Top researchers worldwide have the hard science to answer the question ‘Are cosmetics and personal care products making us sick?’
When headlines about a U.S. class action lawsuit against the $347b pharmaceutical behemoth Johnson & Johnson linking talc in baby powder to ovarian cancer made national news, Toronto-based writer, director and producer Phyllis Ellis knew she had to investigate. A former hockey player on the Canadian Olympic team, Ellis had used J&J baby powder, commonly known as talcum powder, throughout her professional sporting career.
“I was an Olympic athlete and over 15 years of training and competing, used J&J baby powder several times a day,” she says. “After months of research and speaking with world-renowned epidemiologist/oncologist Dr. Daniel Cramer, I discovered I was at risk.”
Johnson & Johnson may have promoted its talc powder as safe (“A sprinkle a day helps keep the odor away”) but a research study all the way back in 1982 was the first to find links between talc and ovarian cancer. In the case-control study, women who applied talcum powder to their genitals were three times as likely to develop ovarian cancer than those who didn’t.
While at risk of ovarian cancer given her talc exposure, Ellis isn’t fighting for her life like the plaintiffs suing J&J, but it did get her wondering, “If the most trusted brand in the world could cause cancer, what other products are we using daily that could cause harm?”
With billions of people across the world slathering hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals on their bodies each day, many of which have been proven to be toxic, the filmmaker felt this was a story worth pursuing.
It took three years for Ellis and her team – producer Barri Cohen, cinematographer Iris Ng and executive producer Peter Raymont – to pour over countless research findings and interviews with world-class scientists, epidemiologists, doctors, women fighting ovarian cancer, advocates and lawyers, but the efforts paid off, resulting in the 90-minute documentary feature film ‘Toxic Beauty‘ exploring the truth about the hidden dangers in cosmetics and personal care products.
“The film is a fact-based narrative supported by personal stories and solid science to refute skeptics (and some of my friends) who say that toxins and chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products are harmless,” Ellis explains.
“My intention is to tell this story so we protect our bodies, our children’s bodies, and to identify the danger that toxic chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products pose to all of us through, cause, effects and the profound doubt and power big industry wields.”
With a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson forming the backdrop of the film, Toxic Beauty uncovers the links between chemicals and toxins found in personal care products (e.g. phthalates, formaldehyde, parabens, triclosan, mercury) to numerous health issues and diseases such as infertility and reproductive problems, developmental problems, miscarriage, cancer including ovarian and breast cancer, dermatitis and skin disease to name a few.
Toxic Beauty also introduces viewers to Boston University medical student, Mymy Nguyen, who volunteers to study her own chemical exposures from more than 27 cosmetics and care products. Working with the Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit scientific research organization dedicated to uncovering environmental causes of cancer, Nguyen was able to test and measure her exposure, revealing paraben levels that were 35 times higher when using conventional personal care products compared with ‘clean’ products.
The film also draws a parallel between the beauty and personal care industry and the tobacco industry, showing how Big Cosmetics’ multi-million dollar ‘personal empowerment’ advertising campaigns have influenced the narrative, leading consumers to believe that their products are safe; when in fact, many of its chemicals and products have not been adequately tested nor properly regulated.
In the end, rather than conclude that people should stop using personal care products and cosmetics, Toxic Beauty offers solutions and hope for safer, cleaner beauty products free from harmful chemicals.
“As a woman and filmmaker, the narrative advocates to empower consumers and as scientist Dr. Ami Zota so eloquently states ‘to change these beauty norms so women don’t have to choose between their health and trying to look beautiful according to these arbitrary standards.’ “
Early this month, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $750 million in punitive damages to four cancer victims after a New Jersey jury ruled that asbestos in its powders cause cancer.
This comes after the $344 million payout verdict to victims in January for false and deceptive marketing of vaginal-mesh products.
Last year, a St. Louis jury ordered the company to pay $4.7 billion compensation and punitive damages to J&J baby powder victims.
At the time of writing, Johnson & Johnson faces lawsuits from more than 16,000 plaintiffs alleging that its baby powder contains cancer-causing asbestos.
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Featured image of Rose Marie Swift applying makeup. Credit: White Pine Pictures. All images supplied.