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HBO Max ‘Not So Pretty’ draws attention to hazards in Beauty Industry

HBO Max ‘Not So Pretty’ draws attention to hazards in Beauty Industry

In the words of Queen Bey, Pretty Hurts! In today’s trillion dollar beauty industry, pretty hurts more than one may think! I recently got a chance to catch up on the 4 part docuseries ‘Not So Pretty’ that premiered on HBO Max early April. Narrated by Keke Palmer, her voice brings to life producers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s amazing investigative work that attempts to warn today’s beauty consumers about the dangerous trends happening behind the scenes of some very well known brands.


Episode 1, simply titled ‘Makeup’, blows your mind from the start. Whether you are a makeup artist with a full Fenty line at home or a plain jane who loves a little bit of foundation and a good lip tint, it’s important to know that not all makeup brands are safe! This series is hot from the start as the producers take a deep dive into a well known national news headline pertaining to a famous brand known in every household. Johnson & Johnson, on the market since 1920 and most widely known for its talc-based baby powder product, has been in the media since the early 1970s linked to early reports of cases of Mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer that lines your lungs and abdomen. Mesothelioma is caused by inhaling Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that is typically used to strengthen pipes, bricks and installation. What many do not know is that asbestos and Talc, the main ingredient of Johnson and Johnson Baby powder, go hand in hand and naturally grow together. Despite the backlash and various lawsuits filed, J&J has continuously denied using asbestos contaminated talc in their products. The denials continued over the years although confidential documents not only show that J&J were aware of high levels of asbestos within their talc based products, but there were also documents found showing the brands decision to increase sales by targeting African Americans and Hispanics. I know, take a moment to take that in. It was discovered that J&J once funded an experiment in Philadelphia prisons where African American male inmates were victims in the testing of the toxicity of asbestos. Roughly 200 of those men later sued J&J, however the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. The episode goes on to inform us how well known mall staple, Claire’s, was also involved in a scandal when it was discovered that the makeup they were selling to children also contained asbestos. After some hesitation from continued pushback and media recognition, the national retailer eventually issued a recall despite persistently denying that their products were unsafe.


Episode 2, titled Nails, details the complications many nail technicians face from chemical exposure to harsh ingredients within our beloved nail polish bottles. Complications such as asthma, thyroid issues, fertility issues, miscarriage, fetal mortality and breast cancer. Episode 2 dives into the history and the BOOM in nail salons largely composed of Vietnamese immigrants post Vietnam War. Vietnamese women who were looking to create an income and provide a sense of stability for their families. Prior to their illnesses being linked to their working conditions, it was common for nail salons to have poor ventilation and be stocked with cheap products that contain harmful ingredients such as dimethyl tolylamine, titanium dioxide, and methylene glycol. Just as large companies such as J&J try to ignore their own confidential documents, the nail polish industry has been known to ignore the safety data sheets that list the dangerous ingredients its products contain. A recipe for disaster and often death for the loyal nail technicians that worked for years in an industry that had no interest in their safety. Not only does this episode discuss the harmful products, but producers also took a moment to highlight the low pay and unsavory working conditions in salons across the country. You’ll have to catch episode 2 to learn more, but all I can say is…tip your nail technician folks!


In Episode 3, Skin, we are reminded that our skin is our largest organ and thus it is the most prone to toxic chemicals. The episode focuses on EDC, endocrine disrupting hormones. We see for the first time that EDCs are found in everyday products and beauty routines of men and women alike. I’m sure we can all grab at least four products from our cabinets that proudly display packaging that states ‘No Phthalates’. However, what this episode teaches us is that many skincare and beauty companies are actually hiding these phthalates within the fragrance ingredient. It blew my mind to learn that the ingredient ‘fragrance’ that we see on nearly every product is considered a trade-secret. A trade-secret is product ingredient information that a company does not have to legally disclose to its consumers. Within that trade-secret can lie many unknown and harmful products such as phthalates. These EDCs can not only negatively affect our hormones, but can also reduce and even eliminate fertility in both women and men. Ladies, check your man’s lotion! That creamy mixture may be doing more than just giving him incredibly soft hands. Knowing that skincare is a $130+ billion dollar industry, we have to demand more from them about being honest about what they put in their products.


In the fourth and final episode, titled Hair, this docuseries dropped the mic when it detailed the recent scandal behind top curly hair care brand, Deva Curl! For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Deva Curl was first introduced in 1994 and was well known for being one of the first hair care brands to celebrate curly hair. Deva Curl spent years offering free products to online users in exchange for their ability and willingness to effectively market their products to their audience. Eventually, many consumers started noticing extreme damage and hair loss associated with use of the Deva Curl hair care line. There was a mass action lawsuit filed against Deva Curl as thousands of users were affected. Although Deva Curl eventually changed their formula, they never accepted responsibility for the damages many consumers spoke of. The episode brings light to many of those stories told by well known social media hair influencers, as they come together to tell their story about the damage Deva Curl caused to their tresses. Influencers such as Stephanie Mero (@thecurlninja), an Orlando based hair stylist who specializes in curly hair. Keya Neal, Veteran stylist from Baltimore who owns a stylist training program. Felicia Jones (@HiF3licia), well known Instagram hair and beauty influencer who grew tons of followers with her product demos and in person collabs with the popular hair care brand. And finally Ayesha Malik (@spisha), whose personal battle due to effects caused by Deva Curl caused her to step away from her platform and not speak up about her experience for quite some time. Interview after interview each woman goes into detail about their experiences with sudden hair loss, bald patches, crunchy damaged hair textures, and some experienced so much as delayed speech, memory loss, depression and even changes in their menstrual cycle. Some may think, all of that from washing my hair?! Yes! We have to keep in mind that our scalp is just an extension of our skin and like our skin, our scalp can absorb the harsh chemicals found in hair care products into our bloodstream. Just when we thought we were safe by going natural, we learn that many of our natural hair care products have similar dangerous cancer causing ingredients that are found in chemical relaxers. Another reason it is so important to not only read the labels, but know the truth about the list of ingredients on the packaging.


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The common theme I found after watching all 4 episodes of ‘Not So Pretty’ was that the FDA has little, if any, control over these brands and does minimal assessment of products prior to them being made available to us…the consumers! We aren’t protected, and the beauty industry is making trillions off our desire to look good and feel good. But do we REALLY feel good? Many of us suffer from ailments that are hard to pinpoint the reference point because so much of what we use on a daily basis could be contributing to our declining health. Although the large corporations have gotten away with pumping us with toxins in the past, docuseries like ‘Not So Pretty’ are shining a much needed light on their harmful and at times deadly practices. As far as us, the consumers, we must not feel shame continuing to go against our favorite brands and demanding that they remove dangerous chemicals and perform better testing before allowing products to hit the shelves. If the FDA cannot enforce better practices, our only option is to put our money with the companies that choose to use safe ingredients and pride themselves on honesty. For now…check your labels ladies and gentleman! Your life may depend on it!


Tabitha Wiggins


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