The Stink!-ing Truth About Cosmetics
Every day, Madame Lemy works to fight the misconceptions and misinformation spread by large companies that place profits over the health and well-being of their customers. I discovered a deeply informative Netflix documentary, Stink! which follows director and father Jon J. Whelan as he uncovers the toxic deception of corporations that add fragrances to items commonly found in American households, including children’s clothing. We wholeheartedly support the mission of Stink! to educate American audiences on the dangers chemicals that companies legally use in their products and intentionally hide from consumers. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jon J. Whelan about the film.
1. For those who have not yet seen Stink!, what was your inspiration behind the documentary?
It’s actually somewhat accidental. I bought my daughter a pair of pajamas online and when I opened the package I noticed a weird smell. So I called the company to make sure they were safe and they completely stone walled. That’s how the documentary Stink! was born. I went on a quest to find out what [made] the pajamas stink and why companies can keep chemical ingredients secret from consumers. You won’t believe what I found.
2. In the past decade, there have been many documentaries made on the lack of transparency and the health concerns linked to the food and beverage industry; we have seen the impact those films have made with new label requirements as well as a mass shift in people becoming vegan. You were one of the first to document the lack of regulation in the cosmetics industry. How have you seen your documentary shape positive change in the industry since its release?
I think Stink! has definitely helped boost awareness to consumers, especially since its Netflix release. I think companies are becoming more transparent because that is what consumers want. Legislation is moving along at the state and federal level but you’re still seeing push back from [the] industry. However, for maybe the first time, some larger companies are open to more regulation because they don’t want the consumer backlash that can tarnish a brand. I am actually optimistic about 2019.
3. What are other changes that you hope to see in the future of the cosmetics industry?
Transparency most importantly. Everything should be disclosed. No more loopholes with fragrance and chemicals (contaminants) that were not “intentionally added.” We’ve seen [Johnson & Johnson] baby powder and Claire’s take hits this year because of positive tests for deadly asbestos in their products. Asbestos was not intentionally added; it was a contaminant in the products' talc. Nonetheless, it’s in the product and consumers obviously don’t know carcinogens are in their everyday products. The cosmetics industry has been on the honor system for too long. It’s time for Congress to give the FDA the power to regulate cosmetics. Under current law, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to do anything with cosmetics.
4. What can we as consumers do to help make those changes possible?
They can call their representatives and tell them that they support legislation that gives the FDA power to ensure that products on the shelf are safe. They can watch Stink! on Netflix to better understand the issue too.
5. In Stink!, you explore the presence of toxic chemicals in our everyday cleaning supplies and in our cosmetics. What were some of the changes you made once you started discovering what was really taking place with everyday products that consumers use?
In general, I stopped buying any personal care or cleaning product that had the misleading word “fragrance” on the label. And any products that don’t disclose their ingredients.
6. If there were one piece of advice you could give to people shopping for cosmetics and household cleaning products, what would it be?
Don’t trust a brand just because you have heard the name or because it’s been around for 80 years. Don’t confuse brand recognition with trust. Support companies that are aligned with your values and stand behind their ingredients.
7. Stink! has started a great conversation about the importance of consumer education and awareness as well as the need for greater transparency from cosmetic companies themselves, but there is still work to be done. What projects are you currently working on, and can you tell us a little bit about them?
I am currently on the board of Clean and Healthy New York, a non-profit that works to get toxins out of our products, bodies, children, and environment. I am involved in a few start-up companies and am thinking about [making] another documentary.
8. After all of your work in this industry, what is the legacy you hope to leave?
I hope that people see the difference between companies that do what’s right and companies that just do what’s legal. There’s a big difference.
9. I lost my best friend Stefanie LaRue, to stage four metastatic breast cancer. She was only 30 when she was diagnosed. She was the person who educated me on the importance of switching my skin care, especially my deodorants, to natural products. I was not able to find a natural deodorant that actually worked so I started making my own. From there, Madame Lemy was born. Beyond just selling my product, my company has created a platform for me to pass on my friend’s legacy and educate people on the importance of switching to natural products. Do you have any advice for me on how I can best use my company to achieve this mission?
First, I am very sorry about your friend, Stefanie. I think it’s amazing that you’re honoring her legacy with Madame Lemy. Doesn’t look like you need my advice. It looks like you’re turning a negative into a positive and I think that will resonate with people. I look forward to watching you grow.
Madame Lemy would like to extend a huge thank you to Jon J. Whelan for speaking to us more extensively about his documentary and his mission.
Holly Eve is the founder and CEO of Madame Lemy, an all-natural and sustainable luxury beauty brand. She speaks and writes on both entrepreneurship and mental health. Prior to starting her business, Holly worked as a celebrity and TV makeup artist between New York City and Los Angeles, where she currently resides.