What’s Really in Your Prenatal Vitamins?

You know prenatals are important for a healthy pregnancy but did you know that there are undesirable ingredients lurking in your prenatal vitamins too?

No doubt about it: prenatal vitamins are essential for a healthy pregnancy.  But not all ingredients in your prenatal vitamin are actually good for you, let alone your growing baby.  Read below for a list of the potentially harmful ingredients found in popular prescription prenatal vitamin brands.  If you find any of these ingredients in your own prenatal vitamin you may want to consider making the switch to a different brand.  For more information on “food-derived” prenatal vitamins, check out this upcoming post: “What is the Best Prenatal Vitamin?”

WHY PRENATAL VITAMINS ARE IMPORTANT:

The first time you visit your OBGYN and they confirm that you are indeed pregnant, the next question out of their mouth is sure to be: “Have you started taking your prenatal vitamins?”  And with good cause.  The first 21 days after fertilization, (when most women don’t even know they are pregnant) are the most crucial in the development of your baby’s life.  At this time the zygote, blastocyst and then embryo is most susceptible to external factors because the placenta has not yet been developed.  At 21 days, the gender and basic body plan of the soon-to-be fetus is established, and the developmental future of every cell in the embryo is already set.

Just because you pick these up from the doctor doesn't mean they are "safe" to take. Beware of the source of your DHA supplements, those derived from fish oil can be toxic.

The general scientific consensus about which vitamins are actually beneficial to the human body has shifted significantly in the last decade.  Recent scientific studies regarding Vitamins A, E, folic acid and fish oil supplements have proven that it is far healthier for us to get our vitamins and minerals from the foods we eat and not a synthesized pill.  It would be very difficult for mothers to get all of their daily vitamin requirements from the foods they eat alone, and in the first trimester it is hard for many pregnant women to eat much at all.  So, vitamins are still a must for mothers-to-be who want to ensure the best start for their babies.  Unfortunately, OBGYNs have not taken heed of the current scientific consensus on vitamins and continue to prescribe prenatals with potentially damaging ingredients.

ARE PRESCRIPTION PRENATAL VITAMINS BETTER?

After getting these prescription prenatals as samples from my OBGYN, I decided to research what was really inside them.

When I went to my first OBGYN appointment and then got home to check out my pregnancy “swag bag,” my doctor’s office had supplied me with quite a few samples of prescription prenatal vitamins.  The first thing I did was read down the “inactive” ingredient list.  This is the list of ingredients that help to bind all of the vitamins and minerals into a pill form and supposedly keep them from interacting with each other.  All I can say is: WOW!  It should be criminal to give these out as samples let alone prescribe them!  Bottom line: Just because they are prescription prenatal vitamins does not mean they are better than other over-the-counter brands on the market.

Here are the samples I received and their dirty little secrets:

(1) NexaSelect (Prescription Prenatal Vitamin with DHA) (2) NeeVo DHA (3) Nestabs DHA:

  • ethyl vanillin: A synthetic compound that is 3½ times stronger in flavor than real vanilla, although the flavor is not quite the same.  It is used as a substitute for vanilla in foods and perfumes, because it is less expensive and keeps better in storage and transport.  This chemical ingredient is clearly not beneficial to mother or baby.
  • FD&C Yellow #6, Red #40, Blue #1: Artificial food colorings; in recent studies Red #40 has been shown to be linked to behavioral problems in children (see sources below).  What’s wrong with having a brown vitamin?  Just because we are women doesn’t mean we have to have a fuchsia colored vitamin!
  • titanium dioxide: Caused cancer in rats who inhaled it and considered a human carcinogen by the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety.  Titanium Dioxide is also used in mineral-based sunscreens, and recent concerns have arisen on the use of nano-sized particles of the ingredient that can be absorbed through the skin.  Just imagine the exposure when ingesting it daily!
  • propylene glycol: Found in anti-freeze, brake fluids, deodorant, and many other consumer products.  Although it is on the US Food and Drug Administration’s list of ingredients which are “Generally Recognized As Safe,” propylene glycol s far from “good for you.”  Propylene glycol penetrates skin quickly and helps to add moisture to products.  The fact that the EPA warns factory workers to “avoid skin contact to prevent brain, liver and kidney abnormalities,” leads many to believe this is should be a product to stay away from.  According to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), propylene glycol is implicated in “contact dermatitis, kidney damage and liver abnormalities; can inhibit skin cell growth in human tests and can dmanage cell membranes causing rashes, dry skin and surface damage.”  The MSDS also warn of acute effects if propylene glycol is inhaled, ingested or put on the skin.  Along with skin irritation, it can cause gastrointestinal disturbances, nausea, headaches, vomiting and central nervous depression.  The last thing I want in my prenatal vitamin is the main ingredient in my deodorant!

    Make sure the prenatal vitamins you are taking don't have any of these potentially harmful ingredients in them.

  • shellac glaze: Shellac is made from the secretions of Laccifer lacca, better known as the lac scale bug.  “Scale insects look quite different from typical insects. Tiny, often with no visible legs or antennae, they kind of look like plant pimples.  Lac scales secrete a waxy resin covering for both protection and waterproofing.”  That waxy substance is what’s harvested to make shellac.  Shellac keeps products from retaining moisture and are even used as coatings for popular candies such as M&Ms (gross!).  The next time you get a Shellac mani or pedi just remind yourself your nails are covered with insect secretions!  With so many alternatives that could be used on the market, why oh why should we ingest bug secretions that we would never come into contact with in our daily lives?
  • simethicone: An oral anti-foaming agent used to reduce bloating, discomfort and pain caused by excess gas in the stomach or intestinal tract.  Simethicone is a chemical whose purpose is to relieve gas by reducing the strength of the gas bubbles. It does this by allowing smaller bubbles to combine into larger bubbles in the digestive tract.  There have been reports of nausea, stomach upset, dry mouth, drowsiness, dizziness, or constipation when taking this chemical.  With all the uncomfortable side-effects of just being pregnant, why make it potentially worse by risking a bad reaction to this drug?
  • polyvinyl alcohol-partially hydrolyzed: Polyvinyl alcohols (PVAs) are synthetic polymers used in a wide range of industrial, commercial, medical and food applications.  Typically used as a coating agent for pharmaceutical and dietary supplement products.  Although considered a safe chemical for its intended use, I find issue with the fact that the majority of this chemical on the market is produced in China.  For more information on manufacturing and agricultural practices in China, see our “Is Fruit From China Safe?” post.  The main thing here, it it’s just not needed.
  • PEG 3350: Otherwise known as polyethlene glycol and the pharmaceutical brand MiraLax, PEG 3350 is a laxative that increases the amount of water in the intestinal tract to stimulate bowel movements.  Treats occasional constipation or irregular bowel movements.  “This drug has been assigned to pregnancy category C by the FDA, this means that it may not be safe for use during pregnancy, although the full risks are currently unknown.”  It is advised that “you will need to discuss the benefits and risks of using Polyethylene Glycol-3350 Powder for Oral Solution while you are pregnant and breastfeeding.”  It is unknown whether PEG 3350 passes in breast milk.  Allergic reactions have been reported to the FDA, if you experience skin hives or rash stop taking the drug.  Can also cause nausea and vomiting, abdominal swelling and cramps.  The fact that several prescription prenatals contain a drug that “may not be safe for use during pregnancy” is very disturbing.  Just drink more water and eat more fiber if you have the number two blues!
  • talc: Because talc is resistant to moisture, it is used by the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture medications and is a listed ingredient of some antacids (like Tums). Talc is the principal ingredient in home and garden pesticides and flea and tick powders.  Talc is used in smaller quantities in deodorants, chalk, crayons, textiles, soap, insulating materials, paints, asphalt filler, paper, and in food processing. “Talc is closely related to the potent carcinogen asbestos.  Talc particles have been shown to cause tumors in the ovaries and lungs of cancer victims. For the last 30 years, scientists have closely scrutinized talc particles and found dangerous similarities to asbestos.  Responding to this evidence in 1973, the FDA drafted a resolution that would limit the amount of asbestos-like fibers in cosmetic grade talc.  However, no ruling has ever been made and today, cosmetic grade talc remains non-regulated by the federal government.  This inaction ignores a 1993 National Toxicology Program report which found that cosmetic grade talc, without any asbestos-like fibers, caused tumors in animal subjects.  (See Cancer Prevention Collation source below for more information).  Why would this be allowed into a prenatal vitamin that you take daily, if just cosmetic use is harmful?
  • DHA from fish oil:  Most prenatal manufacturers have caught on to the health risks of ingesting fish oil and have switched to algae or yeast based DHA.  The reason for this shift is that fish and fish oil are the two most polluted foods on the earth because of the environmental contaminants, PCBs, mercury, and lead found in fish.  No matter how hard a manufacturer may try to filter out these contaminants, fish oil pills are never 100% free of environmental pollutants.  These contaminants actually counteract the benefits of taking a DHA supplement because they cause inflammation instead of decreasing it.  For a more thorough explanation of the health risks of taking a fish oil supplement, see our “Are Fish Oil Pills Good for You?” post.  Sadly, not all prenatal vitamins that contain DHA have stopped using fish oil.  DHA is critical to the brain development of your baby but do not risk exposing her to high levels of environmental pollutants!

A note on (4) CitraNatal Harmony: this sample did not list the inactive or other ingredients used in its pills.  I even looked at the company’s webpage and FAQs, finding nothing.  In my opinion, not a good sign!

Interested in a cleaner prenatal vitamin that’s derived from natural, organic foods?  Check out our upcoming post: “What is the best prenatal vitamin?”

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Sources:

Cancer Prevention Coalition website, “Talc FAQs.”

Nutrition Facts.org website, “Is Distilled Fish Oil Toxin-Free?” by Michael Greger M.D., May 11, 2011.

The Examining Room of Dr. Charles, “Prenatal Vitamins. Necessary? Sufficient? Safe?” Oct. 19, 2010.

Natural News.com, “Titanium Dioxide in Vitamins and Supplements: Is it Safe for Human Consumption?” by Mike Adams, Sept. 9, 2009.

Toms of Maine Company Website, Ingredient Details for “Propylene Glycol.”

The Real Essentials, “Propylene Glycol in Cake” by Rufina James.

Bug Girl’s Blog, “Shellac: It’s a bug AND a feature!,” Feb. 14, 2011.

EZine Articles, “Simethicone and Baby Gas” by Abby Humphrey.

SciVerse, “Review of the oral toxicity of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)” by C.C DeMerlis & D.R Schoneker.

Trade Korea.com (Global e-Marketplace), Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA) fact sheet.

Drugs.com, Polyethlene Glycol (PEG 3350) fact sheet.

Drugs.com, “Polyethylene Glycol 3350 Pregnancy and Breastfeeding Warnings” fact sheet.

eMedTV.com, Health Savvy, “Precautions and Warnings With Polyethylene Glycol 3350” fact sheet.

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Comments

  1. lisa

    Such an important issue I did alot of research to when we were planning to start trying I went with the brand Rainbow Light Organic vitamins and just the Lipil dha supplement that is not made by fish. I agree food based is better and Aiden is healthy as s bull thank goodness :+)

    Reply
  2. FUTURE MRS. W

    GEESH! I am glad I read this now We just had the wedding and honeymoon we were waiting to start for when I had been on a pre natal vitamin and I was just goint to my obgyn to get one. I will be sure to read EVERY ingredient. This is great information THANK YOU THANK YOU!

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    WoW I wish I’d a known about this way back when I was pregnant with DD. She is 7 now and thriving so I suppose no harm no foul but the less junk the better

    Reply
  4. SheilaSellsSeashells

    i hasve heard of this and i stopped taking my regular vitamins cause of the vit A and folic acid  in there  but in prenatals should be more regulation

    Reply
  5. Gabby R. Wilson

    Wow this is great information for me when we are bout to start trying next year. All i remember with my daughter was that my ob didn’t want me to take fish oil pills and I guess now I know why. Its scary to find out these things and why doesn’t the medical community do something about it!!!!

    Reply
    1. hipchicka3

       my dr sais the same about the fish oil pills back then i didnt know about how polluted they are and i used to take them happy that my dr was one of the smart ones 😀

      Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Great to know since I am trying for baby #2.  You have to give me the name of the one’s you took while pregnant.

    Reply
  7. Cassandra

    Hi,
    Just wondering if I should hack my prenatal pill up I just took? DHA added FROM FISH OIL!! Nature Made Prenatal Multi +DHA I have severe anxiety, and am having a panic attack as we speak. I had no idea my vitamins even had this in it. And it’s being absorbed tp be given to babies through us. What in God’s name? I’m new to all of this “eye opening enlightenment”. You think I should be done, just don’t take anymore. No medical advice needed, just from mom to mom. Please, any advice would help. Thanks.

    Reply

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