Tanning While Pregnant: What Are the Risks?

Aside from the sun being a natural source of vitamin D, many love it for tanning purposes. But while tanning is a popular beauty procedure, it poses many health risks due to ultraviolet (UV) exposure. You may wonder if tanning can harm your growing baby if you're currently expecting. This article will discuss whether you can tan while pregnant, including alternatives and safety strategies.

Can you tan while pregnant?

Currently, there is little research that suggests tanning directly may cause harm to your growing baby. However, you can still face the same risks from exposure to sunlight or tanning beds if you aren’t pregnant. For example, tanning can increase your risk of overheating, which may cause indirect harm to your fetus and pose a risk for pregnancy complications.

While spray tans may seem like safer alternatives during your pregnancy, UK's National Health System (NHS) recommends that these products should also be avoided, as it's unknown what can happen to you or your growing baby if you inhale the product.

If you want to tan during pregnancy, self-tanners are the safest way to do so.

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Risks of tanning during pregnancy

Tanning while pregnant may increase your risk of developing various health conditions, ranging from mild to severe. Rarely, your growing baby may also be susceptible to health problems from UV radiation exposure.

Risks for the mother

Below are potential risks expecting mothers may face due to tanning:

  • Heat exhaustion. Prolonged exposure to the sun or a tanning bed while pregnant may cause your body to overheat, possibly leading to heat exhaustion. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, dizziness, nausea, weakness, and irritability.
  • Chloasma. Chloasma, or melasma, is a skin condition pregnant individuals can develop from UV light, sunlight, and tanning beds. This condition leaves brown or gray-brown patches or freckle-like spots on exposed skin.
  • Skin cancer. UV light is the leading risk factor for skin cancer, also known as melanoma. Too much UV exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer. Research suggests that pregnancy-associated melanoma (PAM) is one of the most common cancers diagnosed during pregnancy. In some cases, PAM can have worse outcomes than melanoma diagnosed in non-pregnant people, but research is still inconclusive.
  • Premature aging. Long-term UV radiation from sunlight causes the skin to produce more melanin, a natural skin pigment. An overproduction of melanin can cause uneven pigment distribution, leading to premature aging or photoaging.
  • Eye damage. Prolonged exposure to UV rays may damage your eyesight. UV rays change the lens’ proteins, potentially worsening eyesight. Prolonged exposure to UV rays can also increase the risk of certain eye cancers, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Please note that all of these risks for mothers-to-be are quite similar to ones that non-pregnant people can experience from prolonged UV exposure.

Risks for the baby

There are no direct studies on the effects of tanning on growing fetuses. However, your growing baby’s health may be at risk from prolonged exposure to UV radiation.

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Here are some possible health risks your baby might experience from UV rays:

  • Melanoma. In extremely rare cases, if you’re diagnosed with melanoma during pregnancy, your fetus may develop it as well. Skin cancer is one of the very few cancers that can spread to the placenta during pregnancy. Research suggests that melanoma accounts for about 25% of all new cancers diagnosed during pregnancy.
  • Birth defects. Research reveals that UV radiation can degrade folate and folic acid (vitamin B9) in the blood of pregnant individuals taking folate supplements. If you have low vitamin B levels, it may cause neural tube defects in your growing baby, including spina bifida, anencephaly, and certain heart defects. It's unknown how many babies can develop birth defects from UV radiation, but in regards to all pregnancies, about one in every 33 babies are born with some kind of birth defect. Causes can remain unknown in many cases.
  • Pregnancy complications and heart defects. Being directly in the sun can cause your body temperature to increase. According to research, exposure to extreme heat over prolonged periods may increase the risk of preterm birth, stillbirth, low birth weight (LBW), and congenital heart defects.

Sunburn while pregnant

A mild sunburn may not be a significant cause for concern while pregnant. However, you may experience red, warm, and tender skin that is sensitive to the touch.

Other symptoms of sunburn include:

  • Swollen and peeling skin
  • Itching
  • Blistering
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Fatigue

In some cases, sunburn may cause severe side effects, such as heatstroke, cramping, and dehydration. A sunburn is typically treatable at home, but if you’re experiencing any severe symptoms such as fever, headache, or vomiting, contact a healthcare professional.

Are sunbeds safe while pregnant?

No direct evidence suggests sunbeds or tanning beds can harm your baby. However, tanning beds may pose several dangers to your health and should not be considered a safer option than the sun.

For example, tanning beds may cause you to overheat. Overheating can cause heat exhaustion, leading to symptoms like headache, nausea, dizziness, and weakness, and may raise the risk of potential pregnancy complications.

Like the sun, tanning beds have UV radiation. Long-term exposure to UV radiation might increase your risk of skin cancer, weaken your immune system, and cause eye and skin damage.

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To protect yourself and your baby, avoiding tanning beds while pregnant is best. If you decide to use a sunbed, keep your session short. Shorter tanning sessions lower the risk of burns and overheating.

Can you get a spray tan while pregnant?

It's best to avoid spray tans or mists during your pregnancy. While the ingredients within a spray tan don’t absorb through your skin, the possible effects of inhaling these products are unknown.

Many spray tans contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical that darkens your skin. DHA is the only color additive approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sunless tanning.

The FDA has only approved DHA for application on the outside of your skin and not for use in commercial spray tanning booths. This is because the FDA doesn’t have evidence to determine the safety of inhaling, ingesting, or getting the spray into your nose, eyes, lips, or mouth.

DHA is safe for your skin, but in some cases, it may cause side effects, including rashes, cough, dizziness, and fainting.

It’s unknown if pregnant individuals are at a greater risk of DHA exposure than non-pregnant individuals. Given the FDA’s concerns about inhaling or ingesting the ingredient, be cautious when applying spray tanning products.

When you use a spray tan, you don't know what inhaling these chemicals could do to you or your growing baby. Because of this, the NHS recommends that pregnant people avoid spray tans altogether.

Can you use a self-tanner while pregnant?

Most self-tanners are usually safe to use during pregnancy. However, there’s no research available on the potential complications that may arise from using this tanning product.

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Self-tanners also contain the active ingredient DHA. But, unlike spray tans, self-tanners are available as creams, lotions, or foams, so you won’t have to worry about accidentally inhaling or ingesting any potentially harmful ingredients.

Before purchasing self-tanner, make sure the product doesn’t contain any of the following ingredients:

  • Parabens. These chemicals are used as preservatives in cosmetics. Parabens are known to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and research reveals that prenatal paraben exposures are associated with lower birth size in female newborns.
  • Phthalates. These chemicals may increase the strength and flexibility of plastics and are often found in personal care products. Like parabens, phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may increase your child's risk of having learning, attention, and behavior problems.
  • Retinol (vitamin A). Retinol is a popular ingredient in skincare products that help exfoliate the skin and potentially increase collagen production. Vitamin A is necessary for fetal development, but excessive amounts may cause urinary tract malformations in your growing fetus.

Sun safety tips while pregnant

It’s recommended that you avoid tanning throughout your pregnancy if possible. However, it is important to take the right precautions to lower your risk of any conditions that could affect you or your baby’s health. While it’s unlikely that tanning will harm your growing baby directly, several pregnancy risks may come with direct sun exposure and tanning beds.

Sun safety while pregnant

Stay out of direct sun

It's best to limit direct exposure to the sun during pregnancy. Whether in your background or on the beach, find a shaded area that keeps you away from UV rays. You can also keep an umbrella on hand if you’re on the move.

If you can’t find shade or don’t have an umbrella on hand, avoid being in direct sunlight for more than 15 minutes. It goes without saying that tanning beds should not be used during pregnancy, nor are they recommended for anyone.

Use sunscreen or sunblock

Using sunscreen or sunblock during pregnancy can help protect your skin from the sun. Sunscreen, specifically broad-spectrum sunscreen, is helpful for preventing sunburn while pregnant against UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen should be liberally applied to any uncovered skin, including the nose, ears, neck, hands, feet, and lips.

Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure for optimal sun protection and reapply every two hours once outside. If you’re swimming or sweating, you’ll need to reapply your sunscreen more frequently.

Like tanning products, some sunscreens may contain ingredients that may potentially harm your growing baby. With this in mind, you’ll want to get a pregnancy-safe sunscreen, which is any sunscreen that:

  • Is free of harmful chemicals and fragrances, like parabens and oxybenzone
  • Contains active ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide
  • Has a broad-spectrum formula with an SPF of 30 or higher
  • Is water resistant

Wear protective clothing

Cover any exposed skin with long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses, and broad-brim hats. You can also opt for sun-protective clothing specially designed to protect your skin from the sun. Sun-protective clothing is typically made of polyester, nylon, and satin, as these fabrics can reflect UV radiation. In addition, don't forget to wear protective eyewear since the eyes can get damaged from UV rays as well.

Avoid peak hours

The sun’s UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. During these hours, avoiding or limiting your time in the sun is best. Also, keep in mind that UV rays can penetrate the clouds, so it's important to use creams with an SPF no matter the weather.

Stay hydrated

Keep water on hand while spending time in the sun to avoid dehydration. Drink water before, during, and after sun exposure. Generally, pregnant people should drink 8–12 glasses of water daily to stay hydrated.

Tanning is a common practice many use to darken their skin, but it poses many health risks. While there’s no research available on the direct connections between tanning and pregnancy, it’s known that prolonged UV radiation may be potentially harmful to the mother and the baby.

If you decide to tan during your pregnancy, use artificial tanning products, like self-tanners, rather than sitting in the sun or getting in a tanning bed. If you have concerns about tanning and prenatal care, seek advice from a health professional.

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