'Toxic Beauty' Director Gives Clean Cosmetics Tips: "I'm Almost Afraid to Use Anything"

Courtesy of White Pine Pictures
Boston University medical student Mymy Nguyen in 'Toxic Beauty'

"We have no idea what's in the products we're using. That was really alarming," filmmaker Phyllis Ellis says of her investigation into the dangers of personal cosmetic products.

Going into 2020, the beauty industry is already focusing on "clean" products — those that are safer for animals, humans and the planet. Beauty companies such as Kopari, Tata Harper, Ilia Beauty, Bite Beauty, Hey Honey, Codex Beauty, Biossance and many more offer products touted as "clean," while moguls such as Jessica Alba, Miranda Kerr and Victoria Beckham have turned their attention to their respective clean beauty lines, Honest Beauty, Kora Organics and Victoria Beckham Beauty.

But how clean is clean enough? Documentary Toxic Beauty (available Jan. 28 on iTunes and On Demand) shines a light on the flimsy labels and lack of regulations in the beauty industry that has created a need for safer products. Director Phyllis Ellis interviewed scientists, lawyers and consumers who are fighting for stricter laws to regulate which ingredients we can put on our bodies. 

Toxic Beauty focuses on the perils of talc, a clay mineral used in baby powder that can contain asbestos and has been linked to cancer. Ellis personally discovered the issue because she used talc for 10-15 years and reached out to Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Daniel Cramer — who appears onscreen — to ask about the effects.

Particularly highlighted in Toxic Beauty is American company Johnson & Johnson, which in 2018 was ordered to give $4.7 billion in damages to 22 people and families who believed talc played a role in their ovarian cancer. 

"I had no idea," Ellis says. "I had a little bit of an idea, but I really didn't know. I'm almost afraid to use anything."

A rep for Johnson & Johnson disputes the claims, telling THR in a statement, "Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe, does not contain asbestos nor does it cause cancer, as reflected in more than 40 years of scientific evidence," and points to four recent trials where "multiple juries in the U.S. have reached the conclusion that our talc is safe and does not cause cancer." The company has created a page on its website dedicated to explaining the litigation. 

But Ellis asked, if something might cause medical issues, why use it? "I don't think presidents of companies, big cosmetics brands and pharmaceuticals, get up every day and say, 'I think I'd like to kill some women today.' But fundamentally, we have to shift just like they did with the tobacco industry. We have to care," she says.

One of the culprits is the law — U.S. cosmetics regulations have not changed in more than 80 years, meaning the "large multi-billion dollar industry regulates itself," Ellis says. The primary 1938 law prohibits selling cosmetics with "poisonous," "deleterious," "filthy," "putrid" or "decomposed" substances.

"[It's] something that you don't believe. 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," Ellis says. "We have no idea what's in the products we're using. That was really alarming."

Sasha Plavsic, founder of Ilia Beauty, explains that in Europe, formulas are tested and "required to show every single ingredient" before being approved for sale. The EU restricts about 1,300 cosmetic ingredients, compared to a dozen in the U.S.

"This is what needs to happen in the U.S., and brands need the support of the retailers and the consumers to demand a change," Plavsic tells THR. "People deserve the right to know what they are putting on their bodies."

The onus has been placed by default on the consumer to check their products for safety. Cosmetics company Beautycounter, for example, provides a "Never List" of 1,500 "questionable or harmful chemicals" that the brand never uses in its products, including well-known no-nos parabens (methyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-), sulfates, formaldehyde and phthalates. The American nonprofit Environmental Working Group also recommends avoiding the word "fragrance" on a label, because 3,163 ingredients can "hide" behind the word. The nonprofit estimates that the average woman uses 12 products a day, for a total of 168 ingredients. 

Ellis recommends EWG's Healthy Living app or the app Think Dirty, where consumers can see how toxic their beauty products are and what ingredients they may contain. A quick browse of fragrances on Healthy Living reveals that Tiffany & Co. Natural Spray Eau de Parfum, Lancome La Vie Est Belle Florale, Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine and Calvin Klein Obsession Parfum Spray received the worst possible score, a red 10 for danger. Star scents by Britney Spears (Curious) and Jennifer Lopez (JLove) score a tragic 10 as well, with the latter providing a moderate yellow cancer concern and developmental concern. 

Another culprit, according to Ellis, are the beauty companies and their messaging. "The real antagonists are the marketing departments and the marketing of these brands that tell us we're not enough or we're too much or we're too old," she says. "We're just told that we don't smell good enough, or that I have too many wrinkles ... or our hair is too curly or it's too straight or my skin is the wrong color."

She argues that people have to ignore these perceived beauty norms so women don't have to "choose between their health and trying to look beautiful" based on arbitrary standards. Particularly affected are salon employees and young women: "I can assure you if men's testicles were falling off because they were putting baby powder on them, talc would have been banned a long time ago in the United States," Ellis says. 

Known for its sustainable, sugar-based alternative to shark liver squalane in its moisturizers, Biossance created The Clean Academy to educate the public. With Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness on board as ambassador, the initiative aims to "simplify complex concepts and ingredients so that everyone has the power to make smart choices, no matter where they are on their clean beauty journey," says Catherine Gore, Biossance's president.

Adds Kopari chief marketing officer Jeremy Lowenstein, "The clean beauty movement is growing at such a fast rate year-over-year, proving that clean beauty is not just a trend but the way of the future. In 2020, we are expecting and hoping to see more transparency from brands, from the ingredients used in their products to where they source them and more." 

Lowenstein points to easy solutions such as Ulta's Natural Skincare section and Target's Versed Skincare, which provide easy access to clean items. Still, he admits, "there is a lot of confusion among consumers on product labeling, from 'green' to 'clean' to 'natural' and more, and a combination of regulations to better define these labels and education surrounding them would be helpful so consumers are able to make more educated choices based on their values."

This month, Covergirl — which shares Kylie Cosmetics' owner, Coty — tapped Riverdale star Lili Reinhart to be the face of its new Clean Fresh beauty line, which is vegan and free of several watch-list ingredients. 

When launching her beauty brand in fall 2019, Beckham said she had a dream to create a "beauty brand of the future," meaning one focused on clean formulas and sustainability, "being kind to ourselves and kind to the environment, kind to the planet. I found clean beauty quite confusing as a consumer. No one could really tell me what it was. And it was very difficult to find out."

Her resulting cruelty-free products have banned 31 ingredients. Beckham's company website warns of an additional six items on its "Ingredients Watchlist," including talc, which she says she only sources "from responsible manufacturers who certify that their talc is free from asbestos fibers."

Current beauty habits remain tough to break. Gauging the potential harm of hair dye, Ellis decided she was going to let her hair go gray and walk the walk. "Then I was flying to London and I thought, 'There's no way I'm going to London looking like this.' So I went and had $300 worth of toxic chemicals soaked into my brain so that I wouldn't have gray hair when I went to London. So it's not an easy proposition to let go of."

She adds, "There's this old adage, 'Oh, there's just a little bit of lead in lipstick.' Well no amount of lead is safe. ... [Yet] I'm wearing a $45 lipstick filled with crap."