This young woman’s life changed when she tested herself for toxic chemicals after using cosmetics

By Davida Gragor

I first met Mymy Nguyen in the summer of 2018 while filming the documentary Toxic Beauty. A California-raised girl with bleached blond hair and long eyelash extensions, Nguyen was excited to be a part of the film but hadn’t yet dug into the potentially dangerous ingredients found in personal care products and her own makeup routine.
“I never thought about the volume of the products that I was using,” she says in the documentary. “Eyebrows, lipstick, shampoo, conditioner, shaving. I lost count when I was using them, but I think [I used] upwards of 27 products.”

A science experiment

In the film, Nguyen takes on a science experiment in front of the cameras, testing her “chemical body burden” during and after using both mainstream and alternative beauty products.

Nguyen discovered she had higher mono-ethyl phthalate (MEP) levels than 95 per cent of Americans in three of her test samples. MEP is one of the phthalates that’s commonly found in personal care products. According to the film, phthalates have been linked to hormone disruption, developmental and reproductive problems, and cancer.

MyMy Nguyen in Toxic Beauty

She was concerned about the results. “I don’t know what that means for my body. I don’t know if it’s already done damage. I don’t know if I could reverse this damage. Where do I go from here?” she says in Toxic Beauty. “Fertility is my concern; cancer is my concern. I mean, it scares me.”

Her beauty routine over a year later

It’s mid-December in 2019 when Nguyen and I reconnect over Skype. At 5 p.m., it’s already dark outside both in Toronto, where I am, and in Nguyen’s new hometown of Boston. She’s got on oversized, clear-rimmed glasses and no makeup, and her faded purple hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. Still just as bubbly, she’s happy to talk about all the things she’s learned since participating in Toxic Beauty.

Cringing at the memory of herself, she says: “I remember watching the film and thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m the dumb girl! Everyone else is making huge changes, and I’m just putting all these products on unknowingly.’ But that’s OK. At least I don’t do it anymore.”

She isn’t dumb. Now 26, Nguyen is in her second year of medical school at Boston University School of Medicine. And she’s already decided she wants to practice in a field related to women’s health. “Maybe an ob-gyn? I feel like women’s health is an area of medicine where I can be an advocate.”

Her participation in Toxic Beauty changed her outlook, she explains. “It made me more confident that women’s health is something that I want to go into. If in the future I were to serve on the board of one of these large companies …. maybe [I could] even advise if I knew more about the different chemicals that go into products and steer companies away from including them. Long-term goals!”

Her perceptions about beauty were learned

In the film, Nguyen talks about the strong influence her mother had on her idea of beauty. “As a little girl, I was always very girly. My mom just liked to dress me up. ‘You’re a girl, you should look pretty. People are going to judge you for how you look.’”

Nguyen is now rethinking her mom’s advice. “My mom can do sunscreen and moisturizer, and that’s all she really needs, but she’s really stuck on the idea that she needs a lot of makeup or she needs to look a certain way or her skin needs to be brighter. But I think these are all socialized constructs.”

I ask Nguyen if her habits have changed since participating in the documentary. “Yeah!” she says. “I think my biggest change is just being very conscious of what products I buy — reading labels, which is something I never did before. I never even knew what parabens or phthalates were before I started this project.”

Now, education is key. “With my friends and my mom, if I see them try to buy a new product, I’m always very cautious to ask them, ‘Do you know what you’re buying? Do you know what goes into making these products?’”

Finding cleaner beauty products

“One thing that I struggled with when I was doing all this research was finding replacement products,” Nguyen admits. “I didn’t want to throw away everything I used completely. I think that would be a complete shift in my lifestyle and how I choose to express myself.”

Pointing to her coloured hair, she says: “I love my hair colour. My hair is purple right now, but I use a very clean product … I thought this was a perfect compromise.”

The night that we’re catching up, Nguyen is in the middle of studying for one of her exams. Seeing her makeup-free, I assume it’s because of the demands of medical school.

“I actually wear makeup very rarely. My daily routine now is just washing my face, and maybe [applying] Chapstick and sunscreen,” she says. “If I do put on makeup, I only have a few brands I like. That’s part of the reason I don’t wear makeup that often: I’m still trying to find replacement products.”

She says that deodorant has been one of the toughest products to replace. Traditional deodorants and antiperspirants typically contain ingredients like aluminium, fragrance and parabens to keep the body from sweating and smelling bad, and give the products a longer shelf life. But according to Toxic Beauty, these ingredients have also been linked to a range of health issues such as endocrine disruption and reproductive disorders.

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“I haven’t found a deodorant that I can replace [my usual product] with yet,” Nguyen says. “I still use, like, a pH-balanced-type deodorant. It does have aluminium in it … I’m sorry! I tried a few [alternatives], but none of them worked great. And when I’m in clinic or on the go and facing patients, I don’t want to smell bad. So, deodorant is a hard one.”

‘If you know something is bad for you, you stop doing it’

Nguyen is now enthusiastic about clean beauty. “It’s not so much about switching to a hippie lifestyle and throwing away all these products. It’s just making small changes. I had this very consumerist mindset: ‘Oh, I need more.’ But cancelling that all out is freeing ... liberating. I don’t need as much as I thought I did.

“I tell everybody what I’ve learned,” Nguyen continues. “I think especially in med school, or just in general, if you know something is unhealthy or bad for you, you stop doing it. People don’t eat fast food every day. It’s so easy to stop putting toxins on your body. If people can reduce their chemical body burden, then why not?”

Watch Toxic Beauty.

Produced with additional funding from: