Swollen ankles and raging heartburn aside, pregnancy does have its perks. There’s the obvious payoff at the end: a chubby-cheeked baby who you can mold in your own image and train to love you unconditionally. Plus, a baby bump is like a Fast Pass for bathroom lines that doubles as a get-out-of-weekend-plans-free card. Then there’s the so-called pregnancy glow, which is the notion that pregnant women are magically #blessed with the most radiant skin of their lives.
Apparently, the stork passed me over for the latter benefit.
While pregnancy finally gave me the voluptuous figure my seventh-grade self pined for in a very Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret kind of way, my skin also reverted to its teen years.
Almost as soon as that second line appeared on my pregnancy test, a mountain range of cystic acne sprouted on my back, stubborn pimples dotted my jawline, and zits appeared where they never had before (apparently shoulder acne is a thing, who knew?). It was painful and embarrassing. At one particularly low point, while I was still keeping my bun-in-the-oven under wraps, I had to enlist my husband to color-correct and conceal each body pustule so that I could attend a fancy Beverly Hills party in an upper-back-bearing dress.
I came to resent the idea of the pregnancy glow. I mean, I was literally growing another human being inside my body, and I was supposed to glow while doing it? How could I possibly feel at my most radiant at the same time Kleenex commercials brought me to tears and the smell of Cheerios made me want to gag? Give me a break.
But despite my exasperation with my skin’s rebellion, the journalist in me was intrigued. Was there any truth to this mythical glow? Was it a lie concocted by the patriarchy? Or was it just something we projected on moms-to-be to take a little bit of the suck out of pregnancy? More importantly, where was mine?
Turns out, the pregnancy glow isn’t quite as big of a myth as some other pregnancy old wives’ tales. It originates in part from your boosted blood flow—your body may be pumping as much as 50 percent more blood during pregnancy. “Your vessels dilate to make sure your fetus gets enough oxygen,” says Ava Shamban, MD, a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and author of Heal Your Skin. “Along with the blood flow, you get more nutrients and increased cell turnover. Everything is happier.”
Hormones are at play here, too, according to Dr. Scott Sullivan, MD, Director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Your hormone levels go up really, really high,” he says. The increase of androgens in particular—a class of testosterone hormones coming from the placenta and ovaries—may increase the amount of oil, or sebum, produced by your glands.
Pregnant women react to the cocktail of hormones coursing through their veins in different ways. Some spend their whole first trimester praying to the porcelain gods; others waltz through their entire pregnancy without a whiff of nausea. For some women, this extra oil production may result in that dewy, effervescent glow; for women like myself, it can wreak absolute havoc on the skin.
So is there any hope for us pimpled preggos—or should we just resign ourselves to purchasing a face-concealing veil along with those roomy maternity pants? Over 40 weeks of pregnancy I’d developed an intimate enough relationship with “Dr. Google” to know that heavy-duty zit-zappers, like retinoids, are off limits for expecting moms, and the actual doctors I talked to confirmed as much. Instead, they recommend using a cleanser with glycolic acid, an ingredient that helps gently exfoliate and clear excess oil without harming the mini-me growing inside you.
Another thing that could help? Ditching the expectation that as our bodies work overtime to nurture the small human inside us—at the expense of our physical comfort—we should also be the shiniest, prettiest versions of ourselves.
Photo: Getty Images