Toxic Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder
A casual tour around a high-end mall like the Rideau Centre reveals the scale of the cosmetics industry in the western world. A 2018 market projection anticipated that total sales of beauty and skin-care protects, overwhelmingly targeting women, would top a staggering $C20 billion in Canada alone in 2020. Mac, Sephora, Nordstroms, Kiehl’s, The Body Shop, and the latest addition, Aesop, are all signifiers of a huge effort to get women to paint their faces, nails, and hair to an extent never before seen off the Broadway stage, all while fighting the appearance of ageing. Somehow, the appearance-faking process has been linked to women’s empowerment. An award-winning film by writer/director Phyliss Ellis exposes an even more sinister side to the whole manipulative affair.
Toxic Beauty is Ellis’s documentary exposé about the hidden health risks of applying a loosely-regulated, ever-growing catalogue of products to one’s epidermis, the evolutionary purpose of which is to protect the body from infections and environmental pathogens. Canada’s Food and Drugs Act defines a cosmetic as "any substance or mixture of substances, manufactured, sold or represented for use in cleansing, improving or altering the complexion, skin, hair or teeth and includes deodorants and perfumes." Regulations require warnings about any product that may cause skin irritation or inflammation, and chemicals such as mercury or its salts and chloroform are prohibited from what must be a displayed ingredients list. The American industry is entirely self-regulating. Ellis argues that this falls far short of what new scientific evidence is revealing to be a cesspool of toxic health threats. Her film poses the question: “Are cosmetics and personal care products making us sick?”
Ellis draws upon an impressive roster of experts to build her case, and a terrifying storyline derived from decades of news reports dating back to 1982, when world-renowned epidemiologist, Dr. Daniel Cramer, linked Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder to ovarian cancer. J&J ignored the evidence. In 2004, UK scientist Dr. Philippa Darbre found parabens, a chemical preservative in many cosmetics, in breast tissue. In 2018, the American National Institute of Health examined the association between “usage patterns of beauty, hair, and skin-related personal care products and breast cancer.” "Moderate" and "frequent" users of both beauty and skin care products had increased risk of breast cancer relative to "infrequent" users. The study did not draw specific links to chemicals, and did not consider correlated behaviors, but it did sound some pretty loud alarm bells.
Ellis’s interviewees, among them exceptionally knowledgeable scientists, lawyers, regulators and victims, explore the links between off-the-shelf products and hormonal disruption in baby boys, developmental delays, low sperm count, infertility, cancer, diabetes, obesity and skin disease. The film incorporates two documentary narratives to further humanize the case against what Ellis calls “Big Cosmetics”. One is a set of class-action lawsuits, ongoing in the US and another allowed to proceed by the Québec Superior Court in 2018, alleging damages by Johnson and Johnson. Ellis sums up the concern by asking, “If the most trusted brand in the world could cause cancer, what other products are we using daily that could cause harm?” The second, and even more shocking aspect to the film is bravely expressed by an experiment conducted by Boston University medical student Mymy Nguyen, who applies over 27 products while scientists monitor the impact. Think Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Super Size Me!
Perhaps the most important issue in the film is posed by scientist Dr. Ami Zota who suggests changing “these beauty norms so women don’t have to choose between their health and trying to look beautiful according to these arbitrary standards.” It seems that every decade since David Bowie first donned, then dropped, theatrical make-up in the early 1970s, fashionistas predict that men will embrace cosmetics. It has never happened, and God forbid it ever will. The dangers, the falsehood, and the environmental and health impacts as articulated by Ellis’s brilliant film need to be curtailed, not expanded.