The New 'Toxic Beauty' Documentary Shines a Light On the Dangers of Unregulated Cosmetics

Director Phyllis Ellis wants people to know that "we have no idea what's in the products we're using."

Mock up of cosmetic cream bottle, Blank label package on pastel background. Concept of natural beauty products.
Photo: Sitthiphong Thadakun/EyeEm/Getty Images

Women in the U.S. slather an average of 168 chemicals on their bodies every day when applying makeup and other beauty products, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Sounds mildly concerning when you put it that way, right?

But with "clean beauty" being all the rage these days, many people believe they don't have to worry about chemicals in beauty products. "Clean" cosmetics are thought to be safer for animals, humans, and the environment—and given the success of clean beauty lines like Honest Beauty by Jessica Alba, Kora Organics by Miranda Kerr, and Victoria Beckham Beauty, there's no denying that people are buying into the trend.

However, a new documentary dubbed Toxic Beauty, by director Phyllis Ellis, questions just how "clean" these products really are. Through a series of interviews with whistleblowers, world-class scientists, cancer survivors, and families of those who've lost their lives in their fight against cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, Ellis' documentary raises awareness of the beauty industry's lack of regulation—and the dire need to create safer products.

The Film's Focus On Johnson & Johnson

Toxic Beauty heavily focuses on the thousands of lawsuits brought against Johnson & Johnson. Refresher: The cases were built on the fact that J&J knew for decades that its baby powder and other talc-based products were contaminated with the carcinogenic asbestos. Despite knowing about the contamination, Johnson & Johnson continued marketing these items anyway. While the company has won some of these cases, it's paid millions of dollars in damages in several other lawsuits, including a $4.7 billion payment to 22 women and their families who claimed that contaminated J&J talc powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. The $4.7 billion lawsuit is considered "one of the largest product liability judgments ever recorded," according to the New York Times. (FYI: Johnson & Johnson now has a dedicated page on its website that explains the litigation and asserts that "decades of independent scientific testing" have confirmed the safety of its products.)

Back to Toxic Beauty: Ellis was inspired to dig deeper into the J&J lawsuits because she personally used the brand's talc baby powder for over a decade, according to an interview Ellis did with Canadian newspaper, North Shore News. As a former Olympian who represented Canada in field hockey in the 1984 games, Ellis said she and her teammates used the powder "like heroin," pouring it "everywhere all the time." (

Then, when women she knew began developing ovarian cancer, Ellis wondered if she was at risk, too. "I thought: If the most trusted brand in the world is linked to ovarian cancer, what else is causing us harm?" she told NSN.

The Lack of Regulation In the U.S. Beauty Industry

One of Toxic Beauty's biggest topics is the fact that the U.S. hasn't enacted any new personal care laws since the 1930s. This means that for nearly the past century, the multi-billion dollar beauty industry has basically been regulating itself. The trailer for the film compares this oversight to that of the tobacco industry.

The film also explores how other countries are way ahead of this issue. The EU, for instance, has banned or restricted more than 1,300 cosmetic chemicals, compared to less than a dozen in the U.S., according to The Guardian. In fact, the EU's REACH regulation (short for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals) requires manufacturers of all chemical substances (including everything from electrical appliances to cleaning products, along with cosmetics) to prove that the ingredients in their products are safe before putting them on the market. The U.S., on the other hand, has been pretty loose with these types of regulations for the last several decades. On the bright side, though, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last year that it's launching a survey to better understand the safety practices and manufacturing standards in the cosmetics industry. About 900 companies will be required to take part in the survey, according to the FDA.

Such initiatives are crucial considering that some beauty and personal care products have not only been linked to certain types of cancer, but also a plethora of other health issues, including hormonal disruption, infertility, and mercury poisoning, just to name a few. Toxic Beauty dives into the question of why people still use certain shampoos, moisturizers, cosmetics, and feminine products, despite knowing that some have been linked to these potentially dangerous side effects.

"It's conditioning for all of us. It's really hard when somebody, some group, tells us what we're doing is wrong," Ellis told NSN. "People get pissed off because you're going near something that they enjoy and is part of their social paradigm."

"[It's] something that you don't believe," Ellis told The Hollywood Reporter in another interview. "When I first started pitching the film to get money, people were like, 'You know, it can't be that bad.' Actually, it is that bad. We have no idea what's in the products we're using. That was really alarming."

All of these issues boil down to society's unrealistic expectations of beauty, Ellis told NSN. "We're not enough," she said. "That's the hard part."

The Bottom Line On Beauty Products

Here's the thing: Even if you want to switch to a non-toxic beauty routine, it's not always that easy because of the lack of regulations and information out there. But if you're trying to make a change, one of the most important things you can do is be aware of the ingredients in the products you're using. David Pollock, a beauty industry consultant and formulator for carcinogen-free beauty products, previously told us that you can check if your ingredients are safe by cross-referencing them with the EWG's website. This will let you see if the product's ingredients meet the strictest criteria for transparency and health.

In general, Pollock says some major ingredients to avoid include: parabens, glycols, triethanolamine, sodium, and ammonium laureth sulfates, triclosan, petrochemicals such as mineral oil and petrolatum, synthetic fragrances and dyes, and other ethoxylated materials that produce 1,4-Dioxane.

While a serious revamp in cosmetic regulations is long overdue, taking control and being an educated consumer is one of the best things you can do. If you're curious to learn more, Toxic Beauty is now available to stream on Amazon Prime and Google Play.

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