Titanium Dioxide: A Closer Look at This Sunscreen Ingredient - Public Goods

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Titanium Dioxide: A Closer Look at This Sunscreen Ingredient

Many people used to not even think twice about the ingredients that were in their skincare, but now many are questioning what they are actually putting on their skin. Lately, sunscreen, in particular, has become a hot topic.

rubbing lotion on hands

This trend is rising because some sunscreen ingredients have become controversial. Research has determined that certain chemical sunscreens, such as those containing oxybenzone, are absorbed into the body’s bloodstream and are harmful to marine life.

But what about physical sunscreens, such as sunscreen containing titanium dioxide?

Dermatologists and doctors still stress that wearing sunscreen is crucial to protect yourself from the UV rays that can cause cancer. You can be protected from UV rays whether you choose to use a chemical sunscreen or physical sunscreen. If you want to opt for a physical sunscreen, also known as a mineral sunscreen, you should become familiar with titanium dioxide.

What Is Titanium Dioxide?

Titanium dioxide (or, TiO2) is a naturally occurring mineral. As for how this mineral occurs naturally, titanium is actually found in the earth’s crust. Titanium dioxide is the oxide of titanium, which means there is oxygen as well as the element of titanium.

It is a white powder that is made up of titanium and oxygen. Perry Romanowski, Independent Cosmetic Chemist and host of The Beauty Brains podcast, said this ingredient is mainly used for two reasons. First, it is employed as white pigment coloring in cosmetics.

pile of titanium dioxide powder

Secondly, it’s used in sunscreen, because it is an approved active ingredient that has the ability to protect people from the sun’s UVB (ultraviolet B) rays –– more on this later! Most people who know about titanium dioxide are familiar with the ingredient because of sunscreen, but there certainly are some other less common uses for TiO2.

What Is Titanium Dioxide Used For?

There are various titanium dioxide uses. Many products that you use or consume on a daily or regular basis may contain titanium dioxide, and you don’t even know it.

  • Some products that you might find TiO2 in include (but are not limited to):
  • Sunscreen
  • Cosmetics (particularly in loose or pressed powder, eyeshadow)
  • Toothpaste
  • Lotions and creams
  • Pharmaceutical products (as tablet coatings or in gelatin capsules, for example)
  • Foods

For the most part, TiO2 is included in these products only for coloring and thickening. Titanium dioxide color can also help to make color opaque, meaning to make it less see-through. This trait is why TiO2 is added to cosmetics and personal care items like lotions and toothpaste.

However, TiO2 really does not serve a functional benefit in these products. For example, titanium dioxide in toothpaste does not provide benefits such as cavity prevention or tooth whitening. The substance simply helps make the color of the product bright white.

Aside from skincare products and cosmetics, you may also find titanium dioxide in food. Food-grade TiO2 is referred to as colorant E171, and it is used to create bright white foods, such as white cake icing. It does not have any kind of nutritional value.

The functionality of titanium dioxide really comes in with sunscreen, where TiO2 is instilled in higher concentrations. TiO2 nanoparticles act as a physical sunscreen, which means that the sunscreen does not penetrate the skin in the way that chemical sunscreen does, but it still blocks the sun’s harmful UV rays.

bottle of sunscreen lotion on the beach

The sun produces two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays are longer and primarily associated with aging. UVB rays are shorter and primarily associated with burns. TiO2 is better at blocking the UVB rays. The ability to block UV rays is the main (and arguably, the only) health benefit of titanium dioxide.

Loretta Ciraldo M.D. FAAD, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist, said TiO2 has been a mainstay in mineral sunscreen for years, and it is common for people to apply it. But because it isn’t very effective at blocking long UVA rays, TiO2 is usually combined with another mineral, zinc oxide.

With this duo, you can be sure to have the best UV radiation protection to safeguard you against both burns and signs of aging. If you don’t want sunscreen chemicals absorbed into your skin, physical or mineral sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide are the way to go.

An added bonus: TiO2 is good for sensitive skin. If you have bad reactions to chemical sunscreens, titanium dioxide sunscreen is less likely to make you have adverse reactions, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Is Titanium Dioxide Safe?

According to Romanowski, TiO2 is safe to use, even on a daily basis.

“The evidence shows it is safe and something people do not have to worry about,” he claimed. “There is no evidence it will cause harm to a beauty product user.”

Romanowski stated that TiO2 has been FDA approved, and the FDA asserted that it is safe and effective in topical use up to a concentration of 25%. So, we can rest assured about titanium dioxide safety. As for a dermatologist’s perspective, Ciraldo seconds the fact that TiO2 in skincare and cosmetics is safe to use.

Additionally, the FDA actually considers titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to be the two safest sunscreen ingredients. The organization says that many other sunscreen ingredients need more research and information to determine how safe they truly are. Those ingredients are really the ones under fire for being absorbed into the bloodstream.

putting lotion on fingers

When it comes to the safety of titanium dioxide being used as a food coloring, there has been some controversy — particularly in Europe — surrounding whether or not TiO2 nanoparticles are absorbed into the bloodstream and if they accumulate. However, the consensus is that the TiO2 nanoparticles aren’t a concern, and foods made with food-grade TiO2 are safe to eat. There are no notable titanium dioxide side effects.

Potential Risks Of Titanium Dioxide

Some people may be wondering, ”Is titanium dioxide toxic?” However, again, titanium dioxide safety shouldn’t be a concern.

The biggest scare surrounding titanium dioxide is whether it causes cancer. Nonetheless, there isn’t any hard evidence proving that TiO2 causes cancer or has any other lethal or long-term effects.

Is Titanium Dioxide Cancerous?

According to Romanowski, the cancer concern for TiO2 is related to workers who might be inhaling a lot of the ingredient, not the average consumer who is applying the product in skincare or beauty. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has categorized titanium dioxide as a “potential occupational carcinogen” for those who work with the ingredient.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that TiO2 nanoparticles are a “possible carcinogenic to humans,” although this research was based on animal studies, not on humans.

The bottom line: We do not have concrete answers about whether TiO2 is a carcinogen, but the evidence we have shows it is very unlikely to be harmful to the consumer.

You’re Already Picking the Healthy Alternative

Overall, you don’t need to worry when you see that titanium dioxide is an ingredient in any of the products that you are using — whether it’s sunscreen, cosmetics or food. Based on the knowledge we have about the safety of the ingredient, you do not need to actively avoid it or purposefully seek out products that have titanium dioxide alternatives in them. After all, titanium dioxide is already an alternative to unhealthy and environmentally destructive chemical sunscreen ingredients.

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