How to treat common skin problems in pregnancy

Stretch marks, problem skin and varicose veins are all common in pregnancy.
Stretch marks, problem skin and varicose veins are all common in pregnancy. 

Unlike the sought-after pregnancy ‘glow’, many skin changes in pregnancy can be uncomfortable and make mums-to-be feel unattractive. The good news is that these pregnancy symptoms are hormone-related, which means they’ll subside and maybe even disappear once you’ve given birth. And in the meantime, there’s lots you can do to ease the discomfort.

Here are a few common skin problems experienced in pregnancy, and how to treat them.

Pigmentation 

Of all of the skin changes that occur during pregnancy, pigmentation is perhaps the most noticeable. Women with pigmentation can develop dark patches on the face, particularly along the cheek bone and upper lip. You might also notice a dark line from your navel to your pubic bone, and the skin around your nipples may darken. 

Dr Lorraine Baker, a GP from AMA Victoria, says pigmentation is extremely common, especially in dark-skinned women. She says that it will fade gradually after pregnancy, but you can do something about it: because exposure to sunlight can worsen the condition, using a sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB will reduce or even prevent it. 

“If women are concerned that pigmentation may happen, or it’s happened in a past pregnancy, they would be well advised to invest in a really good facial sunscreen that they can apply every day, especially if they’re pregnant during high summer,” says Dr Baker. 

Stretch marks 

About 90 per cent of women experience stretch marks by the third trimester. They appear as pink and purple lines or bands on the stomach, bottom, breasts, thighs or arms, and are more common in women carrying larger babies, younger women and overweight women. 

Dr Baker says stretch marks during adolescent growth spurts are usually a good predictor of stretch marks during pregnancy. “If you got stretch marks on your thighs as you were growing taller as an adolescent, you’re more likely to get stretch marks when you’re pregnant,” she says. 

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Unfortunately there’s no evidence that vitamin E cream, cocoa butter, aloe vera lotion or olive oil – all of which are commonly sold as a treatments – are actually effective in helping prevent the marks, although they can help relieve any itching that may occur when they skin is stretching. 

According to Fiona Tuck, managing director of Skinstitut Australia, the best way to prevent them is with a vitamin and mineral-rich diet. 

“Pregnant women need vitamin D, zinc and essential fatty acids, which will help to support the [skin’s] integrity,” she says. “What’s quite interesting is there’s a very strong correlation between excessive stretch marks and a zinc deficiency, so it’s important to get enough zinc in your diet.” 

Meat, fish and poultry are good sources of zinc, while oily fish, kale, spinach and salad greens are rich in essential fatty acids. 

Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D – just make sure you limit your exposure to early morning and evening to protect against pigmentation. 

Eating sensibly to avoid gaining too much weight and wearing a supportive bra throughout pregnancy are also thought to reduce the risk of stretch marks. 

Acne 

Even though those pimply teen years are a distant memory for many mums, pregnancy can cause break outs. Pregnancy acne isn’t any different to the bad skin associated with adolescence, so the best treatment is a regular skincare regimen. Wash your face with a mild cleanser twice daily, exfoliate regularly, and avoid scratching, popping or squeezing any pimples. It’s also a good idea to stick to oil-free cosmetics.   

“To keep acne under control, exfoliation is the best method because it prevents the build-up of dead skin cells and helps to remove excess sebum,” says Tuck. 

Acne typically clears up after the first trimester, but if it persists there’s not much you can do beyond a good skincare routine. “Acne is quite an unpredictable thing during pregnancy, and unfortunately you can’t use a lot of acne treatments during pregnancy because they’re toxic to the foetus,” says Dr Baker. 

Once you’ve had your baby and your hormones settle down you should see your skin returning to its previous state. 

Varicose veins

During pregnancy, high levels of the hormones relaxin and oestrogen cause your veins to become more relaxed. You also have more fluid circulating in your blood stream, which increases the chances of fluid leaking into tissues. These create the perfect conditions developing varicose veins, especially in your hands and feet. 

“The good news is that once all of those hormones drop, those conditions tend to get better – although varicose veins can be persistent in the legs, as once the vein has been structurally changed it just doesn’t recover fully,” says Dr Baker. 

To reduce your risk of varicose veins, Tuck recommends regular movement to promote good circulation in your arms and legs. Try not to stand for long periods of time without a break, if you can help it. And as boring and unattractive as it sounds, support stockings can also help relieve pressure.