Is Titanium Dioxide Safe?


I enjoy being a cosmetic chemist, but like every job some things can be a bit tedious.  None is more so than complying with legislation.  In California they have a particularly irritating example of this in the form of a thing called Proposition 65, which includes a list of chemicals that California has decided are linked to cancer.  If you sell a cosmetic containing any of these chemicals you have to go online and notify the state of this fact via a particularly user-unfriendly database.  The list is quite long and is comprised mainly of chemicals I have never heard of, or that would have no use in any cosmetic product.

But I was surprised to see titanium dioxide listed.  Surprised and annoyed actually, because it was one of only two ingredients on the list that were in products I was working on that were intended for sale in California.  This meant that I had to register for the database and spend and very large amount of time filling in online forms.   Nobody likes filling in forms at the best of times and this one was a stinker.  The most frustrating bit was that you had to get in touch with the people who supply you with the ingredient and get them to confirm to you that what you are saying is correct, and to give the date you did it and their contact details.  I suppose the intention is that somebody in California can check that you are not just making it all up.

This meant that not only was I wasting a lot of time, I was also wasting time of my friends in the business as well.  And the state of California was officially treating me as if I was dishonest in the process.  I had thought it was Europe that was supposed to be full of bureaucratic anti-business regulations?    I thought Californians are all free thinking and entrepreneurial?  Clearly not all stereotypes are accurate.

I was curious as to what exactly they thought was the problem with titanium dioxide.  Knowing it to be an insoluble mineral with a very inert kind of chemistry that is widely used in pharmaceuticals as a colourant, I found it a bit surprising that there would be any question about its safety.  So I did a quick google to see what the problem was.  I wasn’t surprised to find plenty of scaremongers denouncing it.  Any chemical that gets onto an ingredient list comes in for that kind of treatment.  But it turned out that there was indeed a proper scientific paper linking titanium dioxide to lung cancer.  This came from the occupational health literature and related to experiments on titanium dioxide dust.   They were investigating how much dust could be safely permitted in factories where titanium dioxide was being made.

It turned out that breathing in high levels of titanium dioxide dust could indeed cause lung cancer in lab animals.  There was no sign that the same happened in humans, but nonetheless it does show that like most things titanium dioxide can be harmful if handled badly.  It also shows that a lot of work goes into making sure that workers are safe nowadays, which is a good thing.  If I was responsible for a plant where fine dust particles were being produced, whatever they were made of, I’d be looking at the details of that study closely.

What it doesn’t suggest is that using titanium dioxide poses any risk when used in cosmetics.  Indeed it strongly suggests exactly the opposite.  If you have to grind it up and breath it in to do any damage, it hardly poses a risk in normal use.  I find the approach of the California state legislature here to be bordering on the passive-aggressive.  If they think something is carcinogenic, then get on with it and ban it.  I may not agree, but if you really think that the link between titanium dioxide and cancer is serious then surely you shouldn’t be allowing it.  Getting manufacturers to fill in tedious databases hardly seems like an appropriate response.

I have done a more general post about titanium dioxide.


Baan, R., et al. Carcinogenicity of carbon black, titanium dioxide, and talc. The Lancet Oncology. Vol. 7 (Apr. 2006). P. 295-296

(This paper is free but you have to register with the Lancet.)

The EU official name for titanium dioxide is CI 77891 – you’ll see that on a lot of ingredient lists.


17 thoughts on “Is Titanium Dioxide Safe?”

  1. Woah. This is surprising. Almost all color cosmetics I own has Titanium Dioxide listed on it. And all of my sunscreens are either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide or both. Does that mean a lot of people had to go through that database? Oh my goodness.

  2. Yes Rae, this requirement will have generated a great many man-hours of work. And yes Lise, I am sure it would.

  3. Well it’s rather irritating to hear that TiO2 is Prop 65. On 1/20/11 I received an email from a director of “Proposition 65 Implementation” saying titanium dioxide is not being considered for listing at any time soon. I guess we’re past the “anytime soon” time frame.

    1. It was on the list about two years ago, but probably after January. I have just gone back to the California state government website and checked, and it is still on the list but now has a caveat. It now says in brackets afterwards ‘airborne, cunbound particles of respirable size’. I am pretty sure that wasn’t there last time I looked because I would have seized on any excuse to avoid listing. I was sent the spreadsheet by a customer so I suppose it is possible they removed the bracketed information, possibly accidentally. In any case that would still cover a lot of colour cosmetics which are sold as powders.

  4. Im sorry you have to such a stupid thing I enjoy cosmetics so it saddens me you cant just formulate awesome products without the bull! I am friends with a radical lesbian now (remember I commented on another post saying the scaremongering about cosmetics has hijacked the feminist movement?) well I cant state my true thoughts that I know cosmetics dont cause cancer bc I would cause her not to be my friend anyone and cause her and others to say I am falling for patriarchal propaganda! She even said products for babies were most toxic! *facepalm*

  5. @Rubyheat – radical lesbians might have a bit of a point about the patriarchy. Until fairly recently decisions about what products women might want to buy have been predominantly made by men. I know – I’ve been in the meetings. (I know their critique is a bit wider ranging than that but this isn’t a political blog.) It is changing, largely because of the unsurprising fact that women on average are better at spotting what women want and so get better results. It is frustrating that there are a lot of people who miss the real problem, gender imbalance at the tops of organisations, and focus on the imaginary one of product safety. The radical right aren’t much more scientific. If you look online you can find libertarians suggesting that DDT was safe all along. If it gets much worse we are going to be running out of faces and palms to palm them with.

  6. Hi Colin

    I was interested to read your article, because I am allergic to leave-on products containing titanium dioxide. Strangely enough, wash-off products that contain this ingredient do not have any effect on my skin. Do you know of any other person who suffers from the same allergy?

  7. What an awesome response Colin! I found out about this blog from The Beauty Brains. I have no doubt over the patriarchy part of who runs the cosmetics industry but I do not think that bc I look at the data and not imaginary stuff that I am ‘falling for it’! Yes it is very frustrating I see the issue as who is at the top of the organizations and the advertising which is often very psychologically damaging especially to the little girls that see it. But the ads are not the fault of the formulators! This is where I see change should be made (ads and leaders). Instead of doing stuff like this, I would not want to do all that extra work for no good reason as you talked about in the article!

  8. So what do they expect us to use as a sunblock in natural cosmetics then? Zinc alone won’t do and I am sure they find an excuse to put zinc oxide on the list as well pretty soon because – dosn’t that cause a lot of dust as well? And what about micas? Iron oxides? In fact the whole mineral makeup industry would collapse in one fell swoop. Also this thing about animal experiments – we know that a lot of those are irrelevant when it comes to humans. Which doesn’t mean don’t wear a mask when handling anything dusty. Surely that is common sense, no?

  9. Think a lot of concern about titanium dioxide is the fact it’s a nano particle that can go places it does not belong in the body and actually does not belong in the body at all. The nano particles are able to penetrate through the skin and get into the blood steam. It is an extreme inflammatory. We know that is the #1 cause for most all diseases.

    1. Thanks for your comment Elaine. I think you have a few things not quite right there. Most titanium dioxide isn’t nano and very little will get through the skin. Even nano sized titanium dioxide particles don’t penetrate the skin very much. Titanium dioxide is not an extreme inflammatory agent and it is not a major cause of any disease.

  10. “70% of titanium dioxide sunscreens and 30% of zinc sunscreens sold in Australia contain ‘manufactured’ nanoparticles (particles that have intentionally been produced in nano form”
    “Whether or not nanoparticles used in sunscreens will penetrate the dead outer layers of our skin, and pose risks to living cells, remains unknown. CSIRO and other researchers are conducting ongoing studies into skin penetration.”
    “Scientific studies have shown that nanoparticles not used in sunscreen can penetrate skin, especially if skin is flexed (as during exercise). Incredibly, one study found that even particles up to 1,000nm in size can be taken up through intact skin to reach living cells, when skin is flexed. ”

    1. Thanks for that MacKenzie, but I agree with at least one sentence in the article you link to. Nano scale titanium dioxide is sufficiently different from the standard stuff to be considered as a separate chemical with different properties. I haven’t done a post on nano yet so your comment isn’t particularly relevant to this piece.

  11. a little offtopic….European rules arent anti business, theyre pro consumer…if it werent for the bureaucratic regulation the owners wouldnt even dream of making studies on workers health…it cuts profit….

    great article btw

  12. Titanium Dioxide is in NuSkin Toothpaste! It’s the whitening agent in the toothpaste! It’s the chemical in white paint. So glad I’m not selling that toothpaste!!! Yet NuSkin claims gentle and natural and can be used on kids the age of 2 yrs and older

    1. I can’t quite see what the problem is there Melissa. Titanium dioxide is also used in pharmaceutical products, so it has quite a few applications. Given that it is a white pigment its use in white paint would seem to be perfectly logical.

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