Image of potentially unsafe household cleaning products.
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Nail polish, bug spray, house paint, and more: Just what’s safe?

When you’re trying to conceive, it isn’t always clear whether you should start to make changes to your habits. Can you color your hair? Use all your usual beauty products? Paint your nails? And what about painting that extra bedroom that could just maybe be used as a nursery someday? The good news is that there has been a lot of research over the past few years about the effects certain chemicals can have on people in different stages of development. The bad news is that many of the chemicals that have been proved to be risky or dangerous are present in people’s day-to-day lives.

Is it unsafe to use? Learn about common household products

Depending on what your routine is, you may end up needing to make a few changes to make sure you’re keeping yourself and your future baby as safe as possible.

Hair dye

Many hair dyes are vegetable-based, and so there’s not much concern about harmful chemicals being absorbed by your scalp, and aiming for vegetable-based dyes can help to limit any risk. You can also take additional precautions by wearing gloves, coloring in a space with good ventilation, and following package instructions. If you have your hair colored professionally, you can still check in about the ingredients in the dye they use. 

Nail polish

During pregnancy, many experts recommend sticking to non-acetone based products when you can – including nail polish and nail polish remover. Since new moms don’t know they’re pregnant during the earliest part of pregnancy, some choose to get started avoiding acetone-based products early on. Some of the ingredients in these products – like phthalates – can affect fertility, too, if you’re exposed to them often in the long-term. Acetone-free products and good ventilation can help limit exposure to potentially troublesome chemicals while TTC. Products that are labeled “three-free,” “five-free” and even “seven-,” “eight-,” and “nine-free” mark a commitment not to use potentially harmful ingredients, and the number corresponds to just how many of those ingredients are left out. Here, it’s what’s missing that counts.

Face and body products

Products like face lotion or facial scrubs that contain retinoids, salicylic acid, or benzoyl peroxide, which are used to treat and prevent wrinkles and acne can be harmful in large doses during pregnancy, so many doctors suggest erring on the side of caution and cutting them out early. Some alternatives that have the green light are ingredients like glycolic acid, alpha-hydroxy acid, and vitamin C.

You may also want to skip products containing parabens and phthalates – found in everything from body lotion to shampoo to perfumes. Because parabens can take on the characteristics of estrogen, there’s some evidence that exposure to too much of this can throw hormones out of whack and affect fertility. Beyond that, exposure to a lot of phthalates has been linked to preterm birth and impaired neurodevelopment. Fortunately, there are more and more products available today that are paraben- and phthalate-free, so you should have a wealth of other options.

Bug spray

You may have heard about potentially adverse side effects of certain ingredients found in insect repellents, such as DEET, but depending on where you live, what’s even more concerning is the risk of being exposed to serious mosquito and tick borne illnesses, including the Zika virus. There are DEET-free repellents on the market, but for the best protection, many experts recommend products that do contain DEET, and there are now formulations on the market that use lower concentrations of DEET that you may simply need to apply more often. Recent studies show that DEET and some of the other popular ingredients in insect repellants do not cause adverse health issues when used as recommended. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control actually recommend ingredients like DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products.

House paint

Steering clear of oil-based paints, paint thinner, and any painting supplies that contain mercury or lead is recommended during pregnancy, and women trying to conceive may also choose to avoid exposure. Latex based paints with ethylene glycol ethers and biocides, which includes most indoor paints, aren’t known to be dangerous, but they also haven’t been studied much for the effect they may have on early fetal development. Organic solvents like benzene, toluene, and perchloroethylene could increase the risk of preterm birth, stillbirth, or birth defects. This is also a great time to ask for help from friends or family if there are any painting projects on the horizon in your home.

Cleaning products and detergents

Most cleaning products are safe to use when TTC as long as you use them as advised, wear gloves when necessary, and work in a well-ventilated area. However, some products with fragrance contain phthalates, some oven and glass cleaners contain glycol ethers, and some mildew cleaners contain phenols. There isn’t clear evidence of what effect each of these chemicals might have, but there have been studies that suggest that a negative effect is possible, and that more research is needed. Parents-to-be who find themselves needing to use these products may choose to use products that omit these substances when possible, or they may choose to ask a partner to take over tasks that involve these chemicals for a little while.

Flame-retardent products

Flame-repellant chemicals are meant to do just what they sound like – prevent products like building insulation, furniture foam, and upholstery from catching on fire – but they can have unexpected effects as well. The chemicals used in flame-retardants don’t just stay in products, and can make their way into dust which can then be ingested. This is significant when TTC or pregnant because flame-retardants can reduce the chances of becoming pregnant using assisted reproductive technology, and, in women who are pregnant, can hurt the chances of live birth. When buying new products, it can be helpful to look for those that are marked flame-retardent-free, and with materials that are already a part of your life, just making sure to wash your hands before meals can help to prevent the ingestion of any questionable dust.  


Eating organic is the most common strategy people use to avoid pesticides, but it can be more helpful to limit direct exposure to organophosphate pesticides in other ways, like the use of these pesticides in your yard or on your family pets.

It isn’t always clear where the danger in pesticides lies – what ingredients, in what form, and at what dosage? If you find yourself stressing that you can’t possibly limit your exposure to all proven and potentially harmful chemicals, do keep in mind that when it comes to exposure to many of these substances, the dose makes the poison. If you occasionally use acetone-based nail polish before finding out you’re pregnant, you probably don’t need to worry. But if you work in a nail salon without great ventilation and are exposed to these sort of ingredients every day, the chance of an adverse effect may start to grow. Your healthcare provider is a great resource for guidance about specific products you’re using or are being exposed to.

Read more:

  • DB Barr et al. “Pesticide concentrations in maternal and umbilical cord sera and their relation to birth outcomes in a population of pregnant women and newborns in New Jersey.” Science of the Total Environment. 408(4): 790-5. January 2010. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • Yvonne Butler Tobah. “Is it OK to use hair dye during pregnancy?” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, July 13 2017. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • Jeneen Interlandi. “How safe is DEET?” Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports, August 20 2017. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • R McGready et al. “Safety of the insect repellent N,N-diethyl-M-toluamide (DEET) in pregnancy.” The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 65(4): 285-9. October 2001. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women, American Society for Reproductive Medicine Practice Committee, the University of California, San Fransisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.  “Exposure to toxic environmental agents.” Obstetrics & Gynecology. 122(4): 931-5. October 2013. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • “Common flame-retardant chemicals may reduce likelihood of clinical pregnancy, live birth among women undergoing fertility treatments.” Harvard School of Public Health, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, August 25 2017. Retrieved September 25 2017.
  • “DEET.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • “Household products database.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. National Institutes of Health: Health & Human Services, September 2016. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • “Insect repellent use & safety” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services,  March 31 2015. Retrieved August 28 2017.
  • “Zika virus.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, September 6 2016. Retrieved August 28 2017.

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