Ayesha Malik Malik’s hair was once so lush – shiny, with curls worthy of a Disney movie – that he had to prove on YouTube that he didn’t wear a wig or use a curling iron. At the time, Malik was a devotee of DevaCurl, a product line designed specifically for curly hair, something she had found hard to find in her hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. Malik first promoted DevaCurl as a fan – she credited the company with transforming her relationship with her hair – and then as an influencer. But in January 2019, after nearly six years of using DevaCurl products, something was wrong. Her hair looked brittle and fried. Her curls straightened. Her scalp was itching terribly and she started losing a handful of hair in the shower. She developed constant tinnitus and anxiety, struggled with memory loss and delayed language, and withdrew from her social media work.
Although she had received several concerned DMs from followers who suffered similar hair damage, it was only when she joined a Facebook group later that summer that she admitted that the culprit may have been her beloved hair products. The group, DevaCurl’s Hair Damage & Hair Loss – You’re not CRAZY or ALONE, founded by Orlando’s hair stylist Stephanie Mero, had 3,000 members at the time who all suffered similar damage they attributed to DevaCurl. (The group now has nearly 60,000 members.) Malik read the posts and cried in recognition and horror, though “it took me a few more months to process, because I was still denying it,” he told the Guardian. She felt like she had been in a long-term relationship with the brand. “Betrayal is so hard to understand,” she said. “Why would you hurt me? You should be the exact opposite of that.
Malik’s experience with DevaCurl is a warning in Not So Pretty, a new HBO Max documentary series by investigative directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, best known for sexual assault documentaries On the Record and Allen v Farrow, about chemicals. toxicants in the beauty industry and lax regulation, the lack of oversight and corporate lobbying that allows for routine exposure of US consumers to hazardous substances. The series, narrated by actor Keke Palmer, consists of four succinct but sprawling half-hour episodes on different aspects of the multi-billion dollar beauty industry.
The hair incident includes Malik, Mero and others with hair damage they believe is associated with DevaCurl, as well as an investigation into Eurocentric beauty standards and discrimination that has fueled the marketing of dangerous hair relaxers for women for decades. of color. Nails explores the serious health risks faced by salon employees, who are predominantly immigrants and people of color. Skincare studies plastic products and packaging with PFAS compounds, AKA “chemicals forever”, linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormonal disorders and other health problems. The makeup covers similar issues in cosmetics, with a focus on evidence that Johnson & Johnson knew its baby powder contained asbestos as early as the mid-1970s (the company, faced with thousands of lawsuits, withdrew the product. in North America in 2020).
There is a theme common to all four: the personal care products we consume, often without thinking and assuming that there is some regulatory friction before something is on store shelves, are not as safe as you think. are. (This goes for more than just cosmetics: The Guardian Toxic America series has found harmful chemicals in everything from food to children’s toys to pizza boxes to tap water.) So many things we put on our body, we don’t even think about asking, or even think it’s our place to ask questions, “Ziering said.” It’s just so part of our culture, just to buy stuff. “
Personal care products – daily shampoos and conditioners, nail polishes, moisturizers, perfumes, etc. – have particularly lax regulation in the United States. While the EU has banned or restricted more than 1,300 chemicals in cosmetics alone, the US has only outlawed 11 toxic ingredients. There are currently no legal requirements for cosmetic manufacturers to test their products before selling them to consumers. If consumers are harmed, there is little the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulatory body that supposedly protects consumers, can do; the weakened agency can simply request a company to issue a voluntary recall.
“Almost every other chemical in every other industry has some sort of oversight, and in cosmetics there is hardly any,” Dick said. “We were shocked to see that something that was so common, so ubiquitous, that everyone uses, there was hardly any regulation. And this means that consumers need to be aware “.
Malik’s hair and health are presumed to have been damaged by ingredients in DevaCurl products that released formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen banned in cosmetics sold in the EU but still found in hair relaxers and nail polishes. . (The company said their products are safe, and that hair loss and other damage can be attributed to other factors. According to a statement released to the filmmakers: “We haven’t seen a single medical record, lab test, or diagnosis from a doctor or scientific professional to support the claims made on this TV show. “) The filmmakers found that the FDA has received more than 1,500 reports of damage from DevaCurl, from hair loss to migraines to ulcers, but the The agency was unable to issue a recall and the company has since reformulated its products.
Although the FDA requires cosmetics to have an “ingredient declaration,” toxic chemicals can still lurk in commonly used products. Fragrance formulations, for example, are considered a “trade secret” and therefore protected from disclosure to regulators or manufacturers, which means that the 4,000 chemicals currently used to perfume products in the United States, some of which cause irritation, disruption of the endocrine system or are related to cancer – never get to the tag. A 2019 study by industrial chemist Ladan Khandel of gel polish, conducted when she was a graduate student in environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, found undisclosed hazardous ingredients in safety data sheets required by California law.
Those chemicals included formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and methyl methacrylate, “all of which are pretty toxic and would definitely need to be disclosed if they were in the original product formulation,” said Khandel, who appears in the second episode and runs a dedicated Instagram story. to the toxicology of beauty. “People really need to know what they are exposed to and the safety data sheets have to prove it,” she added. “It should be up to manufacturers to prove their products are safe before they are placed on the market.”
Ziering also places the burden on companies to ensure their products are safe, something not found in the last two episodes, which explore decades of allegations against Johnson & Johnson, chemicals made by Exxon Mobil in beauty products and packaging. and lobbying efforts to undermine consumer protection. “We are a nation of multinationals flaunting democracy,” Ziering said. “We are suffering from the lack of ethical leadership at the head of these companies and the lack of an ideology that begs that they have ethical imperatives.”
“It’s not inside [companies’] In most cases, you are interested in diving in and solving the problem, “added Dick.” Usually the solution is to ignore it and hope it disappears. “
That appeared to be DevaCurl’s strategy, but the damage didn’t go away for Malik. Although his hair health has improved, he still struggles with tinnitus, anxiety and scalp irritation. The damage has led her to “completely detoxify my life because I don’t trust any American brand, whatever it is,” he said.
Not So Pretty concludes each episode with an educational section in this sense: the do’s and don’ts of each sector, from apps that search for ingredients on home products to the approval of the Safer Beauty Bill package, a series of proposals by law to ban certain chemicals in cosmetics, including PFAS, phthalates and formaldehyde, and require greater transparency of ingredients.
But for now, the burden remains primarily on the consumer. “You have power as a consumer,” Ziering said. “We are not helpless and where you put your money is where companies will follow your example. They must. So buy wisely and buy carefully.