When Toronto film director Phyllis Ellis heard about a suspected link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder, she grew concerned about her own health.
Why? Because, unlike most of us, who probably have vague recollections of talc in our childhood, she was also an athlete and recalled using an “inordinate amount” of baby powder when training for events such as women’s field hockey at the 1984 summer Olympics.
“We used it many, many times a day for many, many years,” recalls Ellis. “When we used to go for a 10K or a 20K run, we would put it between our legs so, when I ran across the talc story, I actually got quite worried, because I fit the profile. And 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 cause us harm?”
That was the genesis of Ellis’ new film, Toxic Beauty, which premieres at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Bloor St. on April 28. Using talc as a jumping off point, it raises concerns over chemicals in other common cosmetics (hand lotion, nail polish, face paint etc …), as well as some really important questions about government regulation, arbitrary standards of beauty and worker’s rights. It’s powerful, alarming and will almost certainly send at least a few people straight to their bathrooms to dump the contents of their makeup bags.
Immediate panic, however, is probably not the most useful reaction to this film. After all, the research establishing a link between many of the ingredients and certain cancers is still in early stages. Even when it comes to talc, although current studies indicate that its use can raise the risk of ovarian cancer, Dr. Joanne Kotsopoulos, a scientist at Women’s College Research Institute, tells me it’s not actually the biggest risk factor — a woman’s genetic makeup or family history is.
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“It’s good that we’ve done that due diligence since its now believed that frequent talc use in the genital area is a problem, because it may enter the female reproductive tract and cause an inflammatory response which may increase the risk of cancer development,” says Kotsopoulos. “I think it’s safe to say that women should not be using talc-containing products in their genital area.”
Health Canada issued a warning against this specific use of talc about six months ago, as well as talc inhalation. Toxic Beauty, however, asks if a warning is enough. Although Canada has stronger regulations on cosmetics than the United States, our rules aren’t as robust as the ones in the European Union, for example, and one of the strongest points of contention in the film is that, in North America, the cosmetics industry is often allowed to police itself.
What could go wrong with that? Well, Toxic Beauty flicks at a few lethal examples from the past, including arsenic soap, lead facial creams and a mascara that made women go blind. There are many more, though, and for a full, illustrated, romp through deadly beauty aids and fashion, check out the new kid (ish) book Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed and Murdered Through History. Assembled by Toronto writers Serah-Marie McMahon and Alison Matthews David, it explores dangerous hair dye and hats made with mercury. It’s fabulous and a lot of fun, given that it’s such a macabre topic.
These are history’s cautionary tales, many of which prompted legislation that regulated the use of mercury, arsenic and p-phenylenediamine (the dangerous ingredient from the mascara). The problem, though, is that regulations — not to mention scientific research, itself — have trouble keeping up with the better-living-through-chemistry camp. Especially since the stakeholders are expert lobbyists and awfully good at confusing people about science. In one particularly excellent moment from Toxic Beauty, we find out that tanning bed lobbyists in the United States had been trying to raise questions about the science that established a link between ultraviolet light to skin cancer. And, while they were there, they floated advancing the idea that the earth is actually flat, created in 4,004 B.C. and that dinosaurs and humans used to walk the earth together.
We can, as individuals, choose not to go to the tanning bed. Or to use certain lipsticks, hand creams and hair dyes that may or may not have dangerous levels of certain chemicals. But there are people who aren’t free to make such choices, namely, the people who work in these industries, which is something that both Killer Style and Toxic Beauty do a brilliant job of fleshing out. McMahon and David write about mercury poisoning among hatters; Ellis chronicles the struggle of nail salon workers (almost all of whom are women), to agitate for tighter regulations on possibly hazardous nail polish.
It takes a certain amount of privilege to opt out of the beauty industry. Or to even know what you might want to opt out of. Since I’m aware of the Health Canada warning, I decided to take a stroll to a few drugstores to check out the feminine hygiene and diaper sections, which are conveniently often in the same aisle. There were talc-free cornstarch options at all three, but plenty were still made with talc. I wondered how many consumers were making an informed choice, having decided the risks are minimal.
“You know, to me, ban talc,” Ellis says. “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 get it off the shelves. You know, the EU did it and there’s other countries that have done it, so I think we can do it, too.”