For an industry that so often trades on glamour, the world of beauty isn’t always as glittering as it seems. As a new three-part BBC3 documentary series shows, there’s a darker side too.
In Beauty Laid Bare, four twentysomething Brits travel to America to dive deep into the multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry. There are three dedicated fans: Chloe, a 21-year-old makeup artist and influencer from Belfast; Casey, a 25-year-old from Cheltenham who uses makeup to help him forge his identity as a gay man; and Resh, a 21-year-old Mancunian for whom makeup became a lifeline after an acid attack. They are joined by Queenie, a 21-year-old from London who doesn’t engage with beauty and is cynical about the industry’s aims.
By visiting big beauty brand HQs, going behind the scenes to see how products are really made and chatting with cosmetic surgeons and influencers, they lift the lid on what the beauty industry is really like – and it isn’t all pretty. Here are the biggest things you'll learn:
The human cost of your beauty habits
When the group visit the California factory of ColourPop Cosmetics – a brand that prides itself on turning online trends into products – they witness firsthand the less glamorous side of the industry. The company might be able to make 1,000 lipsticks an hour but only thanks to the tedious and physical work of its employees, who are paid minimum wage.
Next, Casey and Resh travel to the desert of northern Mexico to see the production of candelilla, a vegan and 'ethical' alternative to beeswax. They are shocked to see workers using sulphuric acid without protection or safety equipment, a scene which hits Resh particularly hard. "They’re using sulphuric acid to create candelilla wax which is then going into beauty products that I am using on my sulphuric acid burns to cover it up. I think that’s really ironic."
Pumps are impossible to recycle and black plastic rarely gets a second life.
The big recycling myth
The ColourPop factory tour raises another question, this time around sustainability. "Is this not promoting a throwaway culture?" sceptic Queenie asks. This prompts the team to make a trip to San Francisco to meet charity Break Free From Plastic and learn what happens to beauty products that get chucked in the bin.
The key issue? The majority of what we think we’re recycling doesn’t end up that way. "The global rate for recycling is only 9%," campaigner Shilpi Chhotray explains. From pumps being impossible to recycle to black plastic rarely getting a second life, beauty products in particular cause major problems. Greenwashing from brands only intensifies the issue, and confusing symbols on packaging makes the topic a minefield for consumers. Considering the sobering statistic that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, the charity points out that the best way to reduce your impact is by using less.
The danger with counterfeit products
When Chloe and Resh are invited to go undercover with an investigator at one of LA’s busiest street markets, Santee Alley, they realise how easy it is to purchase fake beauty products. They are offered palettes from covetable brands like Kylie Cosmetics and MAC and counterfeit versions for $5 cheaper than the real thing. The investigator takes them to an LA police department evidence room where they see piles of fakes and learn that 2,000 counterfeit shipments were seized by US customs in 2017. It costs the beauty industry $75 million every single year – but it’s the vulnerable young people purchasing such counterfeit items they are worried about.
"Most of it, if not all of it, contains high levels of bacteria, and when we tested it in the past, it had levels of animal faeces," LAPD Detective Rick Ishitani tells them. Their fears are confirmed when Resh experiences the issue for herself, when she gets a rash from an eyeshadow swatch.
Social media is directly impacting the demands in LA's cosmetic surgery clinics.
Is Botox driving body dysmorphia?
In LA, the Brits learn how minimally invasive cosmetic procedures have increased threefold since 2000, and that social media is directly impacting the demands from consumers in clinic. They visit the office of leading cosmetic surgeon Dr Alexander Rivkin and try out the VISIA Skin Analysis machine, which gives your face a series of 'scores' out of 100. Casey is over the moon that his skin texture is rated 95 but Resh is told she could benefit from preventative Botox.
"It’s ridiculous telling 21-year-olds they need to look younger," Queenie comments. "Do you think this enables body dysmorphia?" she then asks Dr Rivkin. He admits the machine is simply a consultation method and not a diagnostic tool, but the Brits are concerned that it shines a light on people's insecurities as a means to drive sales.
The reality of influencer culture
Senegal invites them to his new LA home where he is opening the piles of press packages he receives on a daily basis. He’s not in it for the freebies though; with his audience size he can charge up to $3k for a brand mention in a video and up to $14k for a dedicated piece of content. However, as a gay man of colour, working in this online world isn’t always easy. "It’s a whole other barrier. We don’t have many black influencers," he explains. Increasingly he feels like he is a victim of tokenism. "In the past two years, you’ve started seeing all this inclusiveness. Everyone wants to be inclusive when they see they can make money out of a gay man who wears makeup."
While it’s not all doom and gloom – watching how the beauty industry has come together to help charity Beauty 2 The Streetz provide LA’s homeless with hygiene products is encouraging – the documentary highlights big changes that need to be made across the board. It seems we’re still far from an industry that’s accessible to all and which operates in a fair way for both people and the planet.
Beauty Laid Bare is available on BBC iPlayer now