Skin changes are a common problem faced by pregnant women and are reported to often cause much stress and frustration to sufferers. This page looks briefly at some of the common skin conditions linked to pregnancy and the role in which diet can play.
The human skin is composed of different layers. The outer layer is called the epidermis, which is composed of several sheets of skin cells that continually replace one another as they are damaged or die. The dermis layer sits below this and is composed of collagen and elastic fibres which gives skin its tensile strength and integrity. This layer also contains important structures such as sweat glands, sebaceous glands that release sebum or ‘oil’, hair follicles, blood vessels and nerves. The subcutaneous tissue layer then lies underneath this and contains fat stores. When you develop skin conditions it means that there has been disruption to these important structures.
Skin conditions can either be a specific pregnancy-related skin condition, caused by natural pregnancy hormonal changes, or a pre-existing skin condition that is worsened during pregnancy.
What are some of the common skin conditions?
1. Stretch Marks
- Stretch marks, or striae gravidarum, are a very common problem in pregnancy, affecting between 50-80% of women. These develop in body parts that face greatest mechanical stress, such as abdomen, buttocks, breasts and thighs, usually from around 24 weeks onwards as your body accommodates your growing baby. Initially these stretch marks can be quite angry in appearance, usually dark red, brown or purple lines. However once your baby is born these lines over time fade to a white or light pink colour, which eventually turns into a permanent silver shimmering colour.
- Stretch marks form when your skin is stretched beyond its capacity, causing the underlying tissue to tear. During pregnancy there is also less adhesiveness or ‘stickiness’ between the collagen fibres, meaning that your skin has reduced tensile strength and elasticity and is prone to stretching in this an unfavourable manner.
- You are more likely to develop stretch marks if you gain a large amount of weight or at a more rapid pace than your body can manage. Other factors that place you at a higher risk also include being of younger age, having a larger baby on board, being overweight prior to your pregnancy, poor nutrition, or a family history of stretch marks.
- Acne develops when the pores in our skin become clogged with oil or ‘sebum’. Your skin can either develop whiteheads where the pore containing the excess oil and dead skin is closed, blackheads or ‘open pores’ whereby the pore is open and you can see its oil and skin contents, or become red, swollen and inflamed as the bacteria that normally live in our skin take over the pores.
- During pregnancy you are more vulnerable to developing acne due to large number of circulating hormones that increase the function of the oil glands, leading to increased secretion of oil and pimple breakouts. If you already suffer from acne problems then this is more likely to occur.
- Diet can also play a role in the development of acne. Being obese results in disruption and weakening of the normal skin structure due to the large amount of fat found in subcutaneous tissue layer. In addition both being obese and consuming a diet high in sugar causes your body to release more insulin, resulting in further release of other hormones that both favour oil secretion and increase acne severity.
- The amount of zinc in our diet is also very important to skin function as zinc suppresses oil production as well as has an antibacterial effect on the organisms responsible for inflammation seen with acne. A diet high in antioxidants such as Vitamin E and C is also said to lower the risk of acne formation. In addition, although are limited in evidence, a diet higher in omega 3 fatty acids is said to reduce the amount of inflammation associated with acne formation, in comparison to diets high in omega 6 fatty acids.
- Melasma is known as the ‘mask of pregnancy’ and refers to when dark splotches appear on your face, most commonly on your forehead and cheeks. This condition is common and is seen in 50-70% pregnant women. It occurs due to the increased pigmentation and change in hormones that occur with pregnancy, and will fade during the postpartum period. You are more prone to developing melasma if you have a darker complexion or are exposed to large periods of sunlight. Treatment for this condition centres on sun protection as well as pigment lightening agents such as creams or diet as mentioned below.
4. Other skin conditions
- Linea nigra refers to the dark line that forms on your abdomen, running from your umbilicus to the pubic bone. It forms as a result of hormonal changes as well as increased pigmentation that occurs during pregnancy, and is not harmful and will fade after pregnancy. You may also develop a pregnancy glow due to the increase in blood your body is pumping around throughout the pregnancy. This will sometimes result in a much brighter and redder face, or ‘glow’ as some may call it, however is also not harmful and fades with time.
What can I do to help prevent skin conditions occurring?
There is no simple cure for fixing skin problems faced in pregnancy, however you can alter your diet in many ways to help achieve healthy skin. Listed are some suggestions:
- Healthy weight gain throughout pregnancy – By following the weight gain recommendations listed in the following table, this will help prevent the development of stretch marks, as well as reduce the risk of developing gestational diabetes.
- Consume a ‘low GI diet’ or foods with a low glycaemic index – This will ensure your body sugar levels are kept to a minimum and remain stable throughout the day, improving insulin sensitivity and resulting in less oil being secreted by your glands. See Dietary Recommendations in Gestational Diabetes for more details.
- Ensure a good amount of Vitamin C in the diet – Diet is the sole source of Vitamin C in humans however the amount delivered to the skin is very limited. Foods high in Vitamin C include oranges, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries and kiwifruit. Vitamin C creams are also available which supply the skin directly with Vitamin C.
- Consume foods high in zinc – See the page Zinc for more details.
- Ensure adequate water intake – This will help flush the skin and avoid dehydration. Aim to have at least 8 glasses of water per day.
- Use of lotions for preventing stretch marks – Some women use lotions such as cocoa butter, baby oil, and almond oil to help prevent or reduce the severity of stretch marks. A recent review has shown that there is no scientific evidence that any treatment will remove these permanently, however these are harmless and can be trialled.