On the Toxicity of Beauty

by Hong Phan

“Protecting people from dangerous materials in cosmetics is not even in the back seat, it’s not even in the car.”1 Directed by Phyllis Ellis, Toxic Beauty is a documentary film focusing on the exposures of toxic chemical products through substantial use of daily beauty products, ranging from cosmetics, hair products, feminine products, and even baby powder. The film begins with a series of thought-provoking clips, one of which shows a woman discussing the importance of makeup and cosmetics “because the way [women] look impacts the way [they] feel about [themselves] and the ways other people feel about [them].”2 As we explore the seeming non-regulation of the beauty industry, and our reliance on beauty products to make us “feel like ourselves,” this clip serves as a necessary reminder of the importance and value placed on beauty standards and, most importantly, Eurocentric beauty norms, in defining our daily beauty practices and traditions.

Even in today’s world, this notion of beauty defining women is still of great prominence, as Mymy Nguyen, an incoming medical student, explains in the film. As the audience joins her on her journey of trying to understand the deleterious effects of her own reliance on beauty products, Nguyen begins to unravel her own exposure to the concept of beauty as a little girl. Growing up, the practice of slathering on lotion, creams, and makeup to her face and body became normal, as she watched her own mother use and praise similar cosmetic products in preserving her beauty. This notion of cosmetics defining who she was became a greater fixture in her life, as she began to compare her own features to those seen on models in television advertisements: beautiful, white women with large, round eyes and prominent noses. These gendered practices, which informed her own, however, aren’t isolated to Nguyen’s experiences, nor limited to the culture she was raised in, which idolizes Eurocentric beauty.

As the audience is introduced to Mel Lika, Deane Berg, Saheda Farooqi, Beverly Robinson, and Claudette Dupris, we learn quickly that all five women, despite never having known each other, had two things in common: ovarian cancer and a history of talc usage. Talc, otherwise known as talcum powder, is a mineral composed of hydrated magnesium silicate, and it is the main ingredient found in baby powder. Beginning in the late 1890s, talcum powder was marketed for “toilet and nursery” use by Johnson & Johnson. The product quickly became popular for its scent and became a mainstay in daily cosmetic products, especially for women who relied on the product to maintain feminine hygiene. This tradition of using baby powder has continued for many generations, although any linkage between its use and its role in the development of cancer was never fully explored until much later. Like many who have had a history of talc usage and later developed ovarian cancer, these five women were seemingly healthy with many having no history of cancer in their family. For all five, their talc usage stemmed, in part, from watching their own mothers, and generations prior, use baby powder as a cosmetic product. Yet, none were seemingly aware of the dangers of talc usage until it was too late. When discussing her own diagnosis, Berg expressed her anger that there were no labels to be found on the baby powder bottle that would have indicated any danger, no signs that would point to its linkage to asbestos and its classification by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a carcinogen.3 Sadly, however, this is the shocking reality of an “84 billion dollar domestic cosmetic industry only regulated by a page and a half in federal law.”4

Yet, while industry regulations continue to wane in their stringency, attention to and awareness of the dangers of the beauty industry and the chemicals used have started to grow, as an increasing number of seemingly healthy women find themselves dealing with reproductive issues and hormonal cancers, amongst a myriad of other health complications. Dr. Daniel Cramer is one such individual who has spearheaded efforts to bring light to the role of talc usage on the development of ovarian cancer. A leading figure in the field of epidemiology, Cramer conducted a case-control study that looked at women who had recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and asked them about their daily habits, including their use of talc. His study found that more than half of these women used an excess amount of baby powder in their genital area, and a majority used Johnson & Johnson.5 Despite the subsequent resistance he was met with from the beauty industry and Johnson & Johnson itself, Cramer’s study was one of the first to systematically link ovarian cancer to talc usage. While a growing number of research has been funded to further investigate the role of not only talc, but chemicals such as phthalates and parabens, the growing number of health issues linked to beauty products makes it evident that research alone isn’t enough to address the inadequacy of regulation or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

Currently, much of the beauty industry relies on post-marketing surveillance, where the safety of products is monitored after they have been released for consumer usage. This, however, is not enough to address the existing health issues associated with the chemicals most commonly used in products. The testimonies of countless women harmed by chemical products, as Mymy’s own detox reports showcased in Toxic Beauty, is clear evidence that the beauty industry must answer to more than post-production surveillance and litigation. Testimonies from the UCLA Center for the Study of Women’s oral history project, “Oral Histories of Environmental Illness” further elucidate the connection between illness and use of fragrances and other chemical products. As a consumer of daily beauty products, watching this documentary has been both informative and eye-opening. I am inspired to understand the multitude of ways my daily consumption of products can harm my health and, even more so, I am driven to make more conscious, educated choices of the products I choose to lather on my body. While Toxic Beauty is only a small step in a long journey towards a more eco-conscious, nature-driven future in the beauty industry, the film’s clear, concise message will surely empower many more to take charge of their own health.

Hong Phan is a UCLA Undergraduate Student studying Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. She is a member of the 2019-2020 Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Student Research Group.


World Health Organization, “Carbon Black, Titanium Dioxide, and Talc,” IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans 93 (2010): 277-412, accessed May 3, 2020, https://monographs.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/mono93.pdf.

Cramer, Daniel W., Allison F. Vitonis, Kathryn L. Terry, William R. Welch, and Linda J. Titus, “The Association Between Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer: A Retrospective Case-Control Study in Two US States,” Epidemiology 27, no. 3 (2016): 334-346, accessed May 3, 2020, https://journals.lww.com/epidem/Fulltext/2016/05000/The_Association_Between_Talc_Use_and_Ovarian.6.aspx.

Toxic Beauty, directed by Phyllis Ellis. 2019: White Pine Pictures. Online.

  1. Toxic Beauty, directed by Phyllis Ellis (2019: White Pine Pictures), online.
  2. Toxic Beauty, directed by Phyllis Ellis.
  3. “Carbon Black, Titanium Dioxide, and Talc.” IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans 93 (2010): 412, accessed May 3, 2020. https://monographs.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/mono93.pdf
  4. Toxic Beauty, directed by Phyllis Ellis.
  5. Daniel W. Cramer, Allison F. Vitonis, Kathryn L. Terry, William R. Welch, and Linda J. Titus. “The Association Between Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer.” Epidemiology 27, no. 3 (2016), accessed May 3, 2020. https://journals.lww.com/epidem/Fulltext/2016/05000/The_Association_Between_Talc_Use_and_Ovarian.6.aspx