The night after I watched HBO Max’s “Not So Pretty,” I pulled out my makeup bag and hunted through the products, flipping each of them over and looking for the dreaded word — talc. I found it in two powders and, without hesitation, I chucked them into the trash. I looked for “fragrance” listed as an ingredient in my skincare products, and before I washed my hair, I researched the brand I use for my curly hair products. Never had I thought so much about the products I use on my face and body daily, which probably speaks to the success of “Not So Pretty.” From renowned documentary directors Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick (“Allen v. Farrow”), “Not So Pretty” is the first investigative expose of the beauty industry.
With one episode each dedicated to makeup, nails, skin and hair, “Not So Pretty” uses scientific evidence, personal stories and interviews with scientists and doctors to delve into the corruption behind each respective aspect of the cosmetic industry. The first episode, “Makeup,” focuses on the issue of asbestos in talcum-based products, including Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and Claire’s makeup kits. The episode uses the personal stories of Corrin Ortillo, who works in makeup, and former OBGYN Dr. Tom Mchattie, who is a long time user of Johnson & Johnson baby powder — both of whom were diagnosed with mesothelioma, a tumor caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. It also looks into Kristiana Warner’s story about finding asbestos in a Claire’s makeup palette that her daughter Mackenzie used. Coupled with Keke Palmer’s narration, the interviews with researchers, journalists and activists neatly lay out the work that has been done surrounding the effects of asbestos, as well as the lack of regulation in the cosmetic industry and the government of those toxic chemicals.
“Not So Pretty” is a documentary that actually leads somewhere. Yes, it shocks the viewers with the dangers of products that many of us use on a regular basis, but toward the end of every episode, there’s a very clear “Dos and Don’ts” section and a QR code directing viewers toward sustainable cosmetics and apps like Skin Deep, Detox Me and Clearya to check the chemicals in their beloved makeup products. It’s easy to feel pent up anger and frustration after a well-built documentary that brings awareness to a true issue, like Netflix’s “13th,” but “Not So Pretty” gives us a place to direct those emotions with actionable items.
Though Palmer’s stiff narration makes the documentary seem somewhat like one long infographic, the storytelling and short episodes make it digestible. “Not So Pretty” succeeds in talking about the wider implications of the unregulated beauty industry. In the context of the first episode, viewers are told that though Johnson & Johnson has stopped selling their talcum-based baby powder in the United States, they continue selling in India, South Africa and Colombia, advertising towards women of Color. The second episode, “Nails,” begins with the history of the nail industry, highlighting the Vietnamese woman–owned salons that made manicures accessible to larger populations in the United States and doing justice to the women who sacrificed so much for their livelihoods.
The documentary maintains the overall structure of zeroing in on the toxicity of certain products or a specific brand, outlining the science behind the effects of those chemicals and then discussing the wider legal and social implications of the companies whose self-regulation methods are proving to do more harm than good. “Not So Pretty” tells us that yes, the beauty industry has a number of serious issues, but there is something that we can do about it. All of the resources mentioned are listed on the documentary’s website, which also features organizations dedicated to health and environmental protection. “Not So Pretty” is a warning to all makeup, nail polish, skincare and haircare users to be diligent about their products, because as Keke Palmer says, they can do things to us that are “not so pretty.”
Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at email@example.com.