After falling ill—panic attacks, memory loss, hormonal imbalance, rashes—two decades ago, the I’m a Grandma and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan which means I’m pretty much perfect shirt in other words I will buy this makeup artist had a strange interaction with the technician delivering her lab results. He asked if she worked in the cosmetic industry. He could tell because the chemicals in her hair, blood, and urine were more commonly found in beauty products than in people. The discovery inspired Swift to launch BeautyTruth.com in 2004 to expose the industry’s ugliest ingredients: carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, irritants, allergens. Not that the information is necessarily well received. Swift and her peers—Gwyneth Paltrow at Goop, Gregg Renfrew at Beautycounter, Tiffany Masterson at Drunk Elephant—have been accused of fearmongering. “But look at the tobacco industry,” Swift says. “This is going to be bigger.” Ellis draws the same parallel in Toxic Beauty, which largely focuses on the recent lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson by more than 15,000 women with cancer who believe the company’s talc-based baby and body powders are to blame. “I fell on the talc story and contacted Dr. Daniel Cramer, who had causally linked ovarian cancer and the lifetime use of talc,” Ellis tells Vogue. Dr. Cramer, referred to in the film as one of the “grandfathers of epidemiology,” first published his findings in 1982. Toxic Beauty alleges Johnson & Johnson knew about their products’ risks long before that. Reports by a consulting lab from 1957 note that asbestos, a known carcinogen, had been detected in Johnson & Johnson’s talc supply. Memos from the 1960s show the company seeking sources of clean talc and, as Talc Litigation Group attorney R. Allen Smith puts it in the film, “admitting it cannot be ‘safely absorbed in the vagina.’ Despite these documents, despite Dr. Cramer’s research, despite the thousands upon thousands of former Johnson’s Baby Powder devotees who’ve developed ovarian cancer—some featured throughout Toxic Beauty, a few of whom lost their lives before filming wrapped—and despite the fact that the company recalled a batch of baby powder in 2019 when the Food and Drug Administration detected evidence of asbestos in a product sample, Johnson & Johnson maintains, under oath, that talc is safe. (It’s worth noting that the company has paid out billions in punitive damages to plaintiffs across the country. They said from the beginning cigarette smoke was safe,” Swift notes. “Mercury was ‘safe’ back in the day, arsenic was ‘safe.’ When there’s money involved, of course people are going to say it’s safe.”
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The Big Tobacco trials of the I’m a Grandma and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan which means I’m pretty much perfect shirt in other words I will buy this ’90s do bear an unsettling resemblance to the more recent Johnson & Johnson trials. Ellis contrasts a clip of tobacco executive James Johnston stating, “Cigarettes and nicotine clearly do not meet the classic definition of addiction” with footage of modern-day Johnson & Johnson executives denying cancer claims. She highlights the scientists who testified to the safety of smoking and cuts to those now doing the same for talc. Interestingly enough, there’s also evidence of internal memos about nicotine’s status as “an addictive drug” circulating throughout tobacco companies in the 1960s, though a watershed moment wouldn’t come until 2000. It begs the question: Is skin care the new cigarette? Forty years from now, will talc be as irrefutably linked to ovarian cancer as smoking is to lung cancer? The scientists, doctors, and lawyers interviewed in Toxic Beauty think so—and talc (which, it should be noted, is also found in face powders, eyeshadows, and more) is far from the only cosmetic ingredient they’re questioning. The best available science points to this cosmetics issue being even bigger than the tobacco industry,” Dr. Rick Smith, environmentalist and author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck, says in Toxic Beauty, “because we’re talking about thousands of chemicals, most of which haven’t been accurately safety tested.” The chemicals Dr. Smith is referring to are the tens of thousands of substances available for use in personal-care products in the United States, the majority of which have not been assessed for safety by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Since the industry operates under a postmarket regulatory system (which is to say, is not really regulated), most ingredients aren’t reviewed by a government agency before they go to market. Regulation kicks in only if customers report problems post-purchase. Ellis adds that cosmetic legislation in the U.S. hasn’t been updated since 1938, meaning current safety data is unaccounted for—data that connects common chemicals like parabens and phthalates to hormone disruption and breast cancer and that shows carcinogenic heavy metals in personal-care products. Toxic Beauty zeroes in on the research behind parabens (a class of preservatives) and phthalates (plasticizers commonly found in fragrances). Both are considered endocrine disruptors, or chemicals that mimic hormones, which may lead to hormonal imbalance, infertility, sperm damage, early puberty, and even hormone-related cancers, like breast cancer. Both are proven to infiltrate the body. “I’m actually quite upset about how much [paraben content] I’ve measured in human breast tissue,” Dr. Philipa Darbre, an oncology professor, remarks in the film.