HBO’s ‘Not So Pretty’ Shows the Ugly Side of Hair Care

Beauty as we know it has several intersections. Everything from makeup to fashion goes under deep examination every few decades to include more diversity. While 2022 has been the year of embracing body inclusivity and demanding that popular brands remain conscientious about social messaging, there’s still a thread of secrecy that the beauty industry has kept under wraps. 

That is until HBO’s latest docuseries, “Not So Pretty” exposed the hidden toxins in popular products. Narrated by actress Keke Palmer, the limited series covers four of the most popular sectors of beauty — makeup, nails, skincare, and hair. Each episode introduces an array of harmful toxins including asbestos, which can be found in Johnson & Johnson products and makeup. 

It was the final episode “Hair,” however, that pointed to the biggest problem in our digitalized era: influencer power. With platforms like TikTok and Instagram being a cesspool for beauty reviews, the “Not So Pretty” final episode is a testament to the importance of being wary of the products beauty companies advertise. 

“Hair” is the tragic love letter to the curly and natural hair community. It opens with three different women from the curly community: Ayesha Malik, Stephanie Mero and Felicia Jones. Each woman is introduced with her personal journey on learning to love and care for her natural texture. Right away, the episode explains the societal pressures for straight hair, as well as how Black and Brown women are taught to hate their hair. 

Ayesha Malik. Courtesy of HBO Max.

This struggle is what made finding a popular product like DevaCurl so revolutionary. The company didn’t just give the women platforms and thousands of followers overnight, it revived their individual passions for curly hair care. However, their golden days came to a screeching halt when they each began to receive concerning messages from their followers complaining about excessive hair loss from DevaCurl products. 

Then, a few months later, one by one each influencer began to lose their own hair. The horror story doesn’t stop there. Ayesha Malik began to suffer from extreme tinnitus that eventually led her to need hearing aids. Additionally, Stephanie Mero has permanently damaged hair follicles. What could have possibly caused such horrific effects? Formaldehyde. 

The inclusion of formaldehyde is no stranger when it comes to hair products. It’s the same ingredient found in relaxers that have been marketed toward Black women for years. David Steinman, a consumer health activist and author, reluctantly admits that while all women are affected by hidden toxins in hair products, companies targeting Black women are especially harmful because “they’re taking advantage of Black women’s need for specialized products”.  

The lack of options for natural hair care will then lead to a reliance on relaxers, which according to Janet Nudelman, the senior director for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, can result in a 30% increase in the risk of breast cancer. 

Towards the end of the 33-minute episode, the influencers finally voice their truth to their confused fans, with Stephanie Mero using the creation of her Facebook group as a safe space for other women affected. The episode closes with a reverence for the curly and natural hair communities and a message to continue loving their curls while becoming more aware of the toxins so as not to face the same problems these influencers did.

The main reason harmful toxins are affecting so many people is the sworn allegiance companies have to hiding toxins from the public. In fact, “Hair” admitted that the FDA technically doesn’t require companies to list all ingredients used in their products. 

Even with activism like The Crown Act pushing for the right to wear textured hair in the workplace, there’s no way to stop billion-dollar companies from preying on Black and Brown communities. 

Courtesy of HBO Max.

Despite the natural hair movement being an act of resistance against beauty standards, it has become a pipeline to other women with natural hair being directly affected by unsafe ingredients. This episode notes that DevaCurl isn’t the only hair company to have harmful ingredients. Back in 2018, social media exploded when Shea Moisture fell out of favor with the natural hair community when it was speculated to include harmful products. The popular gel, EcoStyler, has also come into question. 

Unfortunately, the need for hair influencers continues to grow as more hair companies try to buy back the loyalty of the natural hair community. This results in more influencers being sought out to promote products that include toxic ingredients, even if they, like the influencers in “Hair,” are in the dark about the true nature of these products. A stir of unrest will continue to exist in the natural hair community as more confusion and lack of options continue. 

Already there’s a deep mistrust in hair influencers who still promote “blacklisted” companies, as well as the rise of simplified hair care routines, such as the “three-step method.” Regardless of products being omitted from consumers’ cabinets, the fear of using the wrong product makes the reality of natural hair care murky.

“Not So Pretty” reminds the public that the fault of misinformation for ingredients shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the influencers. Instead, the blame should be pointed toward the hyper-consumerist society that prioritizes profit over preventing diseases. There’s a high chance we may never completely escape harmful toxins in hair products, but the docuseries at least offers education that can lead to more careful selections in these products. 

“Not So Pretty” is available to stream on HBO Max.

By Adia Carter

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