Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.

‘Toxic Beauty’: The Ugly Business of Pretty

Documentary reveals the unregulated, secretive and dangerous world of personal care products.

Dorothy Woodend 19 Apr

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Contact her here.

Women are dying to be beautiful.

The products they use — lipstick, perfume, and powder — are destroying their very cells, warns director Phyllis Ellis in her new documentary, Toxic Beauty.

But the wall of silence that surrounds the personal care industry means women have no way of assessing the risks of largely unregulated products.

Ellis’s film blows the lid off the issue with the precision of a Tomahawk missile. More than just makeup and hair products, personal care products include toothpaste, fragrance, skincare, soap and deodorant — items that people use every single day.

But each one of these is made from multiple chemicals, many of which can have profound impacts on human health and the environment.

Last July, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay US$4.7 billion to a group of women who said the company’s baby powder caused ovarian cancer. The company maintains its product is safe.

Johnson & Johnson’s bestselling talc might be the most high-profile product to face multiple class action lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada, but it’s certainly not alone in being linked to serious health problems. It’s only the tip of an extremely large iceberg that is currently lodged in your medicine cabinet, bathtub and make-up drawer.

The effects of endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and toxic materials such as mercury and lead in the products we use on ourselves and on our children is horrifying enough.

But what’s more shocking is that the average consumer has no way of knowing what’s really in their moisturizer or deodorant. The lead attorney for the class action suit against Johnson & Johnson states: “I liken baby powder to a delivery device of multiple carcinogens, exactly like a cigarette.”

But unlike cigarettes, baby powder, bubble bath, soap and shampoo do not require warning labels. Ingredients are listed, but often using incomprehensible names and some, like the components of scents, don’t have to be listed at all.

On the eve of its world premiere at Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, and screenings at DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver on May 6 and 7, The Tyee asked director Ellis about Toxic Beauty and the very ugly stuff it uncovers.

The Tyee: One of the people interviewed in your film, Rick Smith (author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck) says the issue of toxic chemicals is like global warming (“the second pollution crisis”), but asks why so little attention has been paid to the problem. Do you think the issue has failed to garner greater attention because it’s still perceived to be a woman’s problem?

Phyllis Ellis: I do. Phillippa Darbre, one of the researchers in the film, once said to me, ‘You know, Phyllis, make no mistake, this is an assault on women.’ She laughed, but we had a long conversation about it. I’m pretty sure if men were losing their lives because a product they were using was causing cancer, it would be taken off the shelves fairly quickly!

582px version of PhyllisEllis.jpeg
Director Phyllis Ellis called toxic beauty products ‘bigger than the tobacco issue.’

Also because the idea of ‘makeup’ is usually associated with women, not that men shouldn’t wear makeup, but typically. Although it’s ironic that the ‘male gaze’ perpetuates the whole idea of what is beautiful, so they should take it seriously. Dr. Ami Zota says one of my favourite quotes in the film: ‘We have to change these beauty norms, so women don’t have to choose between their health and trying to be beautiful according to these arbitrary standards.’

One of things that I found most affecting was women blaming themselves for using a product that caused ovarian cancer. Do you think women are less prone to speaking out, given the culture of silence and shame around female anatomy?

Also a great question. From my many conversations, especially with the women of colour in the film, certainly they find within their cultures these conversations are not as open, although it’s changing due to the amazing women researchers of colour who are bringing this forward. I think the silence and shame about our anatomy is a big factor. I even found conversations around saying the word ‘vagina’ associated with the pathway talc takes into the ovaries was quite challenging at times. The whole victim-shaming approach, even if subtle, is what large brands often use to silence women.

Were you shocked by the scale of the problem?

I was shocked. And frankly it took me many conversations, and an inordinate amount of research, reading, and interviews to really wrap my head around it. But I loved meeting so many champions, brilliant minds who have been researching, and publishing case-controlled studies. There was a point, very early on in the process, where I said, OK, I’m in.

I was an Olympian who used baby powder, like so many athletes, and I used it for years, many times a day. I actually got scared. Was I at risk? Yes, I am. So, I thought if the most trusted brand in the world is linked to cancer, what else are we using that could cause us harm?

Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment Julie Gelfand talks about our regulatory system, which allows products to enter the marketplace without being tested for safety. Only if problems emerge is testing required. Can you explain why this is?

I don’t know why. But it blows most people away who were not aware of it. Julie mentioned there are literally thousands of products, and it’s expensive to test, and they rely on industry to say ‘yup, don’t worry, it’s all safe.’

The same secrecy surrounded the tobacco industry, with people unwilling or unable to speak out. Do you foresee this changing with Johnson & Johnson class action suits happening in the U.S. and Canada?

I hope so. It is bigger than the tobacco issue, but it’s also a bigger issue because this is baby powder, we put this on our babies, on our kids, on ourselves. Most people figure if they’re drawing on a cigarette, it’s probably not awesome, but with makeup, personal care or hygiene products, we figure we are OK. We’re told we have to smell great, be clean, look younger, fresher, better and all this ‘beauty’ with a pretty ugly side to it.

Are there any significant changes in legislation and/or increased attention being paid to how personal care products are monitored and marketed?

Yes, I think here in Canada with pending changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and there are bills on the floor in Congress in the U.S., but the European Union is way ahead of us.

Your interview with Dr. Daniel Cramer is particularly shocking, especially in revealing how long researchers have known of a link between talc and ovarian cancer. Why didn’t Johnson & Johnson warn consumers? Why haven’t they taken responsibility? What does it take for corporations to behave differently?

Well, I guess if we all stopped buying the products. If Canada would ban the sale of J&J baby powder with talc and if Canada would ban talc in all cosmetics and care products, then industry would have to do something. But I think people are smart and now this conversation has a new voice, which is the film, and champions like Dr. Cramer have been telling this truth for a long time. Think of all the women’s lives that could have been saved.

With $84 billion in cosmetics industry sales in the U.S. regulated by a page and a half of federal law, and the industry’s lobby to be self-policing, does the issue always come down to profit over people?

Dr. David Michaels, who has been working in the space for a very long time said in the interview, ‘It’s very difficult to convince a man he’s wrong, when he’s paid to say it.’ He spoke about the many people who worked in the tobacco industry who came home every day convinced that tobacco didn’t cause cancer, because they were told it didn’t and their jobs depended that it didn’t.

We actually spent some time shooting in a big corporation, and I chose not to put it in the film because I knew without a doubt the people who worked there really believed they were changing lives making shampoo or cosmetics and that it was very ‘healthy.’ It was like Pleasantville, company style.

How does the U.S. regulatory system differ from the Canadian system?

Well, we have a system to regulate, and the U.S. does not at all. However, as Dr. Bruce Lanphear [of Simon Fraser University] said, there’s not much difference — Canada may regulate, but they don’t implement the regulations.

The onus still seems to be on the consumer, as opposed to corporations and regulators, to make certain that products are safe. What would it take to change this?

We have to put pressure on our governments to change this. We could put pressure on our MPs and regulatory bodies. Boycott products. Listen to the science.

Michaels also compared it to climate change and journalists trying to write balanced stories — climate change is real and climate change is exaggerated or a hoax. But in the ’70s and early ’80’s, if we had taken climate change more seriously then, maybe the polar ice caps might not be falling apart. Not believing in sound science degrades all scientists. We have an issue; it’s not going away, and we can change the outcome.

How has making the film changed your own habits?

I have changed everything. Not much left in my meagre cosmetic bag.

With consumers looking for less-toxic options, what are the best and most trustworthy sources to get information on alternatives?

Environmental Defence, Breast Cancer Quebec, Women’s Healthy Environments Network in Canada, Environmental Working Group, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Silent Spring in the U.S.

What is the best way to decrease your own chemical burden?

Read labels, decrease number of products, and don’t use anything with fragrance. Live in a bubble, but not a plastic one!  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Film

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about Your Municipality’s Water Security?

Take this week's poll