Skin changes

Pregnancy hormones can spur several changes in your skin. For some lucky women, the main change is the famous healthy glow, which happens as a result of increased circulation in the tiny blood vessels just beneath the surface of your skin. But many women notice a variety of other, less desirable skin changes.

Skin darkening. This is one of the most common skin changes, occurring in 90 percent of all pregnant women. The darkening can affect your cheeks, chin, nose, forehead, navel, armpits, inner thighs and the area between your vulva and anus (perineum). In addition, the areas of skin that are already pigmented get even darker, most noticeably on or around your nipples and external labia — the thicker folds of tissue on both sides of your vagina.

When the pale line that runs from your navel to your pubic bone darkens, it's referred to as the linea nigra (see also Linea nigra). Skin darkening on the face is referred to as the mask of pregnancy, or melasma (see also Mask of pregnancy).

Skin darkening is likely the result of increased melatonin, which has important roles in the developing fetus. It typically fades after you give birth, although some areas of increased pigmentation, such as the nipples and labia, are likely to remain darker than they were before you were pregnant.

Vascular spiders. Vascular spiders (spider nevi) typically appear only during pregnancy. The name comes from the way they look — tiny, reddish spots with raised lines of tiny blood vessels branching out from the center, like spider legs. Caused by increased blood circulation, vascular spiders are most likely to show up on your face, neck, upper chest or arms. They don't cause pain or discomfort, and they usually disappear within a few weeks after you give birth.

Stretch marks. Pink or purplish streaks on the abdomen, breasts, upper arms, buttocks and thighs are common in about half of the pregnant women. (See also Stretch marks.)

Acne. You may develop acne when you're pregnant, or your acne may improve. Some topical treatments can be used. (See also Acne.)

Moles and freckles. You may get new moles while pregnant, although they're usually not the type that are linked to skin cancer. Existing moles, freckles and skin blemishes may also become darker during pregnancy.

Itchiness. The stretching and tightening of the skin across your abdomen can leave it dry and itchy. Some women also experience itchi-ness all over their body. Heat rashes and other types of rashes also can cause itchiness. (See also Itchiness; Rashes.)

Red palms and soles. Two-thirds of pregnant women find that their palms and the soles of their feet become red. The redness fades after delivery. (See also Red palms and soles.)

Perspiration. Pregnant women often perspire more (see also Perspiration).

Rashes. Heat rashes are common during pregnancy, due to increased perspiration. Other rashes also may develop (see also Rashes).

Skin tags. Small, loose growths of skin may appear under your arms or breasts (see also Skin growths or tags).

Soft fingernails. Some women experience problems with their fingernails during pregnancy. This is temporary and not a sign of serious disease.

Self-care for skin changes

If areas of your skin have darkened and it concerns you, avoid getting too much sun. Skin darkening during pregnancy is made worse by exposure to sunlight or other sources of ultraviolet (UV) light. When you're outdoors, wear a sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Remember that the sun's UV rays can still reach your skin even on cloudy or overcast days. You may also want to wear a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face. Makeup can help with areas of skin darkening on your face.

For itchiness, keep your skin lubricated with a good moisturizing cream. Moisturize your nails as well as your hands, and wear rubber gloves when using detergents or cleansers.

■ When to seek medical help for skin changes

If your skin darkening or itchiness is extreme, talk to your health care provider. A medicated ointment may help the itching. Occasionally, a skin change might be a sign of something more serious. Contact your health care provider if:

• A particular mole changes noticeably in size or appearance. You may want to show any new moles to your health care provider. Even though moles caused by pregnancy are not related to skin cancer, you could develop a melanoma during pregnancy, and it's critical to detect these tumors early.

• Puffy eyelids occur along with a sudden weight increase — 5 pounds or more within a week. Sudden weight gain and puffiness could indicate developing preeclampsia.

• Severe itching develops late in your pregnancy without a rash.

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