Do you know what’s in your everyday beauty routine? Most people don’t, a shocking new docuseries on HBO reveals. In the four part series, Not So Pretty tackles the underbelly of the beauty industry. From parasitic ingredients that we don’t realize is in our favorite skincare products to how deceptive the “clean” label can be, Not So Pretty aims to highlight what we don’t know — so we can do better. The Frenshe team sat down with co-director Amy Ziering to talk about some of the most shocking revelations from the documentary and how to live an actually toxic-free life while navigating the beauty industry.
What made you want to explore this side of the beauty industry—which is valued at $511 billion in 2021?
Amy: We always look for topics and subjects that we think are underreported and that’s really urgent. It’s not a terribly sexy answer, but I was at a conference and a woman who runs a clean beauty company was speaking about the horrors of not knowing what’s in our products, and I had the exact same reaction you had of, “Wait, what?” And it’s just interesting to me that it has never occurred to us to even think about all the things we put on our bodies every day. So my curiosity was piqued, and then I just started doing more investigating and digging and research and found out—not only with everything she’s saying true— but even worse than I thought or imagined. And so, I talked to Kirby, and I decided this is important, and we should do it.
Was there a particular part of your investigation that shocked you the most?
One of the things that stuck with me most was that so much of these products come from Exxon Mobil, a petrochemical companies, which is so counterintuitive. That was shocking and that’s very important, because it not only hurts our bodies, but it also hurts the environment. The other thing that shocked me is that a lot of fragrances hide toxic chemicals because that’s covered by trade secrets. That’s crazy to me. You think a product is clean, because you imagine fragrances are benign, but they’re actually highly suspect, and you have to be really careful.
The documentary did a really good job at diving into the sociopolitical contexts of the beauty industry, especially the parts about Black women’s hair being politicized and how a lot of nail salons are owned by Vietnamese immigrants. It really showed how divisive the industry is and how sexist, racist, etc.
It is huge. Honestly, there could be a whole another four parts on just those topics. I felt bad that we didn’t have enough cinematic real estate to really give all those issues the attention they deserve because the racism and sexism of our beauty norms is ridiculous. And the way in which these products, unfortunately, often afflict people of color more than they do white people is shocking, astonishing and completely reprehensible. That was another jaw drop moment.
The beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and it’s only growing; how is it able to cause so much harm and still get away with it?
You answered your own question—it’s a multi billion dollar industry. Nothing speaks louder than profits. Nothing. Profits trumps health, profits trumps moral concerns, profits trumps environmental concerns. This is a trillion dollar global industry; that’s a lot of money. The more you can keep people in the dark, the higher your profits are gonna be so. It’s depressing, but not surprising.
We’re seeing a rise in the clean beauty sector, but so much of that territory is murky and undefined. Not many people understand what clean beauty actually means and labels aren’t very forthcoming about how they define clean, so how can consumers navigate that particular concern?
You raise a super good point because , as we saw with organic foods, it’s very easy to greenwash something. There’s really little oversight on what “clean” means and there isn’t anything (yet) that you can rely on to guarantee that the claim that something clean is actually clean. So as a consumer, you just have to do your homework. There are independent apps that don’t work for any of these companies and that really do sort of look at the labels and assess them. I wouldn’t just trust someone that says they’re clean; I’d go one layer deeper and read the label yourself.
Was there a particular ingredient that you were shocked to see how often it appears in our products?
Talc because there’s no need for it; there’s a lot of great non-talc based products that are really clean. I’d also really pay attention to packaging, which is something I was completely unconscious of, but we can’t do what we’re doing to this world with all these disposable waste. We buy these products and don’t think about how they’re packaged and how these packages leak toxins that end up in our bloodstream. It definitely changed my purchasing habits; I purchase bars now for shampoo that are paper wrapped. I’m getting off that consumer treadmill of blindly buying products and not considering how they’re packaged.
I think it’s really horrifying to think that our everyday products can actually contribute to our health crisis and we don’t even realize they’re the cause of the negative ways we’re feeling.
When we were doing this research, someone said that a typical American puts on 12 to 17 products a day and I thought, that’s not possible. But then the person rattled off: imagine you’re in the shower, you use shampoo, conditioner, some kind of body wash, and then you come out and there’s deodorant, and then body lotion, and then if you’re a woman, there’s even more. It all adds up. The skin is a permeable membrane and the stuff isn’t just staying outside, it’s going inside of you. If you intuitively think about it, the human body is pretty smartly designed. We don’t need all this product; it’s marketed that we do. Less is more, so don’t also get suckered into the endless cycle thinking we need to fix our appearance with this product and that product. It’s all clever marketing and it’s not real.
There was a lot of really explosive information in the documentary that can feel paralyzing. For anyone who’s watched the documentary and are now in shock, what would you say to them?
Better late than never. A least you know now so you turn it around and pay it forward to future generations.