‘People really need to know’: can we trust beauty products to be safe?

In a shocking new docuseries, the highly unregulated and highly dangerous world of cosmetics is thrust into the spotlight

Ayesha Malik’s hair was once so lush – glossy, with ringlets worthy of a Disney movie – that she had to prove on YouTube that she didn’t wear a wig or use a curling iron. At the time, Malik was a devotee of DevaCurl, a line of products designed specifically for curly hair, something she had found hard to come by in her home town of Anchorage, Alaska. Malik first promoted DevaCurl as a fan – she credited the company with transforming her relationship to her hair – and then as an influencer. But by January 2019, nearly six years into use of DevaCurl products, something was off. Her hair appeared brittle and fried. The ringlets straightened out. Her scalp itched terribly, and she started losing handfuls of hair in the shower. She developed consistent tinnitus and anxiety, struggled with memory loss and delayed speech, and withdrew from her work on social media.

Though she had received several concerned DMs from followers experiencing similar hair damage, it wasn’t until she joined a Facebook group later that summer that she admitted the culprit could be her beloved hair products. The group, Hair Damage & Hair Loss from DevaCurl – You’re not CRAZY or ALONE, started by Orlando-based hair stylist Stephanie Mero, had 3,000 members at the time who all experienced similar damage they attributed to DevaCurl. (The group now has close to 60,000 members.) Malik read the posts and cried in recognition and horror, though “it still took me a few months to process, because I was still in denial”, she told the Guardian. She felt as though she’d been in a long-term relationship with the brand. “The betrayal is just so hard to fathom,” she said. “Why would you harm me? You’re supposed to be the complete opposite of that.”

Malik’s experience with DevaCurl is one cautionary tale in Not So Pretty, a new HBO Max documentary series from investigative film-makers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, known for sexual assault docs On the Record and Allen v Farrow, on toxic chemicals in the beauty industry and the lax regulation, lack of oversight and corporate lobbying which allows for routine US consumer exposure to dangerous substances. The series, narrated by the actor Keke Palmer, consists of four succinct yet sprawling half-hour episodes on different aspects of the multibillion-dollar beauty industry.

The hair episode includes Malik, Mero and others with hair damage they believe is associated with DevaCurl, as well as a survey of the Eurocentric beauty standards and discrimination that has fueled marketing of dangerous hair relaxers to black women for decades. Nails explores the serious health risks faced by salon employees, who are predominantly immigrants and people of color. Skincare investigates products and plastic packaging with PFAS compounds, AKA “forever chemicals”, linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption and other health problems. Makeup covers similar concerns in cosmetics, with a special focus on evidence that Johnson & Johnson knew its talc-based baby powder contained asbestos as far back as the mid-1970s (the company, facing thousands of lawsuits, withdrew the product in North America in 2020).

There’s a common theme across all four: the personal care products we consume, often without thought and under the assumption that there’s some regulatory friction before something is on store shelves, are not nearly as safe as you think they are. (This goes for more than just cosmetics — the Guardian’s series Toxic America has found harmful chemicals in everything from food to children’s toys to pizza boxes to tap water.) “So many of the things we put on our bodies, we don’t even think to ask about, or even think it’s our place to question,” Ziering said. “It’s just so part of our culture, just to buy stuff.”

Personal care products – daily shampoo and conditioners, nail polish, moisturizers, perfumes, etc – have particularly lax regulation in the US. While the EU has banned or restricted more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics alone, the US has outlawed just 11 toxic ingredients. There are currently no legal requirements for cosmetic manufacturers to test their products before selling them to consumers. If consumers are harmed, there’s little the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulatory body supposedly protecting consumers, can do; the enfeebled agency can merely request a company issue a voluntary recall.

“Pretty much every other chemical in every other industry has some sort of oversight, and in cosmetics, there’s almost none,” Dick said. “We were shocked to see that something that was so common, so ubiquitous, that everybody uses, there was almost no regulation. And what that means is that consumers have to be aware.”

It’s alleged that Malik’s hair and health were damaged by ingredients in DevaCurl products which released formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen banned in EU-sold cosmetics but still found in hair relaxers and nail polish. (The company has maintained that their products are safe and that hair loss and other damage can be attributed to other factors. According to a statement given to the film-makers: “we have not seen a single medical record, laboratory test, or diagnosis from a doctor or scientific professional to support the claims made in this TV program.”) The film-makers found that the FDA received more than 1,500 reports of damage by DevaCurl, from hair loss to migraines to ulcers, but the agency could not issue a recall. The company has since reformulated their products.

Though the FDA requires cosmetics to have an “ingredient declaration”, toxic chemicals can still lurk in commonly used products. Fragrance formulations, for example, are considered a “trade secret” and thus protected from disclosure to regulators or manufacturers, meaning that the 4,000 chemicals currently used to scent products in the US – some of which cause irritation, endocrine disruption, or are linked to cancer – never make it to the label. A 2019 study by industrial chemist Ladan Khandel on gel nail polish, conducted when she was a master’s student in environmental health at University of California, Berkeley, found dangerous ingredients not disclosed on the safety data sheets required by California law.

Such chemicals included formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and methyl methacrylate, “which are all pretty toxic and would definitely need to be disclosed if they were in the original formulation of the product”, said Khandel, who appears in the second episode and runs a Instagram account dedicated to the toxicology of beauty. “People really need to know what they’re being exposed to, and the safety data sheets need to show it,” she added. “It should be on the manufacturers to prove their products are safe before it goes to market.”

Ziering, too, puts the onus on companies to ensure their products are safe, something not found in the final two episodes, which explore decades of allegations against Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobil-produced chemicals in beauty products and packaging, and lobbying efforts to weaken consumer protection. “We are a nation of multinational corporations that parades as a democracy,” said Ziering. “We’re suffering from the lack of ethical leadership at the head of these corporations, and the lack of an ideology that implores that they have ethical imperatives.”

“It is not in [companies’] interests, in most cases, to dive in and fix the problem,” Dick added. “Usually the solution is to ignore it and hope it goes away.”

That appeared to be DevaCurl’s strategy, but the damage has not gone away for Malik. Though her hair health has improved, she still struggles with tinnitus, anxiety and scalp irritation. The damage led her to “completely detox my life because I don’t trust any American brand no matter what it is”, she said.

Not So Pretty ends each episode with a didactic section along these lines: the dos and don’ts of each sector, from apps which research ingredients on your household products to an endorsement of the Safer Beauty Bill package, a series of proposed laws to ban certain chemicals in cosmetics, including PFAS, phthalates and formaldehyde, and require more ingredient transparency.

But for now, the onus remains primarily on the consumer. “You have power as a consumer,” said Ziering. “We are not powerless, and where you put your money is where companies will follow your lead. They have to. So purchase wisely, and purchase thoughtfully.”

  • Not So Pretty is now available on HBO Max with a UK date to be announced


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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