 12 weeks of pregnancy (after the first trimester), when the risk of the chemicals harming the baby is lower. It’s also always a good idea to do a strand test first using the hair dye you intend to use. Or you can ask your hairdresser to do a patch test if you’re having your hair dyed at a salon. Find out more about dying your hair during pregnancy.

More tips for reducing exposure to chemicals

These steps can also help reduce your exposure to chemicals:

  • You may prefer to use natural cosmetic products where possible, for example coconut oil can be used as a moisturiser.  
  • Eat fresh food rather than processed foods if possible.
  • Avoid the use of garden, household or pet pesticides (such as fly sprays or flea powders).

However, it’s very hard for most people to avoid using these items entirely and the potential risk to you or your baby are very low.

Chemicals at work

If you are concerned about chemicals at work, speak to your employer. They are responsible for doing a risk assessment to identify potential workplace risks during pregnancy. They need protect you from these as much as possible, for example, your employer may improve ventilation or provide extra protection.

However, even when you know what chemicals you work with, and how much you are exposed to, there is no way of fully knowing any risks to your baby. There is currently no evidence for safe or harmful levels of exposure. The best way to protect yourself and your baby is to keep exposure as low as possible, as a precaution.

Household chemicals and pregnancy complications

Some research has found potential links between being exposed to household chemicals and pregnancy complications. These complications have included preterm birth, low birth weight, pregnancy loss and conditions in the baby’s later life, such as asthma. However, it is important to remember that only potential links have been found. These complications may have been caused by other factors, including lifestyle choices and various other health conditions.

Some evidence shows that using cleaning sprays, air fresheners and solvents during pregnancy may increase the risk of wheezing and infections for children after birth. However, much more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between exposure to chemicals and the risk of developing asthma.

Although these studies may sound frightening, the risk for most people is very low and shouldn’t be something for you to worry about. If you are concerned, it’s a good idea to speak to your midwife.

Sources

Casas L, Zock JP, Carsin AE, et al. 2012. The use of household cleaning products during pregnancy and lower respiratory tract infections and wheezing during early life. Int J Public Health. Oct 11.

NHS. 2015. Can paint fumes affect my unborn baby? NHS Choices, Common health questions. www.nhs.uk [Accessed 27/4/20]

NHS. 2008. Will cleaning hurt your baby? NHS Choices - Health news. www.nhs.uk [Accessed 27/4/20]

RCOG 2013. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Chemical Exposures During Pregnancy. Scientific Impact Paper 37. www.rcog.org.uk. [Accessed 27/4/20]

The Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service (HESIS), "If I'm Pregnant, Can the Chemicals I Work With Harm My Baby? https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DEODC/OHB/HESIS/CDPH%20Document%20Library/pregnant.pdf [Accessed 27/4/20]

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    Last reviewed on April 20th, 2020. Next review date April 20th, 2023.

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