A documentary highlighting the lax regulation in the U.S. cosmetics industry was at the forefront of Sunday’s “Meet the Press” Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
“Toxic Beauty,” directed by Phyllis Ellis, features women who are living with or have since lost their lives to ovarian cancer that directly correlates to the use of talc, alongside a makeup-loving medical student who performs a self-experiment to reveal her body’s toxic load. The documentary, which is premiering in the U.S. for the first time and does not yet have distribution, is designed to make viewers question the chemicals in their beauty and personal-care products. It is debuting in the wake of thousands of lawsuits over claims of cancer-causing asbestos found in Johnson & Johnson’s talc products, and decades of the consumer health giant allegedly attempting to cover it up.
“It’s the exact type of story where the government’s not doing enough about it, you can say people’s lives are in danger, and frankly in some ways the current media industrial complex can’t cover it thoroughly,” said Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press.” “It’s the kind of story I could never figure out how to cover on ‘Meet the Press’ — maybe I could ask a senator a question or two, ‘How come there isn’t more rigorous regulation on these products?’ Yet as a documentary you see the narrative and understand it from a larger sense and it can have a bigger impact. We’re giving it the Washington, D.C., stamp of approval.”
Federal laws designed to guarantee cosmetics safety in the U.S. have gone largely unchanged since 1938, and under current law cosmetics companies do not have to register with the Food and Drug Administration. Advocates for more regulations, such as the lobbyist The Environmental Working Group and “clean beauty” retailer Credo Beauty, argue that regulations in Europe are far more stringent and safer for consumers — the EU bans thousands more ingredients in products than the U.S. does. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins have introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Bill, which calls for more strict regulation and the immediate review of certain chemicals, including formaldehyde and propyl parabens, but the bill has yet to be passed.
Aside from the women Ellis is following, she interviewed figures such as Dr. Daniel W. Cramer, whose research focuses on the epidemiology of ovarian cancer; medicine and public health expert Dr. Roberta Ness, as well as a former cosmetic chemist at L’Oréal.
The film positions the lack of cosmetics regulation as similar to that of the lack of regulation in tobacco decades ago, with one doctor commenting, “It’s worse than tobacco because we are talking about thousands of chemicals, none of which have been tested for safety.”
Ellis, who worked on “Toxic Beauty” for three years, was inspired to make the film in part because, as a former Olympian, she used to apply talcum powder on herself multiple times a day.
“I got scared, and I thought, ‘Wow, if the most trusted brand in the world is linked to ovarian cancer, what else are we using that is going to cause us harm in the personal-care world?'” she questioned.
More From WWD: