Sun exposure when pregnant — what’s important to know

When you're pregnant, you'll be aware of the long list of dos and don’ts to keep both mother and baby happy and healthy. So where does sun exposure stand on that list? How much is needed or should it be avoided altogether? We delve into these questions, looking at the link between sun exposure and pregnancy.

Pregnancy can make the skin more sensitive

Hormonal changes during pregnancy increase the amount of melanin in the skin, which often results in a condition known as melasma, also called chloasma or ‘the mask of pregnancy’ where discolored patches appear on the skin, typically on the face. The extra hormones can also make the skin more sensitive and prone to burning and UV damage, thereby increasing the risk of skin cancer. As a result, caution should be taken to protect the skin from UV exposure. This means applying sunscreen, seeking shade and wearing wide-brimmed hats when outdoors.

What about sunscreen, is it safe?

Another added worry during pregnancy is the ingredients in many common beauty and skincare products, including sunscreen. A recent study linked oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens, to low birth weight. While this research didn’t prove that the sunscreen was the cause, it also doesn’t hurt to err on the side of caution and avoid sunscreens containing the ingredient. Non-chemical sunscreens (also called physical sunscreens) that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are usually considered better options for those who are pregnant or simply have sensitive skin as these sunscreens lay on top of the skin and reflect the sun’s rays instead of being absorbed into the skin. While it’s important to seek advice from a dermatologist or doctor on the safest types of sunscreens to use during pregnancy, sunscreen shouldn’t be avoided altogether as it’s an important defense against the sun’s harmful rays.

Pregnancy makes mothers more susceptible to heat & dehydration

Beyond UV damage, sun exposure can pose a risk during pregnancy because it can cause overheating and dehydration. This is particularly worrisome as there is evidence that shows a link between exposure to high temperatures and babies born with a lower birth weight, which can have negative health implications for the baby. How does this happen? Heat causes the mother’s blood vessels to contract to cool down, which reduces the number of nutrients that reach the fetus.

Dehydration is a concern as the mother’s body temperature is higher during pregnancy since it is busy pumping extra blood to meet the needs of the baby. If the mother doesn’t drink enough water, she won’t perspire as much which in turn increases overheating. Mothers can avoid this vicious cycle by always keeping a bottle of water close by and avoiding the heat and warm hours of the day.

Vitamin D is vital for pregnancy

But what about vitamin D? Isn’t that also necessary for mothers? In short, yes. As more research is done into the topic, vitamin D is found to be essential for many aspects of our health, from immune function to the absorption of calcium and phosphorus. It has also been linked to the birth weight and overall health of babies. Since the fetus receives all of its vitamin D directly from the mother, it’s important that the mother is getting adequate levels. While the rate of vitamin D deficiency varies by race and latitude, studies have found that deficiencies are quite common.

The best source of vitamin D is the sun as vitamin D is not found in a lot of foods and supplements don’t always meet the necessary amounts for pregnant women. This presents a conundrum since, as discussed above, the sun can also pose serious risks. The key is to remember that a little sun exposure goes a long way. Most research points to as little as five to ten minutes of sun exposure two to three times a week on the arms, legs, hands and/or face to meet all of the body’s vitamin D needs. Of course, it’s always best to talk to a doctor or dermatologist as they can test for vitamin D deficiencies and make an individualized plan to ensure proper levels are being maintained throughout pregnancy.

The bottom line: While pregnancy can pose extra challenges, sun exposure basics remain the same. Take steps to avoid UV damage by keeping covered, wearing sunscreen and avoiding direct and extended sun exposure, stay hydrated and, as always, keep an eye on melanoma symptoms.

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