Documentary Review: Women lead the fight against poisonous products that deliver “Toxic Beauty”


The Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder/Shower to Shower lawsuits are the jumping off point of the documentary “Toxic Beauty,” the highly-publicized “personal care” products disaster from which all the other reporting, science and first-person accounts in this film are given attention and urgency.

When a giant cosmetics and personal care firm covers up decades and decades of knowledge that what they’re giving people to powder their babies and use as part of a personal hygiene causes cancer, you can guess that they’re not alone, and that an entire industry might be similarly culpable as they shove under-tested products on the market and let their customers be the ultimate guinea pigs.

This Phyllis Ellis film attempts a thorough survey of the science of cosmetics, deodorants, shampoos and other such products, lays out risks and fills the screen with women dealing with the consequences of an industry whose lax regulations haven’t “changed since the 1930s.”

A few witnesses to this disaster stand out. One was South Dakotan Deane Berg, whose lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson over the talc that caused her ovarian cancer was the first legal precedent verifying what scientists had been saying since the 1980s — “Baby Powder is a delivery device for known carcinogens, just like cigarettes.”

Mymy Nguyen was 24 when the film was shot, a “bottle-blonde” medical student driven toward research on the toxins in her daily hygiene and beauty regimen. Her motivation? That first breast tumor that turned up.

She decided to take action, that this “It just happened…I’m unlucky” way of looking at cancer wasn’t helpful.

“Toxic Beauty” shows the vast array of products she has been using, and her scientifically monitored “experiment on myself” — a detox, going soap, shampoo, makeup and deodorant-free, followed by a return to using such products and measuring the rise in parabens and phthalates in her system, thanks to those products.

There’s just enough chemistry to the film to be daunting, and it would be easy to get lost in the “endocrine disruptors” and “estrogen mimics” in the wares of almost every company that wants us to not smell, lighten our skin or clean our hair.

Suffice it to say that there’s mercury in skin lighteners and almost every anti-aging or skin-care cream on the market. Most toothpastes have arsenic in them. Lipstick has coal tar, shampoo has formaldehyde — even though more slippery companies have tinkered with the chemistry just enough to allow them to rename it.

You don’t have to be a chemist to know “Mercury? Formaldehyde? ARSENIC? BAD.

With so many voices, so many locations, so many researchers and patients — case histories — and so many chemicals, “Toxic Beauty” can’t help but bog down in details, here and there. A brief mention of “Euro-centric beauty standards” warrants an entire other film.

Seeing archival Senate committee hearings and debates, books that started warning about this stuff in 1936, can be disheartening. Daily assaults on “regulation” and a well-financed “product defense industry” of scientists paid to deny science and sew doubt to keep companies from being regulated and scare off lawsuits means that like so many calamities facing us, money is blocking government from correcting these wrongs.

But as Mymy sits, looking at her test results with a researcher from the Silent Spring Institute, we’re shown a glimmer of hope. Seeking out “clean” and “organic” makeup and personal care products made a huge difference.

Yes, government needs to regulate, enforce rigorous testing and set better-safe-than-sorry standards for anything you put on or in your body. But rather than holding your breath waiting for the sea change in Washington, taking a few first steps yourself can make the pursuit of “beauty” a little less “toxic.”


MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Mymy Nguyen, Deane Berg, Mel Lika. Dr. Daniel Cramer, Dr.. Roberta Ness

Credits: Directed by Phyllis Ellis. A 1091/Documentary Channel release.

Running time: 1:30

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