Can we still trust beauty products to remain safe?20.04.2022
A shocking new documentary puts the cosmetics industry, which is highly unregulated and potentially dangerous, in the spotlight.
Ayesha Malik had hair so thick and glossy that it looked like something out of a Disney movie. She even had to show YouTube that she didn’t use a curling iron or wear a wig. Malik, at the time, was a fan of DevaCurl products for curly hair. This line was not easy to find in Anchorage, Alaska. Malik was a fan at first, and she later became an influencer. After six years of using DevaCurl products, something wasn’t right. Her hair looked dry and frizzy. Her ringlets became straighter. She noticed a severe itching in her scalp and began losing hair every time she went to the bathroom. She suffered from anxiety and tinnitus, memory loss, delayed speech and anxiety and quit social media.
Despite receiving several DMs from people with similar hair problems, she only joined a Facebook group later in the summer to admit that her favorite hair products could be to blame. Hair Damage & DevaCurl Hair Loss – You are not crazy or alone, was started by Stephanie Mero, an Orlando-based hairdresser. It had over 3,000 members who experienced similar damage that they attributed to DevaCurl. The group now has nearly 60,000 members. Malik read the posts, and she cried in horror and recognition. However, it took her a while to process the information, as she was still in denial, Malik told the Guardian. It felt like she had been in a long-term partnership with the brand. She said, “The betrayal of my trust is so difficult to comprehend.” “Why would I harm you?” “You’re supposed be the exact opposite.”
Malik’s encounter with DevaCurl is one of the cautionary tales in Not So Pretty. The HBO Max documentary series was created by investigative filmmakers Amy Ziering (known for their sexual assault docs On the Record) and Kirby Dick (known for their investigation on toxic chemicals and the lax regulation and lack of oversight that allows for routine US consumer exposure. The half-hour episodes are narrated and written by Keke Palmer. They cover different aspects of the multibillion dollar beauty industry.
Malik, Mero, and other hair-damaged people believe DevaCurl is responsible. The episode also includes a survey on the Eurocentric beauty standards, discrimination, and marketing strategies for dangerous hair relaxers to black women over decades. Nails examines the health risks that salon workers, who are mostly immigrants and people of colour, face.
Skincare examines the safety of plastic packaging and products containing PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals”, which can lead to cancer, birth defects and thyroid disease, reduced immunity, hormone disruption, and other health problems. Cosmetics are subject to similar concerns, with a particular focus on Johnson & Johnson knew that its baby powder made from talc and asbestos was unsafe. The company faced thousands of lawsuits and pulled the product out of North America in 2020.
All four share a common theme: personal care products that we use, often unconsciously and under the assumption of regulatory friction, may not be as safe as we think. This is not just for cosmetics. The Guardian’s series Toxic America found toxic chemicals in food, toys, pizza boxes, and tap water. Ziering stated that many of the chemicals we put on our bodies are not something we think about or question. It’s part of our culture to just buy stuff.
The US has a particularly loose regulation of personal care products, such as daily shampoos and conditioners, nail varnish, moisturizers, and perfumes. The EU has banned or restricted over 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics, but the US has only outlawed 11 of these toxic ingredients. Cosmetic manufacturers are not required to test their products before they sell them to consumers. The FDA, the regulatory body that is supposed to protect consumers, cannot do anything if consumers are hurt. The agency in financial trouble can request that a company recall its products.
Dick stated that “Pretty much all other chemicals in every industry have some kind of oversight, and cosmetics is almost without exception.” “We were shocked that something so widespread, so universal, that everyone uses, had almost no regulation. This means that consumers need to be aware.
DevaCurl products containing formaldehyde (a known human carcinogen that is banned in cosmetics sold in the EU) were allegedly responsible for Malik’s hair loss and damage to his health. The company maintained that its products were safe and that hair loss can be attributed other factors. The film-makers were given a statement by the FDA stating that they have not received any medical records, laboratory tests, diagnosis or treatment from doctors or scientists to support the claims made on the TV program. However, the FDA was not able to recall more than 1,500 DevaCurl-related reports, ranging from hair loss, migraines, and ulcers. Since then, the company has reformulated its products.
Even though the FDA requires cosmetics have an “ingredient statement”, it is possible for toxic chemicals to remain in common products. For example, fragrance formulations are protected from disclosure by regulators and manufacturers. This means that some of the 4,000 chemicals used in US scent products – including those linked to cancer, irritation, and endocrine disruption – will never be disclosed to manufacturers or regulators. Ladan Khandel, an industrial chemist, studied gel nail polish as a master’s student at the University of California, Berkeley. She found that dangerous ingredients were not listed on safety data sheets.
Khandel, who is featured in the second episode, runs an Instagram account dedicated to toxicology of beauty and formaldehyde. She said that people need to be able to see the safety data sheets to find out what they are being exposed to. It should be up to the manufacturers to show that their products are safe before they go to market.
Ziering also puts on the companies the responsibility to ensure that their products are safe. This is something that was not explored in the last two episodes which examine decades of claims against Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobil produced chemicals in beauty products, packaging, and lobbying to weaken consumer protection. Ziering said, “We are a nation made up of multinational corporations that parade as democracy.” “We are suffering from the absence of ethical leadership at these corporations and an ideology that requires them to have ethical imperatives,” Ziering said.
Dick stated that it is not in the best interests of companies to fix the problem. “Usually, the solution is to ignore it. Let it go away.”
This seemed to be DevaCurl’s strategy, but Malik hasn’t stopped suffering from the consequences. Although her hair has improved, Malik still suffers from scalp irritation, anxiety, and tinnitus. She said that the damage caused her to “completely detoxify my life” because she doesn’t trust American brands.
Each episode of Not So Pretty concludes with a didactic section. These include the dos and don’ts of each industry, from apps that research the ingredients in your household products, to an endorsement for the Safer Beauty Bill package. This package contains proposed laws to ban certain chemicals within cosmetics such as PFAS and formaldehyde and to require greater ingredient transparency.
For now, however, it is the consumer who has the primary responsibility. Ziering stated, “You have the power to make decisions as a consumer.” We are not powerless and companies will follow you wherever your money goes. They must. Buy wisely and think carefully.