Watching Toxic Beauty Documentary as a Woman of Color

by Charisse Kenion

Toxic Beauty


It all started with an Instagram post. I’ve been an admirer of beauty journalist Jessica DeFino’s work for a while, as she’s someone who likes to investigate and question what she’s told by the Big Beauty brands. She was sharing an article she’d written for US Vogue, about a new documentary called Toxic Beauty. The headline questioned whether skincare products were the new cigarettes – admittedly click-bait-y – and I knew I had to read it.


Toxic Beauty Documentary

While you’d think from that headline, as well as the title of the documentary itself, that the subject matter was going to be skincare and beauty at large, in fact, much of director Phyllis Ellis’ focus is on the 15,000+ lawsuits filed by women with cancer against Johnson & Johnson, leading manufacturers of baby powder. 

The documentary claims that Johnson & Johnson knew of the alleged risks associated with long-term use of baby powder, way before any lawsuits were filed. As recently as 2019, the company recalled a batch of baby powder in which the FDA had detected evidence of asbestos. When I sat down to watch it, I can’t lie: I started to consider all the other things that contain talc, such as eyeshadow, face powders… As with anything else, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole and start questioning and worrying. While the 90-minute film focuses on the lives of women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, including whistle-blower Deane Berg – the woman who turned down a $1.3 million settlement so that she could take Johnson & Johnson to court, there’s also a subplot. 

Mymy Nguyen is a medical student who decides to undertake an experiment on herself; as someone who uses around 27 products a day, she decides to measure her body’s chemical burden. I found this part super interesting as Mymy saw major differences when comparing a day of wearing a full face of makeup, plus personal care products, with a day when she used absolutely nothing. She also tried a third, more expensive option: wearing only ‘clean’ beauty products. Mymy also points out the additional burden that women of color face, with products aimed at lightening skin and straightening hair – an extra ‘option’ that signifies societal pressure. This got me thinking about how many products I use each day, and since then I’ve been questioning the concept of clean beauty further, as I’m still unsure as to whether much of it is just a ploy to get us to spend even more.

That aside, there were many things I found disturbing; as a fragrance-lover, finding out that perfumes often have plasticizers (also known as phthalates) added to them to ensure they ‘stick’ to our skin, freaked me out. Phthalates are so tiny, and although they can be filtered out of the body via the liver, the fact that they are in so many products means that they are building up in our systems. How many products do you think you use each day? I counted, on a no-makeup day, that I use around 11 products on my body, face and hair, give or take a couple. On a day when I’m wearing makeup, that could easily triple. 


Women of color more at risk

In researching, I quickly found that being a woman of color who’s interested in grooming and beauty can mean a 60% increase in breast cancer risk. The use of permanent hair dye and chemical straighteners (both high in levels of carcinogens) is big business for black women. Meanwhile, the risk for white women is just 8%.

What’s more, the variety of products aimed at black women is much smaller, meaning we have less to choose from, which in turn means we’re more likely to wind up using products that are affecting our health. 

I also decided to speak to an expert. Upon hearing that cosmetic legislation hadn’t been updated since 1938, I decided to ask London-based Aesthetician Dija Ayodele for her opinion on the documentary. During our recording, Dija showed me an Instagram account focused on sustainable beauty backed by science, called @theecowell, which was not only calling out the documentary as total BS but also quite brutal in criticizing the journalist that first led me down this path – Jessica DeFino. Dija also pointed out that the disturbing legislation fact (above) is not 100% correct, and that legislation has indeed been updated – it just hasn’t changed much. Hmm. That aside, I’m more annoyed that the makers of the documentary used a study that was retracted eight years after it was made public. Surely they would have known this?

I am in no way attacking Jessica as I think she’s a great journalist – or the director of the doc – but what this whole back and forth reminded me of is that everyone has an agenda. 

It makes sense that if you’re going to the trouble of making a documentary, even if it’s because you passionately care about women’s health and want to do something to change the situation, you’re coming at it with your own agenda in mind. Instead, if you are going to serve the public, you must pay attention to all the research. 


Need help?

If you want to find out more about the products you’re using, check out Skin Deep, an online directory where you can search for an ingredient you’re not sure about and find out how toxic it might be. Skin Deep compares product ingredients to more than 60 toxicity and regulatory databases and scientific studies and rates the products from 1 to 10: 1 meaning the lowest hazard, and 10 being the highest. According to Skin Deep, “potential hazards linked to product ingredients include cancer, hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive damage, allergies and other adverse health effects.” The worst-scoring products were hair relaxers, colorants and bleaching products. Again, products mostly targeted at women of color. Let’s do our own research – because right now, it seems we are not a priority.


Image: White Pine Pictures


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