News from CRIS: In the News - Titanium Dioxide Regulation in California

June 5, 2023

What is titanium dioxide?

Titanium dioxide is a white, powdery substance that is widely used as a pigment, brightening agent, and protectant in various food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and other industrial uses.

It is a naturally occurring oxide of the metal titanium. Titanium dioxide forms when titanium is exposed to oxygen, creating many differing titanium oxides found in minerals, dusts, sands, and soils. 

Titanium dioxide has excellent light-scattering properties, making it valuable in products that require a bright white color or opacity. It is commonly used in cosmetics, sunscreen, paints, coatings, plastics, food products, and many other applications where its brightening and reflective properties are desired.

Manufacturers source this mined mineral from rutile, brookite, and anatase. It is then processed and refined to meet stringent safety guidelines based on the end-use of the mineral.

Titanium dioxide added to foods and other ingestible products is commonly known as E 171, indicating its high food-grade purity.

What does titanium dioxide do?

Titanium dioxide amplifies and brightens white opacity because of its exceptional light-scattering properties. In food and drugs, these properties help to define colors clearly and can prevent products from UV degradation.

In cosmetics, titanium dioxide’s properties enhance coloration and can help protect skin from damaging UVA and UVB rays.

How are we typically exposed to titanium dioxide?

There are many ways we’re exposed to titanium dioxide in our everyday life. Below are the most common ways we come into contact with titanium dioxide.

Digestive System Exposure

We’re frequently exposed to E 171 through the foods we ingest. We find E 171 in many food products, like popsicles, ice cream, gum, and more. Another way we ingest E 171 is through pharmaceutical drugs. Many pills and capsules contain E 171 as an inactive ingredient.

Less frequently, we ingest E 171 through liquids such as salad dressing, dairy products, and some artificially colored drinks. However, since E 171 is insoluble, manufacturers must use other stabilizers to keep E 171 suspended in liquids as an emulsion; otherwise, it will settle to the bottom.

Topical Exposure

We apply titanium dioxide to our skin through sunscreens, makeup, lip balms, nail polish, and other cosmetic products.

We even use titanium dioxide when brushing our teeth, as it’s found in many toothpastes.

Respiratory Exposure

In industrial settings, people can be exposed to titanium dioxide through inhalation. Inhalation exposure to titanium dioxide is exceedingly rare for most people.

Why does the exposure route matter, and does titanium dioxide harm our health?

How we’re exposed to an ingredient matters significantly regarding our long-term health.

Research shows that inhaling titanium dioxide particles in significant quantities over time can cause adverse health outcomes. Unless you work in an industrial setting, inhaling substantial amounts of titanium dioxide is highly unlikely.

Research supports that applying titanium dioxide to the skin through sunscreens, makeup, and other topical products does not pose any health risks.

Overwhelmingly, research relevant to human eating patterns shows us that E 171 is safe when ingested typically through foods and drugs (1,2,3).

Other research suggests that E 171 could cause harm; however, those research processes did not consider how people are typically exposed to E 171. Research that adds E 171 to drinking water, utilizes direct injections, or gives research animals E 171 in drinking water through a feeding apparatus is not replicating typical human exposure. It's important to note that in these studies, when titanium dioxide is consumed in liquid form, it can settle if proper emulsification is not achieved. This can result in uneven and unpredictable titanium dioxide exposure to the research animals.


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