The three-part BBC3 series shows a group of young influencers explore the impacts of make-up all over the globe – from environmental damage and animal testing to counterfeits
“This makes me feel like a bit of a fraud, and they’re right up there dealing with the sulphuric acid with no protective gear, how they don’t get seriously hurt, I’ve got no idea,” Casey Gore says to Resham Khan as they watch candelilla wax farmers in Mexico pour sulphuric acid onto the candelilla shrub from a dirty Coca-Cola bottle in the middle of the desert. The plant-based wax is used in cosmetics to thicken products and can be found in lip balms, soap, mascara, and deodorants.
It’s one of many eye-opening scenes in the three-part BBC3 documentary, Beauty Laid Bare, which delves into the lucrative world of beauty through the lens of four Brits, who travel to Los Angeles to explore the booming cosmetics industry. The group is comprised of Chloe Morton, a 21-year old make-up artist and influencer; Casey Gore, a 25-year old of whose relationship with make-up is tied to his identity as a gay man; Resham Khan, a 21-year old who uses make-up as a confidence tool following an acid attack and Queenie, a 21-year old who is sceptical about the industry’s claims and its effect on our self-esteem.
The opening scenes finds the group at BeautyCon, a consumer-facing trade show where 30,000 beauty fans can meet their favourite influencers and shop over 200 brands during the two-day annual event. They are shown around by Kenneth Senegal, a gay black man known for the bold make-up looks he creates for his 414k YouTube subscribers. They also meet Bretman Rock as he’s surrounded by fans, cameras, and security. Chloe and Casey then head to Senegal’s house and while sitting amongst a floor covered in PR packages are shocked to hear he can earn as much as $3000 from just including a product in a YouTube video and up to $14,000 for a dedicated video on a brand.
Despite his success on the platform, Senegal is quick to share the difficulties of being a gay black man in the beauty sphere as he is all too aware of brands employing tokenism, wanting to be inclusive once they see that they can profit off gay men and men that wear make-up. “There are other male make-up influencers of different ethnicities that act the same way I act, do the same things I do, they get called sassy, I get words like ‘bitchy’ or ‘ghetto’. There’s a sense that they’re just using me because I’m the black gay boy,” Senegal tells them.
The group then visited the ColourPop factory in California, an affordable US make-up brand that prides itself on manufacturing products in mass quantities in as little as 12 weeks to turn online trends into products to keep up with customer demand. However, when quizzed by the group on how much its workers are paid, a PR from the brand off-camera abruptly diverts the conversation, saying the line of questioning makes them uncomfortable, as the group uncomfortably watches on. It’s a similar experience when they visit the Benefit HQ and ask if the brand tests on animals, as it’s sold in China. Again a PR spokesperson is quick to cut them off, saying Benefit complies with Chinese regulations to ‘preserve the Chinese customer.’ There’s a continuous confrontation every episode of how the industry values profitability over ethical practices and human rights.
Later on, Resh and Casey head to the desert in northern Mexico and further discover the human cost of make-up when observing the candelilla wax farmers, an ingredient marketed as a sustainable and vegan alternative to beeswax. To their surprise, workers have no protection or safety equipment when using sulphuric acid, and the irony is not lost on Resh, who was the victim of an acid attack on her 21st birthday. “They’re using sulphuric acid to create candelilla wax which is then going into beauty products that I am using on my sulphuric acid burns to cover it up. I think that’s really ironic in a sick and twisted way.”
Throughout, it highlights how little is known about what’s in our products. Speaking to Dazed Beauty, Casey thinks the industry needs to work towards more transparency. “I don’t think the industry being honest with the consumers is too much to ask, it shouldn’t be wrapping anything up with rose-tinted glasses, there’s no point lying to the consumer because at the end of the day people will find out. People that have watched the show have started to message those brands and say ‘I want to know what’s in this product, the packaging doesn’t tell me’, I think that’s great to see that people are asking questions off the back of this programme.”
The group also touches upon the importance put on image in society, as there’s a lot of money to be made in cosmetic procedures, not just products. The documentary reveals that minimally invasive cosmetic procedures have increased threefold since 2000. They visit the office of surgeon Dr Alexander Rivkin and try out the VISIA Skin Analysis machine which scans your face, giving you a score out of 100. Casey scores a 95, while Resh is recommended preventative botox by the doctor. While Dr Rivkin is realistic about it not being peer-reviewed science and describes it as fun, Casey is quick to disagree, believing it can be more dangerous than good, using people’s insecurities to make money. “Do you ever feel like in your line of work you enable people with body dysmorphia?” asks Queenie to which Dr Rivkin admits its a consultation method rather than a tool for diagnosis.
The documentary explores in detail the environmental impact of our cosmetics too, as Chloe and Queenie meet with the charity Break Free From Plastic and learn that the global rate for recycling is only 9 per cent. Campaigner Shilpi Chhotray reveals a sobering statistic that if things continue, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. They touch on greenwashing from brands, as the responsibility to recycle often falls to the consumer and claims of recyclable packaging are often confusing, with many products like pumps and shampoo lids unable to be recycled, even though the labels on it suggest otherwise.
The ever-growing consumption of cosmetics leads Chloe and Resh into the world of counterfeit beauty, as they visit Santee Alley in LA with a private investigator and easily purchase fake Kylie Cosmetics and MAC. Counterfeit make-up costs the industry $75 million a year with extremely unsafe consequences. “Most of it, if not all of it, contains high levels of bacteria, and when we tested it in the past, it had levels of animal faeces,” LAPD detective Rick Ishitani tells the women and as Resh swatches eyeshadow, she immediately gets a rash. Eerily similar scenes are also found in the Netflix documentary, Broken in the episode “Make-up Mayhem” which uncovers the corruption and negligence behind the counterfeit beauty industry.
“Most of it (counterfeit make-up), if not all of it, contains high levels of bacteria, and when we tested it in the past, it had levels of animal faeces” – Rick Ishitani, LAPD detective
Chloe shares that the experience of making the documentary has impacted her own routine, telling Dazed, ”Before I use any make-up or skincare, now I always look at the ingredients to see what’s safe or dodgy based on the research I did for the show. Going to the headquarters of Benefit and the Colourpop factory has proved to me it’s not as glorified as you think it is.” Being an influencer herself, it’s also changed how she works with brands for her YouTube and Instagram pages. “Now that I know that the bigger brands can sugar coat everything, I do more research on the company itself, not just the products because I don’t want to advertise a company that isn’t ethical at all or at least tries to be.”
The final scenes show the group speaking with Jane Larkworthy, The Cut’s beauty editor at large, as they discuss the future of the industry, and how younger consumers are at the forefront of change. In her 25-year career, Larkworthy tells them the industry is now more inclusive, and their generation should be commended for asking for utter transparency on where ingredients are coming from, what it’s for and that the bigger, long-established brands will suffer the most from consumers desire for answers. “Brands really need to talk to the consumers, if you don’t you’re gone. Rome was not built in a day and the rumblings of the revolution are getting louder.”
Beauty Laid Bare is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.