After years of struggling to get pregnant (read about my pregnancy story here), it finally happened. My at-home pregnancy test read positive! I jumped for joy when I read that plastic little stick. Standing in my bathroom staring at that stick is a moment I’ll never forget and one that seems so long ago now that I’m in the middle of my second trimester. (Due May 2018 with a girl!) I can honestly say becoming pregnant has been the best thing to ever happen to my life, and simultaneously the worst thing to ever happen to my skin.
Okay, FINE, I exaggerate; it wasn’t the worst thing ever to happen to my skin (one can’t forget the time my face had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic and swelled up so much my eyes could barely open #ouch), but during the first trimester, before I got my acne under control, it felt pretty darn close.
Here I was experiencing a momentous life occasion and every time I looked in the mirror more acne lesions were popping up to say, hello. The shifting hormones of pregnancy began wreaking havoc on my skin almost immediately. And within a couple of weeks, my skin did a complete one eighty: where my skin was once dry, it became oily; where it was once oily, it became dry; smoothness turned to rough patches; and tiny little bumps began sprouting up on my cheeks, forehead, around my eyebrows, my mouth, chest and back!
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, acne, back-ne and chest-ne descended upon me with fervor.
The sad part about all of this is I had just figured out how to clear up my perioral dermatitis outbreaks!
Though not one to shy away from a skin dilemma, I did what any beauty blogger would do and set a laser beam focus on figuring out how to be-rid of the pizza explosion on my face. Weeks of patience, research, and testing product after product went by. A little progress here, then worsening there was the cycle. It wasn’t until I finally segwayed into week 19 of my pregnancy that I was able to clear up my acne with the right combination of products. The best part: My skin looks better now than it did before getting pregnant!
So here’s what I figured out and the products that worked to clear up my pregnancy acne…
(Picture on the left is me right before finding out I was pregnant; right is me three weeks later with a few whiteheads and lots of small flesh colored tiny bumps all over – hard to see them, but they’re there.)
(Top left picture is a closer up picture so you guys can see the textured little clogged pores; bottom left is me now with clear skin except for one keratin plug on my cheek – which I’m having extracted tomorrow at Natural Feeling Spa; Right pic is my 20 week baby bump – weeeee!)
Why your skin is breaking out during pregnancy
Hormones, that’s the short answer. But if we want to get nitty gritty, more specifically, it’s the increase in androgens that cause many women to experience acne during pregnancy (The International Dermal Institute).
The placenta acts as a temporary endocrine gland during pregnancy, producing large amounts of hormones. And the spike in androgens, the hormone responsible for sebum production and hair growth, can cause increased hair growth, even in hair follicles once dormant, and excess oil secretion – both contributing to clogged pores.
*Fun Fact: The pregnant female body wants to create more estrogen, so it creates lots of androgens it then converts into estrone and estradiol; two forms of estrogen (The Journal of Clinical Investigation).
How this affected my skin
*Keep in mind everyone’s skin is different. I’m just sharing here how my skin reacted!
I could tell right away that my acne breakouts weren’t typical acne lesions. They weren’t deep and painful. They didn’t feel filled with pus. Except for one or two small whiteheads, most were tiny red or skin colored bumps grouped together around my cheeks, temples and a few around my mouth. When I would run my hand over my skin (a clean hand), I could tell the bumps were located superficially in the skin.
Fine baby hairs began sprouting up on my belly and my chest, due to the increasing androgen hormones, and I could see little hard, waxy, yellowish sebum plugs pushing out of a few pores.
Since these little bumps and sebum plugs did not have pus, I knew they weren’t traditional breakouts where the pore opening is blocked and the bacteria trapped inside becomes infected.
But the pores were definitely clogged, so I wondered if it was keratosis pilaris or something similar.
I knew about keratosis pilaris from my discussions with Seti Mayet, aesthetician and former aesthetician instructor at the International Dermal Institute, but upon looking into it more, I realized this may be what was causing the tiny red and skin colored bumps all over my face, chest and back.
What is keratosis pilaris?
According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, keratosis pilaris is most commonly found on the backs of the upper arms, buttocks and thighs, but it can happen on the face. Skin cells that normally flake off as fine dust from the skin form plugs in the hair follicles when mixed with sebum. This causes little congested raised “pimples” that have a bumpy, dry feeling.
When the skin is dry, keratosis pillars tends to worsen as there is an accumulation of dead skin cells (Ally N Alai, MD, FAAD Medical Director, The Skin Center at Laguna).
I don’t know for sure that this is what caused the tiny breakouts all over, but after failing to see results from treating these spots with traditional drying acne treatment, I decided to approach healing my skin as though it was keratosis pilaris: This meant physical exfoliation with micro-granule cleansers and gentle AHAs like malic and citric acid (I avoided any form of salicylic acid since pregnant women are advised to avoid BHA for its possible teratogenic effects); keeping the skin hydrated; staying away from drying products meant for cystic acne; and choosing calming ingredients to soothe and reduce inflammation.
When I employed these methods, my skin radically cleared up!
The products I used to clear up my pregnancy acne
The following cleansers can be used day and night, but since my skin is very sensitive and dry, I only use these cleansers at night before bed. (In the mornings, I saturate a cotton pad with one of the below toners and use it as a cleanser + toner combo. This helps to prevent my skin from drying out.)
Herbivore Pink Clay Bar: Was the first cleanser I used during the height of my breakouts. I was looking for something to decongest the skin, but without any abrasive components. This bar soap uses French Pink Clay to draw out impurities without drying the skin and my favorite essential oil, geranium, to reduce inflammation. I love the clean, soothed feeling my skin has after using this bar soap! It also does a great job at washing off face makeup – but make sure to always do a double cleanse!
May Lindstrom The Clean Dirt: Once the one or two whiteheads I had went away, and all I was left with was the little clogged bumps, I started using The Clean Dirt as my evening cleanser. Almost overnight, this cleanser got rid of the rough texture and clogged pores! I love, love, love the smooth texture this cleanser has given my skin! At first, the fact that this product contains sodium bicarbonate ie. baking soda, which has a very high pH concerned me, but after speaking with the brand about my concerns, they assured me that May’s formulation utilizes Vitamin C to neutralize the pH making it safe for regular use. I find I only need to use this cleanser 1-2x per week. ***Be very careful not to overuse this product. It can be very intense and exfoliating and overuse can cause your skin to become stripped. I do not recommend this product if you have a compromised barrier – if you do, see the Lina Hanson Global Trio cleanser below.
Lina Hanson Global Face Trio: But there are times when May Lindstrom’s The Clean Dirt feels a little intense for my sensitive skin, so I alternate it with Lina Hanson’s Global Trio. This gentle powder can be used as a purifying, brightening and clarifying mask or cleanser. I love it as both! And find it to be a gentler alternative (it uses rich bran as the exfoliant which is gentler than sodium bicarbonate) to The Clean Dirt. If you have very sensitive skin, I recommend opting for this cleanser first and then working your way up to The Clean Dirt.
Era Organics Natural Cleansing & Makeup Removing Oil: When I wear a full face of makeup, like I did for my New Year’s Eve look, I use Era Organic’s cleansing oil. A lot of cleansing oils use castor oil, which I’ve found to be too drying. I love that this cleansing oil does not use castor oil, but instead rich, hydrating oils like apricot, jojoba, and argan oil. My skin feels deeply cleansed and soothed after using this cleansing oil, and it’s become an instant favorite!
I use the Marie Veronique + Kristina Holey toner every other night followed by one of the three rose toners I’ve listed below. In the mornings, I use one of the rose toners as a cleanser + toner duo.
Marie Veronique + Kristina Holey Balancing Hypo Tonic: If you have cystic acne or just little clogged bumps, this toner is a must. It contains humectants to help hydrate the skin and apple cider vinegar which contains a small amount of natural AHA in the form of malic acid – safe to use during pregnancy. During the height of my skin congestion, I used this toner morning and night. But now that my skin has cleared up, I use this toner only every other night since the light exfoliating properties in the rose toners is enough for my skin.
Herbivore Rose Hibiscus Face Mist: This is a great basic rose toner. I love that it has hibiscus flower in it which contains malic and citric acid naturally; both gently exfoliate and speed cell turnover. I also love the accessible price point! (*The reason this toner is less expensive is because the first two ingredients are water and aloe water. Whereas the La Bella Figura and Tammy Fender toners I review below contain only pure flower waters, which is more costly and also more efficacious. But I realize not everyone can spend $55 or $65 on a toner, so this one by Herbivore priced beginning at $16 is a great option if you are looking for something more affordable!)
La Bella Figura Jardin De Fleurs Skin Revitalizer: I love this toner! It brings together a variety of anti-inflammatory and hydrating waters – rose, corn flower, and honey suckle – and pairs them with powerful plant extracts like licorice root and edelweiss (brightening), white peony (calming), and cactus flower (prevents TEWL: trans-epidermal water loss). It also has subtle exfoliating properties from the hibiscus flower extract. It’s pricey, but you’re getting a beautiful, effective and multi-tasking product for the money!
Tammy Fender Bulgarian Rose Water Facial Toner: If you’re looking for a pure rose toner to get the intense benefits of rose, I highly recommend you try this one! It’s pure organic rose water combined with rose essential oil – meaning lots of hydration! And the added citric acid gently exfoliates skin.
Morning and night after using toner, I apply the Benton and Urang hydrating essences. *It’s deathly dry in Los Angeles during the winter. I’m talking almost ZERO humidity in the air. If you live in a dry, desert climate or have very dry skin, I highly recommend using one of these essences in addition to one of the toners above, BUT if you live where there is more humidity (I’m looking at you Houston and New York City), you probably could get away with skipping this extra hydration step.
Benton Snail Bee High Content Skin: I have mixed feelings about this product. On the one hand, it works SO well at restoring moisture in the skin, but on the other, it does this with the help of petroleum derived humectants, like butylene glycol and pentylene glycol. Now, these synthetic ingredients are safe to use on the skin, BUT if you are a purist and want only natural products – you might want to avoid this product. I personally like it for occasional use when my skin is bone D-R-Y and in need of an extra boost.
Urang True Rose Repair Essence: I tend to avoid Korean beauty products since many contain harmful chemicals and strong fragrances, but I was so happy to see this new Korean brand featuring cleaner ingredients! It’s by no meals completely natural, but it’s about 60% organic with organic rose water comprising the bulk of the contents. I like the thick gel-like texture that seems to be a nice last step before I apply my oils.
4. Face Oil
These fast absorbing oils are great for daytime use and create a smooth palette for makeup!
Herbivore Lapis Facial Oil: Oils have been the saving grace for my skin. This one by Herbivore uses squalene, which is a “dry” oil, very light-weight and fast absorbing making it exceptional for daytime and nighttime use. It also contains anti-inflammatory blue tansy essential oil – a key ingredient in soothing redness and inflammatory breakouts. But what really makes this oil special is the jasmine and rose absolutes (absolutes are more concentrated than essential oils).
Själ Saphir Concentrate Anti-Aging Face Oil: If you’re dealing with redness not so much breakouts and concerned with anti-aging, I highly recommend this oil by Sjal versus the Herbivore oil. It’s another light-weight oil great for daytime use, but instead of squalene, it uses feather-like meadow foam seed oil and fast absorbing camellia oil. After using this oil ONE time, the redness around my mouth and chin radically reduced, and my overall complexion was brightened from the exfoliating/brightening bitter and sweet orange essential oils! My only complaint about this oil is that the bottle is small, and the instructions say you only need 2-3 drops, but I found you need more like 8-10 drops.
5. Face Balm
I use these balms at night layered on top of one of the above oils. Both contain blue tansy oil as the star ingredient capable of reducing inflammation and helping to combat breakout prone skin.
May Lindstrom The Blue Cocoon: There’s a reason everyone is in love with May Lindstrom’s Blue Cocoon: It’s an insanely beautiful visceral experience. The scent is INTOXICATING and the texture glides on like silk. This balm is the last step I use to seal everything in. The texture is a little heavier than the oils, so I tend to use it just at night. But I always awake to plump, glowing, bright, and smooth skin.
Live Botanical Babassu Balancing Whipped Serum: Now, if the $180 price tag associated with May Lindstrom’s Blue Cocoon feels painful, try this blue tansy babassu balm from Live Botanical instead! It clocks in at $28 and is a really nice product! The scent and texture can’t rival May’s, but it definitely delivers when it comes to results! I actually found the lavender extract to be a stronger component in this balm than in the Blue Cocoon, and it works really well at clearing up body acne; I had a few clogged pores on my chest that this balm relieved right away! Available at – livebotanical.com (use code BONDENAVANT for 15% Off)
6. Treatment Mask
Tammy Fender Epi-peel: I was very nervous about testing this product. I have extremely sensitive, reactive skin and the description “micro-exfoliating mask and peel” sounded intense. But my skin LOVES this product. The tapioca starch has very, very fine microscopic granules that feel a tad like fine sand as you massage the product into your skin, and are highly effective at sweeping away dead skin cells, smoothing texture and brightening without any irritation! I really was blown away when I washed the mask off after letting the kaolin clay draw out impurities for 2-3 minutes and my skin appeared bright, clear and without a trace of redness or irritation.
My Final Thoughts
Pregnancy has changed my skin so much, but I’m really thankful to have found a system of physical exfoliating and intensely hydrating products that work for me. As I’ve gone through ups and downs with my skin, I’ve learned to listen to my skin and try my best to give it what it wants (because your skin will always tells you right away if it likes something or not).
While these products worked for me and my skin issues so far during pregnancy, they may not be the right fit for others. Everyone’s skin is so different – remember that!
But most importantly, I just want to say – be patient with yourself and your skin. If you’re pregnant, your body is going through a lot of changes during this beautiful time, so show it and yourself lots of love and kindness.
Photographed & Written by Amy Chang