Toxic Beauty Parent Guide
An important message and a valuable resource for schools and libraries.
Parent Movie Review
“There are limits on the chemicals we can spray on foods or crops – but not on the chemicals we spray on ourselves.”
“This issue is even bigger than the tobacco industry because we’re talking about thousands of chemicals.”
“Chemicals are not like people. They’re not innocent ‘til proven guilty.”
If you find these statements cause for concern, Toxic Beauty is the documentary for you. Through interviews with women affected by their personal care products and with doctors, scientists, and lawyers, this production examines the harm caused by the soaps, lotions, shampoos, and cosmetics we use every day. And it will almost certainly make you go home, tear open your bathroom vanity cabinets, and read all of the labels you’ve never noticed before.
Toxic Beauty has an important message, but it doesn’t always work well as a movie. What it really feels like is two TV documentaries that have been edited together. One is a medical/legal story, describing the cancer-causing effects of talcum powder. And the second is concerned with the chemical burden our bodies carry as a result of the products we use every day.
Of the two stories, the one about talcum powder is the most complete. Few things seem as innocent as baby powder, lovingly sprinkled on infants after baths or diaper changes. Unfortunately, millions of women have also sprinkled it under their arms or in their underwear, from where it can be absorbed and cause ovarian cancer. Toxic Beauty does an excellent job of telling the stories of women diagnosed with talc-induced ovarian cancer, talking to scientists about the carcinogenic nature of talcum powder, and explaining the lawsuits cancer patients have launched against Johnson & Johnson, the largest manufacturer of the product. As one scientist sums up, “Baby powder is a delivery device for multiple carcinogens – just like cigarettes.”
The second story is potentially more interesting. It follows Mymy Nguyen, a young pre-med student whose benign breast tumor has sent her on a search for potential causes. The film follows her as she explores the parabens, phthalates, volatile organic compounds, and other potentially hazardous chemicals found in her make-up, hair products, soaps, and lotions. There is some discussion of the potential consequences of long term exposure – cancer, reproductive issues, infertility. Mymy does lab work to compare her “body burden” when she has had a chemical “cleanse”, when she is using her normal products, and when she is using “clean” products, free of toxic chemicals. She also mentions the higher chemical burden carried by the bodies of women of color, thanks to the hair straighteners and skin lighteners popular in those communities. This is an interesting issue and I wish it had been examined at greater length. I would also like to have seen more attention paid to the “post-market regulatory” environment in which personal care products are sold.
Frankly, I wish director Phyllis Ellis had split these stories into two films. Mymy’s story deserves to have more time devoted to the research linking cosmetic use to health problems. I left the movie wondering just how tight the link was between correlation and causation on many of the products and would have appreciated more definitive science.
That being said, even though Toxic Beauty has room to improve, it’s a valuable resource, particularly for schools. I would love to see it shown to teenagers in biology, chemistry, or cosmetology classes. Teaching consumers young, before their bodies are flooded with endocrine disruptors and potential carcinogens could be a real boon to their long term health. Even better would be if they absorb the message given in the film: “Let’s try to change beauty norms so women don’t have to choose between their health and looking beautiful.”
This movie is currently in limited release in Canada. It is expected to screen in the US in 2020: we will keep you informed when we know the opening date.Directed by Phyllis Ellis. Running time: 90 minutes. Theatrical release September 9, 2019. Updated November 21, 2019
Watch the trailer for Toxic Beauty
Rating & Content Info
Why is Toxic Beauty rated Not Rated? Toxic Beauty is rated Not Rated by the MPAA
Violence: None noted.
Sexual Content: None noted.
Profanity: None noted.
Alcohol / Drug Use: None noted.
Page last updated November 21, 2019
Toxic Beauty Parents' Guide
Where do our beauty standards come from? How have images of beauty shifted over time? What influence do you think media and particularly social media have on our ideas of what’s beautiful? Do these ideals affect men and women differently? Do you think teens are more vulnerable? What do you want to do to shift ideas of what’s beautiful?
Business Insider: Different Ideals of Beauty by Country
The Guardian: Girls and social media: impossible standard
Center for Media Literacy: Beauty…and the Beast of Advertising
How dangerous do you think your personal care products are? How do you want to respond to this information? Are you interested in finding safer alternatives? Or in making your own products?
Huffpost: toxic beauty ingredients to avoid
Loved this movie? Try these books…
Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth is the classic examination of what our society considers beautiful, and the price women pay for these beliefs. For a fictional look at self-acceptance, you can read Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’. This feel good novel is the story of Willowdean, the overweight daughter of a former beauty queen who finally decides to enter the local beauty pageant.
For more detail about the sloppy regulatory environment surrounding personal care products, the dangers they pose, and healthy alternatives, you can read Samuel S Epstein’s Toxic Beauty: How Cosmetics and Personal-Care Products Endanger Your Health…and What You Can Do About It.
Along the same lines is Kim Erickson’s Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics. This book provides a useful primer in understanding the ingredients on make up products and also provides natural alternatives and recipes for making your own.
Related home video titles:
Movies that portray healthy body images can be helpful in changing our ideas of what’s beautiful. Hairspray tells the story of a warm-hearted, chubby teen who just wants to dance. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants shows that all body shapes can be beautiful.
This Changes Everything explores gender discrimination in Hollywood and discusses the pressure on women to have bodies that will attract a male gaze.
Erin Brockovich is a legal thriller about a lawyer’s secretary who takes charge of a lawsuit against a utility company whose waste ponds poisoned an entire community.