Congratulations on your pregnancy! Whether you just found out you’re expecting, or you are ready to meet your little one any day now, it’s important to take care of yourself. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your baby is to avoid toxic chemicals.
But here’s the problem – toxic chemicals are very difficult to avoid. And unless you’ve put a lot of work into it, you may not even know which products contain hazardous chemicals, and which are safe.
Psst… Looking for more info from someone who really has done the work? My friend Samantha, a PhD Chemist and Public Health expert, has a course called The Toxin-Free Living Handbook that tells you everything you need to know to keep your family safe from dangerous chemicals.
Fortunately, my friend Samantha, a PhD Chemist and Public Health expert, has agreed to tell us all about how to keep your family as safe and toxin-free as possible.
Why is it important to avoid toxins during pregnancy?
When you’re pregnant, you’re your baby’s only source of contact with the outside world. Many chemicals cross the placental barrier, meaning they can cross from mom’s body into baby’s. Everything you’re exposed to – the air you breathe, the food you eat, even things you touch – has the potential to impact your baby.
And while these chemicals can be a little hazardous to adults, they can have much worse effects on unborn children. That’s because your baby is undergoing huge, rapid development in the womb. A small change this early can have life-long consequences on the brain and nervous system, the lungs, or the reproductive system.
That’s why you need to be so careful during pregnancy.
Which household chemicals do I need to avoid while pregnant?
Unfortunately, there’s a pretty big list of chemicals that can cause problems for you or your baby. But don’t worry, we’ll cover some of the worst offenders (and how to avoid them) here.
Toxic chemicals from decorating a nursery
I know, you’re super excited to get your nursery just the way you want it. You’ve picked out the bedding, you’ve bought a super-cute crib, and the wall-hangings you found are perfect.
But let someone else do the painting. Paints (even those labeled low VOCs) contain volatile organic compounds, chemicals that can be toxic. It’s best to avoid them while pregnant.
Unfortunately, painting isn’t the only remodeling that can be hazardous for your growing family. The VOCs that come off of laminate flooring or wall-to-wall carpeting puts babies at increased risk of wheezing and respiratory problems.
Even new furniture can put off dangerous fumes. Many mattresses, rocker-gliders, and other products contain flame retardants, and these compounds are right in your breathing space while you sleep.
If in budget, choose a non-toxic mattress (like one of these) for both yourself and your baby. If you reuse old bedding, choose a mattress (and crib mattress) that was manufactured in 2014 or later. Flammability regulations changed so that safer mattresses (containing no flame retardants or at least less of them) could be allowed.
Cleaners and disinfectants to avoid while pregnant
Hopefully, someone else is willing to clean for you while you’re pregnant. After all, you’re busy growing a baby!
But if you need to do some cleaning while pregnant, it’s good to know which products are okay and which you should skip.
Definitely avoid oven cleaners when you’re pregnant. The VOCs found in them can be harmful for your baby. If your oven needs scrubbed out, let someone else handle it.
Don’t use quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) while pregnant either. One of the most common ones, alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, has been linked to neural tube defects (which lead to problems with the nervous system and brain later). Benzalkoium chloride is another one to avoid.
While the research is mixed on using bleach while pregnant, I would personally avoid it. Bleach is known to lead to asthma or other respiratory problems for those who use it frequently (like janitors). Prenatal exposure could potentially cause problems for your little one.
Which non-toxic cleaners you should use when pregnant
If you need to disinfect, use thymol instead. That’s the disinfectant found in Seventh Generation disinfecting products, and it’s considered safe for pregnancy.
And for all-purpose cleaning, like cleaning kitchen counters, stovetops, and the inside of your microwave, I love Everspring’s all-purpose cleaner. This stuff smells great, and it really works!
Before, I used a mixture of vinegar and water with a few drops of Dawn dish soap for cleaning countertops. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t cut through grease very well. But Everspring is paraben and phthalate free, scented with essential oils, and it actually gets rid of grime and build-up in the kitchen and bathroom.
How to avoid toxic chemicals from food
One of the biggest sources of toxic chemicals is your food.
These chemicals don’t just come from how your food was grown. How it’s processed, packaged, and even cooked affects the chemical content of what you eat.
Fortunately, there’s easy ways to decrease the number of toxic chemicals you and your baby get from foods.
Pesticides in food
You’re probably aware of pesticides in food. But did you know that some foods are more likely to contain pesticides than other ones?
The Environmental Working Group puts out a list each year called the Dirty Dozen. These are the 12 produce items that contain the highest number of pesticide residues. Greens like spinach and kale, as well as fruits like strawberries, apples, and peaches, routinely top this list.
Does this mean you should just never eat your favorite fruits again? Nope! But there’s a few good ways to minimize pesticide exposures:
- Buy the Dirty Dozen produce organic. Not every food you eat needs to be organic (that would get expensive!), but it will cut down your pesticide exposure significantly if you switch just for these products.
- Buy produce in season. Fruits and veggies grown in season need fewer pesticides and fertilizers.
- Wash your fruits and veggies. A gentle scrub under running water is all you need.
At the other end of the spectrum, the EWG puts out another annual list called the Clean Fifteen. These are the 15 fruits and veggies that have the fewest pesticide residues on them (woo, avocado is included!). While washing your produce is always a good idea, don’t feel compelled to go to the expense of buying these organic.
Around 2007 and 2008, we discovered that a plastic additive called bisphenol A (BPA) could leach out of baby bottles and into their milk. The problem? BPA is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can cause issues with everything from reproductive function to obesity, and even raise the risk of cancer (here’s more detail).
And BPA wasn’t found only in baby bottles. They were often used in water bottles (which I hope you keep with you at all times as a pregnant mama), the thin plastic liner in food cans, and more.
While BPA was voluntarily removed from baby bottles and most drinking bottles and cups over the next several years, a new problem arose. Manufacturers still needed a chemical that could make plastics stronger and more flexible. So, they moved to a new compound: Bisphenol S.
Within a few years, though, we discovered that BPS is just as hazardous as BPA. This switch wasn’t any safer!
But don’t worry – there are ways to avoid these estrogenic compounds from plastics.
- Use a stainless steel water bottle that you unscrew and drink from (instead of using a straw). This one is a great option.
- Don’t choose polycarbonate plastics (recycling code #7). These are most likely to contain plasticizers like BPA and BPS.
- Choose frozen veggies instead of canned ones to avoid chemicals leaching from the plastic lining.
Do you have old teflon non-stick cookware? If so, you need to get rid of it (especially if it is scratched). Teflon made before 2012 can release a potentially cancer-causing chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
While newer teflon is safer, your best bet is to use a different cooking surface, like nonstick ceramic pans.
Even better? Use cast iron. When it’s well-seasoned, cast iron is nonstick. Plus, cooking with cast iron actually adds to your nutritional iron intake (important for expecting mamas).
Unless you drop and crack it, cast iron is virtually indestructible. Just ask for help getting a heavy pan out of a lower cabinet if your back is bothering you when you’re pregnant (or better yet, let someone else cook for you).
You might think that the trendy fiber and paperboard bowls your rice bowls and burrito bowls come in are environmentally friendly. After all, they’re made of biodegradable plant material, right?
But once again, it’s the coating and additives that cause these containers to be dangerous. Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in paperboard bowls. While they’re great at keeping your burrito bowl from soaking through with sauces and salsas, they are also dangerous.
PFAS can transfer from bowls into your food. And once you eat and digest it, PFAS can cross the placental barrier (and therefore get to your child). From there, breakdown products of PFAS have been linked to increases in preeclampsia, high cholesterol, asthma, thyroid disorders, and other conditions.
With that said, take care to avoid paperboard containers for your food. You might just need to make your burrito bowls at home for a little while instead of ordering take-out.
How to avoid toxic chemicals in personal care products
While things are getting better, personal care products like soaps, shampoos, and lotions often contain toxic chemicals as well. The two main problems are phthalates and parabens.
Phthalates are used to improve the texture of many personal care products. They’re plasticizers, so they can make things like nail polish or even hairspray more flexible (letting you set your hairstyle without a case of helmet head). Parabens, on the other hand, are preservatives to make cosmetics last longer.
Both of these compounds are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can cause thyroid problems, reproductive issues, and even be linked to metabolic problems like obesity and diabetes.
And these toxic effects don’t just happen in moms. They can affect your baby (and even your grandchildren).
It’s easy to see if parabens are in your products: Just look for ingredients such as methylparaben or ethylparaben – basically, any word that ends in “paraben.” If you see one in a product, skip it. Of course, many bottles will now say “paraben free” on the front, so that’s an easier way to check.
Unfortunately, things are murkier with phthalates. The FDA allows companies to list phthalates under fragrances, so you can’t tell by looking at an ingredient list whether there are phthalates in a product.
Many products will tell you if they are phthalate-free; just look at the front of the bottle to see. If that label isn’t on the bottle, there’s a good chance there are phthalates in it.
Conclusions on chemicals to avoid while pregnant
While you may initially feel overwhelmed by the number of toxic chemicals you should avoid while pregnant, there is an upside. These compounds don’t magically become safe after your baby is born, so by learning about them now, you can lay the foundation to continue keeping yourself and your kids safe as they grow.
If you really want all the details you need to avoid as many toxic chemicals as possible, check out Samantha’s course, The Toxin-Free Living Handbook. In it, she uses her PhD in chemistry and public health knowledge to tell you everything you need to know to keep your family safe from dangerous chemicals.
Dr. Samantha Radford has four kids of her own and loves to help other parents with pregnancy, birth, and gentle parenting. She was a chemistry professor until 2020. Now, she combines science and wellness to help parents thrive at Evidence-based Mommy.