Jordan: There are some things that people choose to put in their bodies that aren’t good for them. They know it. We know it. Cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, fast food, sweets and candy packed with sugar or weird chemical ingredients. And everybody gets to make their own calls. But it’s the stuff that we use that we don’t know is harmful, but we’re talking about today. If you need, for instance, a third party app. Just to decode the ingredients and your favorite skin cream or powder, then it’s fair to say that lots of people who simply aren’t digging that deeply have no idea what they’re using, or of the potential consequences of it. And that’s strange because we’ve actually had a pretty good idea of the consequences of some of the ingredients in cosmetics for decades. We’ve just never done much about it. The labels are confusing and even things you see described as clean or natural, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Right now it’s up to you to find out for yourself. But in the wake of some recent lawsuits and a new documentary project that chronicles them, all that might be about to change. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is the big story. Phyllis Ellis is the director of Toxic Beauty and she joins us today. Hello Phyllis.
Jordan: Thanks so much for coming on.
Phyllis: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: I mean, the first question I have is just how much do we know about what’s in the products that we put on our skin every day?
Phyllis: Well, based on all the experts and amazing scientists and formulators and people that I had the a that we all had the opportunity to meet in the film. Not much. I would say not much, other than the 750 letter words that are on the back of, uh, in that big long list of ingredients,
Jordan: Which, I can’t pronounce half of them, and I don’t know what they mean.
Jordan: How easily are those products absorbed into our bodies?
Phyllis: Well, again, you know, I’m a filmmaker, but what I learned over the last three years, um, immediately. So whatever you put on your skin goes in. And so it’s, the skin is the first line of defense and anything that we put on our skin gets absorbed. It doesn’t just get absorbed into our epidermis or our skin. It gets absorbed into our bloodstream. It gets absorbed and it passes through, it affects our hormones, our endocrine system. Uh, our organs, our brains.
Jordan: And one of the things that struck me while preparing for this interview was not that there are these strange carcinogens out there that make their way into some products, but that there are base products that have these things in it. So tell me about talc.
Phyllis: Talc is a mineral. Talc is a mined substance and its miend right next to asbestos so it’s often contaminated. It’s mined and it has this, this sort of soft property to it that makes it really awesome in dry shampoo and underarm deodorant, and blush, and eye shadow, and anything powdered. So there’s 2000 products that contain talc. 1000 are loose powders. So it’s a widely used mined, that actually is in many, many products. I fell onto the telec story because when I started to research the feature film version of this concept, I was an Olympian and I competed for a long time, and I used talc, baby powder, like heroin. I used it everywhere, all over for probably 10 or 12 years. Fell upon Dr Dan Kramer, who’s the, um, scientist physician, OB GYN in Boston that causally linked to ovarian cancer and the use of talc in 1982. And so I called Dan and I said, you know, tell me the story. And then throughout, as he was telling me this sort of 30, 40 year evolution of knowing that potentially talc could be causally linked to ovarian cancer, he said, actually, you’re at risk. And I got scared actually, and thought, well, if the most trusted brand in the world is causally linked to cancer, what else are we using that could potentially cause us harm.
Jordan: How does something like that link get established almost 40 years ago, and we’re still using it today, and not many people are discussing it? It seems unfathomable.
Phyllis: Right on. So that’s the, I always say, you know, I think there’s some number $750 billion industry cosmetic. That’s the $750 billion question. I guess that abuse of power, big industry, money, commerce leads in this industry as it does in so many other industries. Took 30 years to figure out that tobacco was addictive and that tobacco was linked to lung cancer. And you know, all Dan Kramer said to the company was, maybe you might wanna put a warning label on it, or maybe you might want to remove it. In December, 2018 the Canadian government deemed talc, uh, a carcinogen. It’s banned in other countries for use in personal care products and cosmetics. It is not banned in Canada or the United States. I’d like to see it banned. I don’t think it should be used. And, to your point, epidemiology is a precautionary principle. So if there’s a possibility, so chemicals, minerals, carcinogens, toxicants are not innocent until they’re proven guilty. So if there’s a chance, why would we put it on our babies? If there’s a chance, why would we put it in products that human beings are using and over a long period of time could potentially cause cancer? Doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Jordan: What has been the pushback from. The industry first, I guess as you’ve been making this and reporting this documentary, but also just, I mean, over the past few decades?
Phyllis: First of all, the real antagonist in this story isn’t necessarily the carcinogens, chemicals, and toxicants. It’s the marketing departments of big industry that say, we need this in order to be. We’re either too much or we’re not good enough. We have too many wrinkles. Our hair’s too curly. Our skin is the wrong color. We don’t smell good enough. If you use this, your life will be better. And we’re continually, I mean Zoda says in the film, we have to change these beauty norms so we don’t have to choose between our health and trying to look beautiful according to these arbitrary standards. So that’s, that’s one thing. But you know when an industry is more or less regulating itself, why, why would they have to change? Formulations cost a lot of money. I think now they’re becoming acutely aware that they’re going to have to make a change because consumers are smart. Anger is collateral right now. I think people are demanding that we’re not being bombarded with chemicals and toxicants in the food we eat, and I think we need to, as do all the experts in the film, take a look at what we’re putting on our bodies.
Jordan: Tell me about that anger and that pushback from the public, because there’s a lot of that documented in the film.
Phyllis: There is, and I think it’s, if we don’t know, we don’t know. And one of the really positive things that’s happening with the film, no matter where I travel with it around the world, is everybody, the very first question is, what am I supposed to do? What have I done? Uh, one of the reasons why we followed the talc story as sort of a spine in the film is because if you use something and it burns your face, you’re probably not going to use it again.
Phyllis: But it’s the accumulation. It’s the body burden over time that we have to be aware of. And there’s key times when these chemicals, toxicants, carcinogens actually impact us. So in vitro, when a woman is pregnant, when a baby is born, puberty, childbearing years. Um, menopause or later in life. Anytime there’s a hormonal, our bodies are reacting hormonally. There’s a great story actually, um, Tamara James Todd, Dr. James Todd is who’s in the film. She’s at Harvard, and there’s the endocrine society did a, um, experiment and they had all these young, uh, African American kids. That had what’s called precocious puberty, and that just means that they’re getting their periods at age eight and they’re growing, boys are going through puberty. Girls are getting, um, breasts developing breasts at eight, nine and 10. Why is this happening? And they worked it back to the hair products that, hair relax since shampoos and extra products that women of color we were using on their kids because that’s what they were supposed to do. But what they realized was that the chemical and the toxicants in the endocrine disruptors in those products were actually causing, when they stopped using the products, the kids stopped being in early puberty. So this isn’t just effecting, you know, lipstick, this is affecting all of us. But lipstick again, there’s lead in that too, so.
Jordan: If the science has been done, and we’re not going to argue the science, has it been tested in court?
Phyllis: Oh, yeah. I mean, there’s, so there are class actions all over the United States. Good jillions of dollars. And, you know, big industry’s the Titanic, we’re a little tugboats. Um, the whistle blower in our film, Deana Berg, she, um was diagnosed with–
Jordan: Tell me her story actually, cause she was next on my list to ask you about.
Phyllis: Yeah she’s cool. Yeah, she’s so, she’s a really awesome, very strong woman from the Dakotas. And she, um, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. No link, no congenital link. No. You know, she had no, all of a sudden she has it. Oh my God. How did I have it? And she started to research it herself. This was a 2009. Anyway, she read and she saw in the Gilda Radner side about ovarian cancer and talc and, she’s like, Oh. Oh my God, I used it every day for however many ever years. Got in touch with Dan Kramer, had her tissue tested through a pathologist that works, and there was this amazing sort of a guy– it’s sort of like an Erin Brockovich story. This young attorney out of Mississippi named Al Smith. And he, he’s, um, awesome. And uh, so they got together and they decided to sue Johnson and Johnson. And Johnson and Johnson tried to, uh, stop it by paying, offering her $800 grand. And she said no. And then they came back and said $1.3 or $1.2 million to stop this. And she said, well, if you put a warning label on it, I’ll settle and they said no. So she said, I’ll see you in court. And this single, this woman, and this young lawyer took on the Titanic and they won, but unfortunately, she didn’t get any money.
Jordan: Why not?
Phyllis: That was the deal. She didn’t get any settlement. And it was one of the first times actually that, um, a plaintiff did not get a settlement in this kind of court case. But what it did was like, it was almost like it turned on something. And then lawsuits blew up all over the United States.
Jordan: Well they set precedent.
Phyllis: Right. Actually, there’s a law, there’s a class action that’s opened here in Canada now.
Jordan: Is there?
Phyllis: Yep. So there’s 300 or 400 women, I think, on that list. And she came, spoke to some of them just to prep them before, and so we had a chance to film her. She’s a pretty awesome person. One person can make a difference, right?
Jordan: What should, um, a woman, I guess, or anybody for that matter, who has used these products and wonders what they’re doing to them or might have already done to them, what should they do?
Phyllis: Stop using the products. Reduce and remove. You can get your body burden tested. We used a, uh, Mimi Nguyen, who’s a young medical student in the film. There’s a detox me program out of Silent Spring in Boston, and they, it actually costs 300 bucks. You send your urine in and actually they send it to a lab in Vancouver and you can at least get um, your lights and your parabins tested. But if you want to have a heavy metals tested, you know, there’s, woman’s college does some testing, there’s different places can get, be quite expensive. But I’d also, you know, after these three years, you know, people say, Oh, just, it’s just trace amounts of lead in lipstick. Well, if you think about it, I started, you know, sneakin’ my mom’s red lipstick on when I was 11 years old and I’m 30 now. No, I’m, you know, a lot older than 30 so if you think about how many times you reapply your lipstick and then he is, you know, scrape it off or it’s going in, what is my body burden of lead? And I also would like to lean into, you know, because you’re worth it. And all of the different slogans that big industry uses to tell us that this is, in order to do this, we have to, you know, this is what beauty means. I’m pretty committed now to look at where enough. And I, you know, like to push, we’re trying to take this movie from a movie to a movement. And I think part of that movement is, um, self, you know, empowerment. It sounds a little Deepak Chopra, but what I mean by that is, uh, we’re enough and I think we don’t need to use 27 products and contour our face off and, you know, use a thousand things. I think Dr Darbara and Dr Lanphier said clean shampoo, some soap. Really all you need is baking powder, bit of oil if your skin is dry, that’s really all you need. But it’s hard. I mean, I went to London, uh, I dunno before Christmas and, uh, I was going to let my hair go gray cause I thought, you know what? I’m in, I’m all the way, I’ve thrown out everything, blah. And you know, two days before I went, I went and had $300 worth of chemicals put on ’cause I just thought, I can’t go to London looking like this. So like no matter what, where I go or what, what we do, we’re– this pressure. You know, now mine is, Oh shit, I’m getting older. And how am I gonna reverse–
Jordan: Anti-wrinkle cream, and–
Phyllis: the anti– yeah, how am I going to reverse that? There’s actually a product called Face Off. It’s like, how– is that going to work? So I think that there’s a lot of pressure on all of us. But you know, I was saying earlier. Kids, kids products, what we’re doing, all the different products that are affecting young kids. And men are not, are, you know, men are using 12 to 14 products that used to be six or seven, you know, um, low sperm count, breast growth, feminization of boys. There’s all kinds of things that are impact– boys are impacted, men are impacted as well, so it’s not– but it is a woman’s health issue, I will say, because I can assure you, if men’s testicles were falling off because they were putting baby powder on. This would have been taken off the shelves a long time ago.
Jordan: Well, that was, yeah, that was my next question is, is there an element, uh, first of all of sexism in reporting, but also, uh, because you mentioned African-American girls earlier, also, uh, of race in this, because again, I, I hadn’t heard anything about it. It’s my job to know about stories like these. Um. But I didn’t and I didn’t believe it affected me. Is it because it’s seen as a woman’s issue?
Phyllis: I’m, I’m gonna just say yes. I do believe that’s true. Dr Ami Zota wrote an article called The Environmental Injustice of Beauty. And Dr Tamara James Todd, Dr Sruthi Mahalingaiah. These are young women of color that are speaking loud about this. I, you know, saw documents where big industry was marketing directly to, um, African-American and Latina women. A lot of the sort of heavy chemicals and really serious carcinogens and heavy metals that are in the products that women are using. And you know, when, when beauty also is based on sort of Caucasian white standards, it’s, you know, skin lightening is a world epidemic. That is a serious, serious, serious issue. And these, these scientists and doctors are, are sort of leading. You know, leading experts in this, in this area. I’m certainly not as, as I said, as a filmmaker, I just have the great privilege of, you know, meeting all these people and also as filmmakers, we have the great privilege to spend time, especially in this film, with women at the end of their lives. I mean, you know, two of the women that we had the, a chance to spend some time with, died before the film we locked picture. And a one of women had passed away prior to, and we ended up being able to use her, um, audio deposition in the film. So, you know, it takes, it takes three years in and whole pile of people to make a film.
Jordan: Let’s say somebody has seen the film or even listened to this podcast and is probably justifiably a little bit terrified of what they’re using. How can you tell if a product is clean, if it’s natural? The list of ingredients is nuts. I don’t understand any of it.
Phyllis: Well, um, that’s also a great question. I certainly, you know, I can’t, unless something is tested, um, environmental defense here has tested a whole pile of products. There’s an amazing app called Think Dirty that you just basically plug whatever product you’re using into this app and it’ll spit out and tell you what’s in it, and it’ll give it a out of 10, how toxic that product is. So it’s quite awesome to go through all the, everything that you’re using and Oh, phew, this is, this is okay. You know? Um, and then environmental working group have, um, have an app as well that’s, that’s pretty great that you can kinda measure your products against all of that. I think we have to be careful, or I know we have to be careful. What I’ve learned is, you know the word clean, the word organic, the word green, uh, doesn’t mean it’s clean, organic, or green. We have to be careful with the word fragrance or parfum. Don’t use anything that says, because the word fragrance fragrance is proprietary. So, um, they don’t have to disclose the number of chemicals. So sometimes that word fragrance can include 300 chemicals. They don’t have to put it on the label. So anything that, and anything that is associated with the word fragrance is what’s called an endocrine disruptor, which means it affects our endocrine system, which is bad. So even scented candles or any of the scent scented, um, house products that we use aren’t awesome. So like, I’m down to vinegar and lemon, um, and water to clean my house. And, uh, you know, I’ve got very little left. I’m, I’m hanging on to a little bit of lipstick, but I dunno, man.
Jordan: You probably save a lot of money.
Phyllis: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And that’s the other thing. There’s a lot of pressure, um, with this sort of clean beauty movement too, to replace your 27 products. You can replace them all with clean. You know, but then that goes back to the idea is why do we need 27 products? Why do we need 22 products? Why do I have to use 17 different things to walk out of the door with my hair, in order to feel beautiful or to feel empowered or to feel, you know, that I’m worth it? Because, um, I think that we’re all really worth it and we’re worth looking at what we’re putting, not just in our bodies, but on our bodies.
Jordan: Thanks, Phyllis.
Jordan: Phyllis Ellis is the director of Toxic Beauty. That was The Big Story. If you would like more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca or catch up with us and chat on Twitter at @thebigstoryfpn, and of course, wherever you get your podcasts. You will find us and all our other frequency podcast network shows right there. You can rate them, you can review them, you can give them five stars. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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