Documentary investigates safety of talc, chemicals in beauty products

Canadian film director Phyllis Ellis’s new documentary, Toxic Beauty, uses the suspected link between talc products and ovarian cancer as a launching point to investigate the chemicals in commonly used cosmetics and beauty products and the risks they pose to consumers. The film debuts April 28 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.

Ellis embarked on the journey into the safety of cosmetics after becoming concerned about her own health. She had used an “inordinate amount” of talcum powder while training in field hockey for the 1984 summer Olympics. “I actually got quite worried because I fit the profile,” she told The Star.

Last year, a jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women who blamed its talcum powder products for causing their ovarian cancer. According to court documents, Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that the talc it used in its popular Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower body powder contained cancer-causing asbestos and other impurities that could harm consumer’s health. But the company refused to warn the public and instead marketed the products for use on the genitals for feminine hygiene, among other uses.

“I thought, well, if the most trusted brand in the world is causally linked to ovarian cancer, what else are we using on our bodies that could harm us?” Ellis said.

Toxic Beauty raises important questions about the chemicals in the makeup, body and face lotions, nail polishes, and other products consumers use on their bodies every day, as well as the government regulations, arbitrary standards, and worker’s rights.

Not only does the film cover the risks posed by talc, but it also gives startling examples of cosmetic-related injuries including facial creams containing lead and mascara that caused blindness. The film also dips its toe in regulatory issues, questioning why Canada and, in particular, the United States, are far more lenient on the cosmetics industry than the European Union.

Six months ago, Health Canada issued a warning that genital use of talc, as well as inhalation of the mineral, could be hazardous to health. Toxic Beauty asks the question: Is that warning enough?

“You know, to me, ban talc,” Ellis said about Health Canada’s warning. “If we’re stepping out and saying it’s linked to lung disease and ovarian cancer and I can go and buy a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder with talc in it today, that’s not OK. So, let’s get it off the shelves.”

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