“We ladies have to take care of ourselves,” says a soft voiceover in an opening scene of Toxic Beauty, Phyllis Ellis’ documentary on the dangers of unregulated personal care products.
The words come from Jacqueline Fox. The 62-year-old woman from Birmingham, Alabama, died in 2015 from ovarian cancer, which she believed had been caused by her decades-long use of Johnson & Johnson talcum powder.
The film, currently playing select theaters nationwide, centers around the thousands of lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson. Scientists, researchers, and women claim that executives at the company have known for decades that their ubiquitous baby powder contains asbestos, but have continued to market their products as safe.
More than that, Toxic Beauty examines the industry’s shocking lack of regulations, and the cradle-to-grave marketing that makes many American women believe they need potentially poisonous makeup, skincare, and lotions in order to feel desired and loved.
“We shouldn’t tell girls to stop using products,” Emily Nguyen, a medical student, says in one particularly poignant interview. “We should tell the government to stop making harmful products.”
The problem is, as the film’s many advocates prove, there has been no genuine regulating of personal care goods since 1938.
Despite archival footage showing various C-SPAN coverage of Senate hearings led by the likes of John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, the FDA is not required to monitor or pull any dangerous ingredients in beauty products, and there is little policing of brands. Though the European Union has banned 1,328 chemicals in makeup; the United States has nixed a mere 30.
Though the film is anchored by the Johnson & Johnson cases, it also explores the beauty industry in general, showing scenes from last year’s Nail Salon Protest, where employees from around New York demanded better safety regulations, and raised concerns about toluene, a polish ingredient called hazardous by the CDC for its effects on reproductive health and the nervous system.
Other common components of personal care products considered toxic are phthalates and parabens.
Once parabens, a preservative, become widely acknowledged as dangerous, many companies changed formulas. But, as one cosmetic chemist noted, they replaced parabens with formaldehyde, another irritant. Sometimes, the scientist said, to make sure the label didn’t reference formaldehyde for optics’ sake, companies would add similar, but equally dangerous, preservatives such as DMDM hydantoin or diazolidinyl urea.
Dr. Daniel Cramer, professor of epidemiology and gynecology at Harvard, first pointed to talc as a potential carcinogen in 1982, after a three-year study found that women who use talcum powder on their genitals or pads to feel more “fresh” faced a higher risk of cancer than those who did not.
Even a decade before, as a New York Times exposé published last year found, Johnson & Johnson executives were worried about the presence of asbestos in their talcum powder, with many at the company advising switching ingredients.
This month, New Mexico attorney general Hector Balderas filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, accusing the company of willfully covering up the toxicity of its products, aggressively marketing especially to communities of color.
Representatives for the company continue to stand by their formula as harmless. In the film, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said in a statement: “I take this personally and very seriously, and I know that many of you do too. I want to repeat, reiterate, and reinforce: Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder is safe and does not cause cancer. Studies of tens of thousands of women and thousands of men show that talc does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease. J&J’s baby powder has never contained asbestos. Regulators have tested and always found our talc to be asbestos-free. At the end of the day, this is about truth and integrity. We are confident in the safety of our baby powder.”
Representatives for the company did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Last October, the FDA found that a bottle of the Baby Powder did contain asbestos and recalled the product.
The film alleges that successful lobbying has kept the government off of Johnson & Johnson’s backs. Perhaps a bit of sexism helped too—in one montage, the faces of the company’s chairpeople, dating back to 1887, flash by. All of them, of course, are men.
So it’s up to the women impacted by their willful negligence to step in.
The film follows a few of the many who have filed lawsuits against the company, including Mel Lika, a former NATO peacekeeper who died at age 60 from ovarian cancer she credited to her near lifelong use of Shower to Shower.
There’s Deane Berg, a physician’s assistant from Sioux Falls, Iowa, dubbed “Erin Brockovich” by her lawyer Ted Meadows. Berg won a symbolic court victory against Johnson & Johnson, which a jury found guilty of fraud, negligence, and conspiracy. The company did not have to pay anything in damages, a fact Berg chalks up to the jury’s gender makeup.
Berg now helps prepare other women for their days in court, and is shown in the film speaking with a group of Canadians who have filed a class action lawsuit. Despite her success, which her lawyer compares to a David and Goliath-type triumph, Berg remains pragmatic when coaching the women. The lawyers will ask you invasive questions about your grooming habits, she says, especially since the ovarian cancer link is believed to be caused by using talc products in the genital area.
Still, Berg and many of the victims, speak of the shame and embarrassment they feel about a situation they cannot control, but is caused by the products they chose to use. “I did something wrong to myself,” Berg says.
Interspersed throughout the film are old health class PSAs and advertisements dating back 60 years, showing just how ingrained beauty standards have become.
“I’m going to talk to you this morning about the way you look,” one 1940s schoolmarm in victory rolls and Joan Crawford shoulders tells a group of college-age young women. “After all, the way we look exerts so much influence on the way we feel, and the way other people feel about us, that it really is so important. As a French chef might say, it’s a little touch of seasoning that makes a dish just right.”
The footage cuts quickly to said seasoning—a curdled-looking goop of bubbling pink chemicals that will ultimately make up a face cream, but in an unused state resemble more of the fat cut from steak.
Mymy Nguyen, a Boston University medical student, spends much of the film documenting her detox of over 27 personal care products, which she believes contributed to the benign breast tumor she had removed in college. Nguyen, about to embark on the long journey of becoming a doctor, wants to have children eventually—but worries her fertility could be impacted, or shortened, by the amount of makeup she uses.
“Through this journey of mine, I never felt one hundred percent happy with who I was,” Nguyen admits in her final interview. “Find beauty in what makes you stronger, find beauty in what you worked really hard for. I’m a hardworking woman, I can be influential, and this doesn't have anything to do with how I look.”
The late NATO counterintelligence screener Lika also spoke proudly about her work fighting terrorism, collecting evidence of war crimes and holding “bad people” accountable. She showed Polaroids of her time in the Balkans and Afghanistan, remembering her nickname, “Superwoman.” In one photo, she smiles at her work desk, looking warm and genuine, the type of person you hope would be your boss.
Then, Lika stopped, put her hand on her head, and wondered, “I’m sorry, did I lose track of even the question? It just floated through my head right now.” She was worn out from the disease she would later die from. In the next scene, Lika is shown sleeping on her couch, bare feet adorned with candy-apple red nail polish.