By Jessica L. Yarbrough, Vogue
“A chemist for one of the biggest designer cosmetic brands in the world—I won’t say what the brand was, but you know it—called me to come in years ago, and I thought, Oh my God, this is huge,” recalls Rose-Marie Swift, makeup artist and founder of RMS Beauty.
Their meeting started the usual way. Hi, how are you, I love what you’re doing. The chemist complimented Swift’s product formulations (all-natural, organic) the way only a chemist can. “Then he said, ‘The cosmetic industry is destroying women’s cells.’” She takes a beat. “Cells. C-e-l-l-s.”
I’ve listened to Swift tell this story three times now. Once over the phone, once at her home in Savannah, and once in the opening scenes of Toxic Beauty, a new documentary from filmmaker Phyllis Ellis, released today on Amazon and Apple TV. Each time, her signature bare face and bold lips animate as if it were the first telling, her voice rising and falling and pausing for dramatic effect.
“My mouth fell open,” she continues, “and I said, ‘Why don’t you say something?’ And you know what he said? He said, ‘I can’t.’”
It’s a powerful start for the award-winning Toxic Beauty, which condenses a three-year investigation of the virtually unregulated chemicals in personal-care products into 90 thoughtful, thought-provoking minutes. Many will find it shocking, though Swift does not. This is a subject she knows personally.
After falling ill—panic attacks, memory loss, hormonal imbalance, rashes—two decades ago, the makeup artist had a strange interaction with the technician delivering her lab results. He asked if she worked in the cosmetic industry. He could tell because the chemicals in her hair, blood, and urine were more commonly found in beauty products than in people.
The discovery inspired Swift to launch BeautyTruth.com in 2004 to expose the industry’s ugliest ingredients: carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, irritants, allergens. Not that the information is necessarily well received. Swift and her peers—Gwyneth Paltrow at Goop, Gregg Renfrew at Beautycounter, Tiffany Masterson at Drunk Elephant—have been accused of fearmongering. “But look at the tobacco industry,” Swift says. “This is going to be bigger.”
Ellis draws the same parallel in Toxic Beauty, which largely focuses on the recent lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson by more than 15,000 women with cancer who believe the company’s talc-based baby and body powders are to blame. “I fell on the talc story and contacted Dr. Daniel Cramer, who had causally linked ovarian cancer and the lifetime use of talc,” Ellis tells Vogue. Dr. Cramer, referred to in the film as one of the “grandfathers of epidemiology,” first published his findings in 1982. Toxic Beauty alleges Johnson & Johnson knew about their products’ risks long before that.
Reports by a consulting lab from 1957 note that asbestos, a known carcinogen, had been detected in Johnson & Johnson’s talc supply. Memos from the 1960s show the company seeking sources of clean talc and, as Talc Litigation Group attorney R. Allen Smith puts it in the film, “admitting it cannot be ‘safely absorbed in the vagina.’”
Despite these documents, despite Dr. Cramer’s research, despite the thousands upon thousands of former Johnson’s Baby Powder devotees who’ve developed ovarian cancer—some featured throughout Toxic Beauty, a few of whom lost their lives before filming wrapped—and despite the fact that the company recalled a batch of baby powder in 2019 when the Food and Drug Administration detected evidence of asbestos in a product sample, Johnson & Johnson maintains, under oath, that talc is safe. (It’s worth noting that the company has paid out billions in punitive damages to plaintiffs across the country.)
“They said from the beginning cigarette smoke was safe,” Swift notes. “Mercury was ‘safe’ back in the day, arsenic was ‘safe.’ When there’s money involved, of course people are going to say it’s safe.”
The Big Tobacco trials of the ’90s do bear an unsettling resemblance to the more recent Johnson & Johnson trials. Ellis contrasts a clip of tobacco executive James Johnston stating, “Cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definition of addiction” with footage of modern-day Johnson & Johnson executives denying cancer claims. She highlights the scientists who testified to the safety of smoking and cuts to those now doing the same for talc. Interestingly enough, there’s also evidence of internal memos about nicotine’s status as “an addictive drug” circulating throughout tobacco companies in the 1960s, though a watershed moment wouldn’t come until 2000.
It begs the question: Is skincare the new cigarette? Forty years from now, will talc be as irrefutably linked to ovarian cancer as smoking is to lung cancer? The scientists, doctors, and lawyers interviewed in Toxic Beauty think so—and talc (which, it should be noted, is also found in face powders, eyeshadows, and more) is far from the only cosmetic ingredient they’re questioning.
“The best available science points to this cosmetics issue being even bigger than the tobacco industry,” Dr. Rick Smith, environmentalist and author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, says in Toxic Beauty, “because we’re talking about thousands of chemicals, most of which haven’t been accurately safety tested.”
The chemicals Dr. Smith is referring to are the tens of thousands of substances available for use in personal-care products in the United States, the majority of which have not been assessed for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Since the industry operates under a postmarket regulatory system (which is to say, is not really regulated), most ingredients aren’t reviewed by a government agency before they go to market. Regulation kicks in only if customers report problems post-purchase.
Ellis adds that cosmetic legislation in the U.S. hasn’t been updated since 1938, meaning current safety data is unaccounted for—data that connects common chemicals like parabens and phthalates to hormone disruption and breast cancer and that shows carcinogenic heavy metals in personal-care products.
Toxic Beauty zeroes in on the research behind parabens (a class of preservatives) and phthalates (plasticizers commonly found in fragrances). Both are considered endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that mimic hormones, which may lead to hormonal imbalance, infertility, sperm damage, early puberty, and even hormone-related cancers, like breast cancer. Both are proven to infiltrate the body. “I’m actually quite upset about how much [paraben content] I’ve measured in human breast tissue,” Dr. Philipa Darbre, an oncology professor, remarks in the film.
Like talc, the potential dangers of parabens and phthalates are hotly debated, one reason being these molecules are tiny and are theoretically filtered out of the body via the liver. But as Ellis says, “It’s not one product, it’s the accumulation of a number of products, and the reapplication of those products.”
When you use 27 products per day, that exposure adds up.
That’s the number of soaps, serums, concealers, and more than Mymy Nguyen, a 24-year-old medical student at Boston University and one of the documentary’s star subjects, reaches for each morning. “I’m always chasing this kind of look, this kind of aesthetic,” Nguyen tells Vogue. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to look a certain way. It’s part of who I am and how I dress.” Still, when Nguyen connected with Ellis, she was curious to see how her beauty routine (Clairol shampoo, Fenty Beauty foundation) affected her chemical body burden, especially after a recent brush with a benign breast tumor.
Toxic Beauty follows Nguyen as she submits to three blood tests over three days: one after her usual 27-step regimen, one after a zero-product detox day, and one after switching over to clean beauty products. The results, revealed in the film’s final moments, are staggering: On a typical day, Nguyen’s phthalate levels were five times higher and her paraben levels were 35 times higher than when she switched to non-toxic cosmetics.
“I think there’s definitely a connection between phthalates and parabens and [health issues], but I don’t think these things are meant to cause any harm,” the medical student says. “With a lot of the girls I talk to, we love helping each other find new products and lifting each other up. Beauty is a very empowering kind of thing.”
To Ellis, this speaks to the manipulative power of marketing, which can be just as toxic as the products it promotes. “We have to change these beauty norms so women don’t have to choose between their health and trying to look beautiful,” she states. “I really believe this is a women’s health issue.”
And even more so for women of color. Products aimed at minority women—skin-lightening creams, hair-straightening treatments—“have higher levels of carcinogens and toxicants,” Ellis says. Research from the Environmental Working Group shows that one in 12 beauty products marketed to black women contains toxic substances, with less than 25% of products in the space considered low in potentially hazardous ingredients. A new study links the use of permanent hair dye and chemical straighteners with a 60% increase in breast cancer risk for black women, as opposed to an 8% increase for white women. “The research is coming, it’s just coming slowly,” Nguyen says. “But I believe it. It doesn’t make sense to me that these chemicals are regulated in other countries and not in the U.S.”
Talc, parabens, and, to an extent, phthalates are all restricted in Europe, where more than 1,300 cosmetic chemicals are banned, compared to the United States’ 11. The evidence against these substances may not be definitive, but it’s there, and it’s growing. “I think that if we question an ingredient, don’t use it,” Ellis says. “If there’s a chance it could cause cancer, don’t use it. Don’t put it in your products. Use something else. Or require a warning label.”
But would a warning label make consumers pause before purchasing? Would it do anything to dismantle the deeply ingrained, unattainable beauty standards the industry is built on?
“It’s really hard to pull that back,” Ellis admits. “When I was trying to detox my routine, I decided I was going to let my hair go gray and be proud of my age and do it for my daughter. And then I was going to London because Toxic Beauty was screening over there, and three days before I left, I thought, Oh my God, I can’t go to London looking like this! So I put $300 worth of chemicals on my head, and off I went.”