Can Self-Care Be Harmful? A New Documentary Reveals the Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry

a counter with various makeup on it

Image courtesy of HBO Max

Katie speaks to Amy Ziering about her new HBO Max doc, Not So Pretty.

I’m a huge fan of Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, two documentary filmmakers behind The Invisible War, which chronicles the military’s shameful history of sexual assault; The Hunting Ground, a feature about the same phenomenon on college campuses; and Allen v. Farrow, which needs no explanation. I love documentaries that connect the dots and help viewers understand a problem fully and appreciate the need to come up with solutions. 

Their new four-part series on HBO Max is no exception. Kirby and Amy train their lenses on the beauty industry. It’s called Not So Pretty and explains why we need to be concerned about the things we are putting on our skin, our hair, and our bodies. Self-care has become the mantra of our times — an antidote to the stressful, complicated world we currently occupy. But what if the very self-care we’ve been told to practice is actually causing us harm? I caught up with Amy when she was hiking with her dog in LA and asked about her latest project, which debuts tonight on HBO Max. 

Katie Couric: Amy, how did “the ugly truth behind the beauty business” catch your attention?

Amy Ziering: I was speaking at a conference and another speaker there happened to be the CEO of what’s now referred to as a “clean” beauty company and she was talking about the industry in ways I found quite shocking. So when I got back to LA, we had our investigative teams start digging and they began uncovering information that was both surprising and disturbing about the products we entrust our bodies to daily.  We were startled to learn that much of this information isn’t widely known and that this lack of awareness causes preventable harms daily. So we decided this would be one of our next projects. 

This is a very different kind of documentary for you and Kirby. It’s still about a serious issue, but the tone and look are much different. Tell us about that.

Yeah, it is very different. We worked very closely in developing the series with HBO Max and together we all felt that a more dynamic and lively vibe and spirit would best suit the content as we were looking for the series to engage across generations. We were so lucky to have landed the talents of the incredible Keke Palmer. She dove in with her huge heart and smarts to act as the series’ witty and engaging narrator — she makes all the twists, turns, and startling revelations really come to life. 

What surprised you the most when you started to investigate the beauty industry?

That the vast majority of our beauty and skincare products are derived from petrochemicals. That means purchasing these products directly supports big oil — ExxonMobil, Chevron, etc. 

You documented some health problems that experts believe are connected to certain products. What can you tell us about that? 

Well, there are a lot of health issues that are plaguing us in the 21st century that were never this prevalent. And many believe this rise in rates and occurrences is directly linked to the rise in our use of all these chemical-based products that pollute not only the environment but our bodies as well.  And there is an ever-growing body of evidence that points to strong correlations between the toxicity of these chemicals and the many ailments that are currently plaguing us. 

It’s sad because all of this is totally unnecessary and 100 percent preventable. 

Think about it. The human body functions in ways that are extremely efficient and self-sufficient.  We don’t need a whole lot to maintain healthy hair, nails, and skin.  Marketing and ad copy just make us believe otherwise via very clever psyops that prey on our insecurities. The bottom line is: The cosmetics industry is a multi-billion dollar business that traffics mostly in petrochemicals and is almost entirely unregulated. Read that sentence again and let it soak in and then draw your own conclusions about the likely health outcomes. 

How does this problem impact women of color differently?

In so many ways that it’s really unconscionable and horrifying. Our toxic beauty culture has historically — since its inception — positioned a white Eurocentric look as the one to aspire to. That message has been, and still is, extremely damaging to the self-esteem of people of color, as it’s constantly telling them that their looks are somehow deficient and dangling an impossible beauty ideal for them to aspire to. Companies both foster and capitalize on this manufactured insecurity by marketing products to persons of color that promise closer proximity to an ever unattainable beauty ideal — like hair straighteners and skin lighteners. Those products, more often than not, are more toxic than the hair and skincare products sold to white consumers. It’s a very painful lose/lose situation for persons of color.  

There is a clean beauty movement that’s been going on for quite a while — is that the answer? What else needs to be done?

In a perfect world, the answer would be for companies to only produce products that are healthy for us and for the environment. But since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, realistically speaking, the next easy and doable fix is for us as consumers to force companies to behave better by only purchasing products that are truly clean and safe. This will take a bit more of a conscious effort on our part, but if conventional toxic beauty products cease being purchased, companies will be forced to pivot and make cleaner products.  

I think this is a case where changes in our daily consumer purchasing decisions can and will decisively change things.  The good news is, with a bit of effort and work, on our part, this is fixable.

What have you learned from making this doc that you can share with our readers about doing this extra work?

If you’re finding that many clean products are cost-prohibitive, don’t stress. 

For the past several years I’ve just been using water and a washcloth to clean my face and light inexpensive natural oils to moisturize it, and my skin honestly looks no different than it did when I was using all sorts of products that I had been brainwashed into believing I needed.     

We don’t need much at all to keep our skin clean, hydrated, and healthy. We arrived on the planet designed to be very physiologically self-sufficient.  Don’t let the multi-national industrial complex deceive you into believing and purchasing otherwise. 

You and Kirby are work partners. Tell us about the dynamics of your partnership and how it’s endured for so long?

I wish I knew. We have a very complicated working relationship but the secret maybe is that we are always completely on the same page regarding wanting to use our talents to make the world better. It also helps that we have very different strengths that are complementary — so it’s always pretty clear who is better at doing what. And I think we both would agree that our work together is better than it would be apart.   

Not So Pretty debuts April 14, but you can check out the trailer below.