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Toxic Beauty: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry

The first three minutes of Toxic Beauty is as much of a shock to the system as the chemicals from your personal care products.

Featuring a legion of interviews with prominent scientists, environmentalists and professors, the new documentary from Canadian filmmaker Phyllis Ellis exposes how women are dying, literally, to be beautiful. 

Interlaced with insightful interviews, bone-chilling facts and heartbreaking personal stories, Toxic Beauty will make you question every product you have ever used. By the end of the film, I was frantically rifling through all my products and was alarmed at how common these toxic chemicals were across the board. Like many people, I believed that the products I use every day were safe, or at the very least weren’t actively harming me. My initial shock was replaced with anger at the entire system that has perpetuated these lies and propped up this system for years. This documentary clearly isn’t for the faint of heart. 

Set against the backdrop of ongoing lawsuits against cosmetic giants the film also features heartbreaking stories from women who claim to have contracted cancer from their use of the beloved talc product. While the possible toxicity of such a wide spread product is alarming, the issue goes beyond just one product and one company.

Toxic Beauty takes aim at the entire personal care industry, revealing that some of our most-used and most-loved products are linked to everything from endocrine disruption to cancer. The extent to which our everyday products are riddled with toxic chemicals sent shivers down my spine. While more people are becoming aware of the chemicals in their makeup, other everyday items are easy to overlook. Toxic Beauty exposes them all. You are going to look at everything, from your daily toothpaste to shower gel, differently I promise!

The beauty industry is one of the most under-regulated industries, relying heavily on self-regulation. Government oversight is surprisingly lax given how intimately we use these products on a daily basis. And unfortunately, the burden of protection falls on us; it seems we must do the work to protect ourselves from these toxic chemicals. One of my major takeaways from this documentary is how little we know about our everyday products and how little is being done to protect us. Currently, the European Union bans around 1,400 toxic chemicals from cosmetics, Canada bans 459 and the US bans a paltry 11. And even more terrifyingly, many of the products haven’t been adequately safety-tested before they hit shelves.

“The world operates with what’s called a post-market regulatory system. That means that a product is put onto the market first, it’s not like you have to test the product first, make sure it’s safe and then it goes on the market. No, it goes on the market and then if there are incidence, that’s when the regulatory system kicks in. Nobody’s testing to see if that eye shadow has in it what it says it has in it,” according to Julie Gelfand, Former Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development at the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. 

Nowhere is this issue of toxic buildup more evident than with Mymy Nguyen’s, a 24-year old master’s student, story. Nguyen, and others, discusses the marketing of angst and desirability used to sell women a myriad of products, all to achieve an ideal standard of beauty. Nguyen then undergoes a toxic burden analysis to see the effects her everyday products have on her body. The results of just one day’s use are staggering and will make you wary of your entire personal care routine.

At one point, Nguyen talks viewers through her entire 26-product routine. While it’s not the most shocking scene in the documentary, it’s the most relatable. As the camera pans to all her makeup, skincare and bath products, I was confronted with my own litany of products and a stark visualization of just how many chemicals I’m putting into my own body. Every fact and figure of the documentary suddenly felt personal and visceral; what have the years of toxic chemical exposure done to my own body?  

Doctors and experts interviewed in the documentary make clear that we’re all just guinea pigs in this beauty experiment. We still don’t know the long-term effects of some of these chemicals, or how their interaction affects our bodies. And by the time we do, it may be too late.

“Once populations have been exposed and discovery has been made about the associations, we’ve already lost a generation to that exposure. Which might be subtle effects at the level of infertility, it might be more devastating effects in other aspects of development. I think we should be concerned,” Dr. Shruthi Mahalingaiah cautions. 

If all of this has you making side-eyes at your current skin-care lineup, here are some things you can check for today to see if your current products are causing you harm. Below, take a look at what harmful ingredients to look for in your products and some of the negative effects they can have on your health.

● DEODORANT – Endocrine Disruptors, Formaldehyde = Hormone Disruption, Reproductive Problems, Tumours

● FRAGRANCE – Endocrine Disruptors, styrene, hexyl cinnamal, BHA (plus non-disclosed ingredients) = Allergies, Reproductive Disorders, Cancer

● LIPSTICK – Lead, Coal Tar = Kidney Damage, Neurological Damage, Miscarriage

● NAIL PRODUCTS – Toluene, Acetone = Dermatitis, Lung Disorders, Miscarriage

● SHAMPOO – Formaldehyde, Endocrine Disruptors = Allergies, Depression, Cancer

● SKIN CREAM – Mercury, Coal Tar, Endocrine Disruptors = Tremors, Insomnia, Cognitive Dysfunction

● SKIN LIGHTENERS – Hydroquinone, Mercury = Skin Disease, Organ Damage, Cancer

● SOAP – Endocrine Disruptors, Coal Tar 1, 4-Dioxane = Allergies, Infertility, Heart Disease

● TOOTHPASTE – Triclosan, arsenic = Abnormal Cell Growth, Reproductive Toxicity

Toxic Beauty is a wake-up call and a call to arms; we need to educate ourselves about these products, the chemicals they contain, and what those chemicals are doing to our body. This documentary is an invaluable resource and a great first step in that education. Equal parts informative and terrifying, Toxic Beauty is now available to stream for free on CBC Gem. Click here to find out the truth for yourself.

Rida Ahmed