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Photography Josh Wilks

Toxic Beauty is the film showing how beauty products are poisoning us

Director Phyllis Ellis and researcher Sarah Jay give us the lowdown on the documentary and the increasingly deadly, yet unregulated, issue

“The doctor put in a needle right through the skin under my abdomen (and a) greenish liquid poured out of me into six one-litre bottles,” says Shaeda Farooqi. “What did I do wrong?” voices another woman. Both women are speaking about their experiences suffering from symptoms of ovarian cancer – a deadly disease that’s been increasingly linked to the use of talc, an ingredient found in talcum powder (think Johnson & Johnson’s famous baby powder) and other beauty products. 

These stories are two of many shared in a new documentary called Toxic Beauty, the brainchild of Toronto-based sustainability consultant Sarah Jay and director Phyllis Ellis, which raises issues about the lack of testing and regulation surrounding the thousands of chemicals in common products we use on our bodies everyday. This includes ingredients like parabens and phthalates, which have been scientifically proven to be hormone disruptors that cause a host of health issues including preterm birth, endocrine disruption, mercury poisoning, and breast cancer, in addition to ovarian cancer.

The documentary, which is released in theatres across the United States from December 11, combines research from doctors and scientists with different testimonials from a group of women, including Mymy Nguyen, a Boston University medical student. The 24-year-old Asian woman grew up in California and had a mother who taught her that girls should always “look pretty” as “people will judge you for how you look”. Nguyen learned that you should put creams and sunscreens on your face to prevent anti-aging and have lighter skin. The media also played a part in this narrative as she recalls seeing advertisements and celebrities who were mostly white and looked a certain way. 

“I was never completely satisfied with how I look,” she says in a voiceover while doing her make-up. Due to this, the student has spent loads of money and time chasing beauty ideals, applying common makeup products like cover-up and mascara, while doing other relatively normal things including getting her hair bleached and receiving eyelash extensions. In the film, Nguyen has her chemical body burden measured from the use of over 27 different products and scientists reveal shocking results, so she has to come to terms with the impact her lifestyle – something that has been fed to her as a necessity to be seen as worthy or enough – has had on her body. 

Woven throughout the film, Nguyen’s personal narrative is a harrowing reminder of the lasting impact the media has on young people and the unhealthy expectations they are often fed from an early age. This is especially true for women of colour as the film reveals that skin lightening products are still used across the globe yet contain ingredients that are incredibly harmful to the body. With women of colour being marketed to in a very specific way, this connection is also linked with the issue of environmental racism in which brown and black people are often forced to live in areas that are subject to more pollution, and therefore, are more susceptible to its harmful impacts. “In Northern Ontario, there’s a really high rate of ovarian cancer (among indigenous people) there because talcum powder is one of the few products available to them,” says Jay.

Beyond this, the student’s experience bolsters the film’s larger message of highlighting the severe lack of health regulation surrounding today’s average beauty products. This is something the film presents as a “chemical disaster happening inside of us” – it’s a huge problem scientists and doctors in the documentary claim is just as deadly as climate change, but instead of polluting the earth we’re literally polluting our bodies with poison. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but one that hopefully will gain more attention thanks to the film.

The origin story of the film is noteworthy because it’s a deeply personal one. Jay started researching the topic around 10 years ago after a lifetime of treating her acne with topical and oral antibiotics. Chlorine overexposure, as she was a competitive swimmer, and bingeing on personal care products – she was a “rainbow bright kid” who constantly dyed her hair different colours – ultimately caused her to develop a chronic illness called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (a medical condition that makes her sensitive to fragrances and other chemicals) that continues to get progressively worse.

“When every other industry is regulated, why is something that we’re using literally 10 times a day not regulated? It makes absolutely no sense. It’s idiotic and actually unbelievable” – Phyllis Ellis, director, Toxic Beauty 

Eventually, Jay began working with a Canadian organisation called Environmental Defence on The Just Beautiful campaign that sought to educate consumers on these issues. This connected her to the work of Dr Rick Smith, a world-renowned environmentalist and toxins expert who oversees Nguyen’s chemical body burden testing in the film. Smith has conducted self-experiments testing out the toxicity of chemicals in products, which is the subject of his book Slow Death By Rubber Duck.

The book, which is referenced throughout Toxic Beauty, was a major inspiration for Jay, who conceived, developed, and associate-produced the film, with Ellis at the helm as the documentary’s director. With a background in making documentaries about different women’s issues, the filmmaker dove into the topic headfirst and wound up becoming a staunch advocate for the myriad risks of chemical overexposure through personal care.

With little governmental backing and supervision, consumers remain mostly unaware of the impact products can have on their bodies. Scientists also lack the proper support they need to make further connections and develop solutions. “When every other industry is regulated, why is something that we’re using literally 10 times a day not regulated? It makes absolutely no sense. It’s idiotic and actually unbelievable,” says Ellis.

According to the film, the European Union has banned 1328 chemicals from being used while the United States has banned a measly 11. Moreover, Europe abides by a “precautionary principle” in which ingredients are proven safe pre-formulation whereas, in the United States, products are safe until proven otherwise. This means that beauty and body-care products can be immediately put on the market without adequate testing for safety and little is known about their long term impact. “You and I could make a product today in my kitchen, put it in a really pretty bottle, call it ‘Thursday’, take it to CVS or a place where they sell cosmetics and they would put it on the shelf without even testing it,” says Ellis.

This is also alarming considering Generation Z’s close relationship with beauty as a form of self-expression, meaning that we don’t really know how their use of products at a young age might impact their health later on. Accordingly, scientists in the film say that young people and pregnant individuals (and their fetuses) are at a greater risk when they use products since their bodies are developing. As the consumer goods industry currently stands, beauty products are designed to grab our attention and make a profit, making consumers think they need things that might actually harm them.

Organic ingredients like lavender oil have their own problems – the essential oil, which today is commonly found in so-called “wellness” products, has been found to disrupt the hormones of young boys causing things like abnormal breast growth. “There is also no legal definition of the words organic, natural, vegan, cruelty-free, non-toxic. What’s more discouraging is that related trademarks don’t rely on third-party lab testing to ‘certify’ their products,” explains Jay. So, even the products that claim to be healthy, i.e. lavender oil, can actually be detrimental to our health. 

Beyond consumers, hairstylists, nail technicians, and make-up artists are at an even higher risk due to exaggerated exposure. So, what’s the solution here? And how can consumers avoid these issues? “The onus shouldn’t be on the consumer, the onus should be on the government and the regulators and the companies to guarantee that what we’re putting on our children and ourselves is safe,” says Ellis. “We’re coming to a point now where regulations in the United States haven’t changed since 1938 and the fact that brands and large pharmaceuticals companies basically regulate themselves is disturbing,” adds Jay. 

Ellis also poses a sentiment one doctor shared with her: “We have to change these beauty norms so women don’t have to choose between their health and trying to look beautiful based on these arbitrary standards.” In these ways, the filmmakers hope consumers will start holding brands more accountable by refusing to buy their products, which will start a larger conversation in order to spur real lasting change. “Collectively, we must come to understand that personal care products are designed to perform,” says Jay. “It’s a lot for individual consumers to navigate and it has to come from government down.”

When it comes to learning what ingredients to avoid, the film has a section on its site dedicated to giving consumers advice. “My first rule of thumb is to avoid the word fragrance or perfume. That is one word that represents, hundreds, even thousands of individual ingredients that brands use to disguise harmful preservatives,” says Jay. Beyond this, there are some helpful apps and databases people can use to look up ingredients including Think Dirty and Skin Deep Database. “There’s a movement and things are really changing, which is coming from consumer demand and awareness.”