Professor Schuh and Her Research Students Featured on HBO Max Docu-Series “Not So Pretty”

Professor Sonya Schuh and Kristen Harnett '20 examine toxicity in HBO film.Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated film company Jane Doe Film productions filmed a small team of undergraduate researchers at Saint Mary’s College in the summer of 2020 for its four-part docu-series, Not So Pretty, which was released April 14 on HBO Max. The show focuses on the truth behind the beauty industry: Jane Doe Productions reached out to Professor Sonya Schuh in light of her research with students on the effects of unregulated toxins in skin care products.

“We had these Hollywood producers reaching out to us,” Schuh said early last year. “I thought it was a joke.” The production team happened to be making their docu-series specifically on what Schuh’s team was researching, which were the effects of chemicals in beauty products. “They were looking for toxic chemicals and women’s health, and Saint Mary’s did a social media post [on our research],” Schuh said.

Schuh and her team felt inspired by the chance to give their research a larger platform, audience, and real life application. “It’s pretty exciting—the fact that we can take our research that we’ve worked so hard on, and have it get out into the public,” Schuh commented. “I can talk about it all day long with my students, but to get that research out into the light of day—it’s a really cool opportunity to get [it] out to a broader public outside of Saint Mary’s.”

The series illuminates Schuh’s team’s research on the effects of BPA and BPA alternatives on embryo development, a toxin regularly found in skin care products in the United States. Schuh discussed the research team’s findings. “Exposure levels are vastly different for women and men,” Schuh said. “Women have a greater exposure level to these plastic chemicals because we use more products. We do things to our face, our hair; we wear cosmetics; so some of the applications for our findings and looking at the toxicity of these chemicals have great implications for women.”

Not So Pretty, from Academy Award–nominated filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, debuted on April 14 and is the first comprehensive, investigative expose of the trillion-dollar cosmetics, beauty, and personal care industry. Filmakers Dick and Ziering, who also made Allen v. Farrow, On the Record, and The Hunting Ground, investigate the unregulated industry through rigorous interviewing and solid storytelling, with the mission of informing audiences of the hidden hazards of cosmetics as well as on safe, budget-friendly alternatives for their daily products.

Kristen Harnett ’20, who was a lead researcher on the project, remarked on the project’s being filmed during their Summer Research Program, which required extra COVID precautions and a lot of general fuss. “We spent a lot of time explaining the science, and then we’d have to stop because [the production team] would stop and fix your hair, and since there was no AC in Brousseau at the time because it was summer, it was extremely hot,” Harnett said. “But it was really fun and a cool experience.”

“The lab became a movie set,” Schuh said.

Although filming only took a couple days, Schuh worked with the producers and film production team for almost two years. She and her students even did research testing on chemicals in various DevaCurl hair products for the show and were acknowledged in episode 4, on Hair.  Schuh and her team appear in episode 3, on Skin.  Check it out—it's an eye-opening, insightful, artistic, and science-based exposé on the chemicals and products we are exposed to every day!

Learn more about the Summer Research Project students here