The products we use to enhance beauty have an ugly track record.
If there is a bottle of baby powder lurking in the back of your cupboard, pitch it. That's not a substance you want anywhere near your body, even if its maker Johnson & Johnson continues to insist it's safe, contrary to reams of scientific evidence. The dangers of talc, baby powder's main ingredient, as well as other chemicals used in cosmetics, are the topic of an alarming new documentary, "Toxic Beauty," written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Phyllis Ellis.
The 90-minute film takes a deep dive into the lives of women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer as a result of their lifelong baby powder use. One of these is brave whistleblower Deane Berg, an American woman who turned down a $1.3-million settlement from Johnson & Johnson in order to take them to court and speak publicly about the health risks of their products.Speaking with doctors, researchers, lawyers, regulators, and cancer survivors, the film explores the way in which other cosmetic products are made, with next to no regulation from the Food and Drug Administration. And yet, both women and men slather these products onto their bodies (and in sensitive places) day after day, year after year. Many of the ingredients are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, with lasting impact on health and reproduction, but you'll rarely see a warning label in the beauty aisle.
In the words of Dr. David Michaels, a professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and author of Doubt Is Their Product, interviewed in the film:
"The FDA works very hard on drugs, medical devices, perhaps a little less well on food, [but] protecting people from dangerous materials in cosmetics is not even in the back seat – it's not even in the car!"
Cosmetic regulations haven't been updated since the 1930s, and the film is interspersed with examples of products marketed throughout the past century that had a disastrous effect on health, such as burnt inner eyelid linings causing blindness from an eyelash treatment supposed to make them thick and lustrous.
Running parallel to the film's talc-ovarian cancer storyline is another one following medical student and makeup lover Mymy Nguyen, who becomes concerned about her body's chemical burden. She embarks on an experiment to measure how chemical levels differ when she uses her regular cosmetic products, cuts them all out, and replaces with 'clean' alternatives. The results are shocking; most people don't realize how immediate the impact is when they apply chemicals to the body – and how quickly they can get rid of them.
Rick Smith, co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck and Toxin Toxout, assists Nguyen in setting up her experiment. He makes an interesting observation that there are two major pollution crises in the world right now – climate change and personal care products – and the latter is receiving next to no attention, despite the fact that it immediately threatens the health of billions of adults, children, and future generations.
At no point is "Toxic Beauty" easy to watch. A press release describes it as "unapologetic", an accurate descriptor. It is constantly uncomfortable, alarming, and upsetting – and yet, that's precisely how people need to feel about this topic. I hadn't even finished watching the film before I ordered a batch of good but expensive natural deodorant that I like; my reluctance to spend money was suddenly inconsequential in the face of such tremendous health risk.
Toxic Beauty is showing in southern Ontario, Canada, with screenings in Hamilton on Oct. 8, Waterloo on Oct. 9 and 12, and Toronto on Oct. 26. It can be seen in Whitehorse, Yukon, on Oct. 7, and in Los Angeles on Oct. 12. More information can be found on Facebook. Trailer below.