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Pregnancy Acne: How to Diminish It?

It is not uncommon for pregnant women to experience acne flare-ups. These skin manifestations are triggered by the hormonal upheavals associated with pregnancy. Discover here some actions to soothe them.

Published May 23, 2023, updated on March 4, 2024, by Pauline, Head of Scientific Communication — 7 min read

Why are pregnant women prone to acne?

During pregnancy, there is an increase in the secretion of an essential steroidal hormone known as progesterone. This hormone functions by binding to a receptor in the sebaceous glands, which stimulates the production of sebum. Sebum is a component of the hydrolipidic film present on the skin's surface, ensuring its hydration and protection.

However, when sebum is produced in large quantities, it creates an environment conducive to bacterial proliferation and theemergence of blemishes. The bacteria Cutibacterium acnes, which partly contribute to acne, feed on the triglycerides found in sebum. Therefore, an increase in progesterone production during pregnancy can sometimes cause acne flare-ups, particularly if your skin is naturally oily.

Pregnancy Acne: Active Ingredients to Avoid.

Pregnancy is a period of risk for both the mother and child that requires constant vigilance . Therefore, certain compounds usually recommended for combating acne, due to their high effectiveness, are discouraged during pregnancy. This is particularly the case for the following active ingredients.

  • Retinoids.

    Oral retinoids, primarily used in acne treatment such as isotretinoin, are strictly contraindicated in pregnant women, as they are teratogenic. Indeed, this compound results in malformations in the newborn in 20% of cases. Other retinoids often used topically, like retinol, are also discouraged during pregnancy, as they are also suspected of being teratogenic. Studies on this subject diverge, but several cases of congenital malformations have been reported following the application of this type of compound during pregnancy.

  • Benzoyl peroxide.

    This is a molecule well-known for its effectiveness in inhibiting the formation of comedones. However, its use as a first-line treatment is not recommended for pregnant women. This is a precautionary measure, as no study to date has shown a negative effect on the development of the foetus or on the mother's health. Nevertheless, studies on animals have shown that it has negative effects on their offspring.

    Given that the cited animal studies are somewhat marginal, benzoyl peroxide is still prescribed today to pregnant women suffering from severe acne or those on whom other treatments have shown no effect.

What treatments can alleviate pregnancy acne?

If you are experiencing acne during your pregnancy, it is recommended to consult a dermatologist or a healthcare professional, who can guide you towards suitable treatments.

  • Antibiotics.

    In instances of acne during pregnancy, antibiotics can sometimes be prescribed to women. Applied topically or taken orally, they help combat the bacterial proliferation of Cutibacterium acnes and assist in restoring smooth skin. One of the most commonly used is erythromycin, which possesses anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. It is typically found in solutions of 2 to 4%.

    Erythromycin exerts a bacteriostatic activity by inhibiting the growth of bacteria responsible for acne. It penetrates bacterial cells and interferes with their reproductive mechanism, thereby reducing their number and impact on the skin. Regarding its anti-inflammatory action, erythromycin works by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators and reducing the activity of enzymes that trigger inflammation, such as cyclooxygenases (COX). The COX enzymes, particularly COX-2, are responsible for the conversion of arachidonic acid into prostaglandins E2, molecules that cause inflammatory and painful effects.

  • The zinc gluconate.

    This is an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and mattifying agent. It inhibits the growth of bacteria responsible for acne by interfering with their ability to divide and form new cells. Zinc gluconate can also reduce the adhesion of Cutibacterium acnes to hair follicles or sebaceous glands, thereby limiting its proliferation.

    Furthermore, it reduces the production of certain inflammatory mediators, such as pro-inflammatory cytokines, interleukins, and prostaglandins. Zinc gluconate can also modulate the activity of enzymes involved in inflammation such as 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX). This latter is expressed by leukocytes and is responsible for the synthesis of leukotrienes, lipid mediators of inflammation.

    Finally, zinc gluconate inhibits the activity of 5-alpha-reductase, an enzyme involved in the synthesis of sebum by the sebaceous glands. The concentration of zinc gluconate used in creams or fluids targeting acne is generally between 0.5 and 2%.

  • Theazelaic acid.

    This is a safe ingredient during pregnancy that does not involve any harmful side effects. Research has shown that it has an anti-bacterial action against Cutibacterium acnes. It is notably capable ofinhibiting the growth of these bacteria and interfering with metabolic mechanisms essential to them, thereby reducing the bacterial load.

    Azelaic acid also possesses anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have demonstrated that it inhibits the secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukins IL-1β and IL-6, and the transcription factor TNF-α. Furthermore, azelaic acid promotes the regulation of kallikrein-5 in epidermal keratinocytes, which in turn, lower cathelicidins, thereby reducing inflammatory processes.

    Finally, this active ingredient promotes the natural exfoliation of the skin, which limits the accumulation of dead cells on the skin surface and thus the risk of pore obstruction. Azelaic acid is found in topical medicinal treatments for acne at concentrations generally ranging between 15 and 20%.

  • Potentially, benzoyl peroxide.

    This molecule is well-known to those prone to acne. As described above, benzoyl peroxide is prescribed to pregnant women when they suffer from severe acne or when other treatments have not been effective. Benzoyl peroxide works by releasing active oxygen, an oxidant that will react with Cutibacterium acnes and disrupt its metabolism and its cell membranes. It also acts as a keratolytic which will limit the risk of skin pores being blocked by dead cells.

    Furthermore, benzoyl peroxide reduces inflammation by inhibiting the production of inflammatory mediators such as cytokines and prostaglandins. It can also modulate the activity of immune cells that play a key role in the body's inflammatory response, such as neutrophils and monocytes. All of this helps to alleviate the redness and spots associated with acne.

    Typical topical treatments for acne containing benzoyl peroxide usually utilise concentrations between 2.5 and 10%. It's worth noting that some clinical studies have shown that concentrations of 2.5 and 5% proved to be just as effective as a concentration of 10%, whilst reducing the risk of side effects, such as skin dryness.


  • TEY H. & al. Treatment of acne vulgaris during pregnancy and lactation. Drugs (2013).

  • DESESSO J. & al. Teratogen update : topical use dans third-generation retinoids. Birth Defects Research (2020).

  • SETZER W. & al. Maternal reproductive toxicity of some essential oils and their constituents. International Journal of Molecular Sciences (2021).


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