Titanium dioxide is a common food additive that is used as a white pigment that enhances brightness and opacity. It’s also used in plastics, papers, ceramics and paints.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers it safe for consumption, other organizations question its potential adverse effects.
For that reason, it’s best to avoid food products containing the additive when possible and take precautions if you work in a setting that allows for frequent exposure to titanium dioxide particles.
What Is Titanium Dioxide?
Titanium dioxide, also called titania, is an odorless white powder and naturally occurring mineral that is widely used as a pigment for its brightness and whitening effects on a variety of materials, such as paint, plastic, paper, cosmetics, sunscreens, toothpastes and foods.
It’s produced through the sulfate or chloride process, which both involve treating titanium ore with sulfuric or hydrochloric acid to produce titanium sulfate or titanium chloride. These materials are then further processed to remove impurities and produce titanium dioxide in its final form.
Food-grade titanium dioxide differs from what’s added to plastics and paints to enhance whiteness. However, there have been concerns about the environmental impact of titanium dioxide production and the potential health risks from exposure to its particles.
Although food-grade titanium dioxide must be 99 percent pure, there’s still a risk of it containing potential contaminants, such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Additionally, inhaling the mineral over time can possibly cause it to build up in your body, leading to adverse effects.
Titanium dioxide is a versatile material with a wide range of applications. Some of its most common uses include:
1. Pigment and Food Coloring
Titanium dioxide is one of the most widely used white pigments, often used to add whiteness and brightness to products. It is used in the production of paints, coatings, plastics and other products to provide a white color or opacity.
It’s also used in food products to provide a white color. Candies, cakes and creamers are examples of foods that may contain titanium dioxide for its color enhancing and bleaching properties.
Titanium dioxide is often used as a UV absorber and pigment in cosmetic products, such as foundations, lipsticks, creams, sunscreens and other skin care products. It helps protect the skin from the harmful effects of UV rays by blocking them, while providing a brightening effect.
Often used as a glaze for ceramics, titanium dioxide provides a bright, glossy finish and improves the durability and stain resistance of ceramic products.
4. Paper and Textiles
Titanium dioxide is used in the production of paper and textiles to improve whiteness, brightness, opacity and durability. It’s often used in fabrics, yarns, paper and other fibers.
In addition to these uses, titanium dioxide is also used in:
- Refractory material to improve strength and durability
- Rubber products as a filler
- Cleaning products as an abrasive agent
Risk, Side Effects and Dangers
The FDA categorized titanium dioxide as “Generally Recognized as Safe,” but there are warnings about its potential dangers from other organizations.
The European Food Safety Authority updated its safety assessment of the mineral in March 2020, stating that titanium dioxide can no longer be considered safe as a food additive. This was due to evidence of potentially harmful effects after consumption of the mineral, which may accumulate in the body over time.
The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety issued an opinion of the safety of titanium dioxide in food, stating that it should no longer be considered as safe when used as a food additive.
Titanium dioxide has also been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has caused concern about its use in food products. This classification, however, is currently based on limited evidence from animal studies that involved the inhalation of titanium dioxide particles that increased the risk of lung cancer.
The risks associated with titanium dioxide exposure depend on a variety of factors, including the form of the mineral, the route of exposure (such as being inhaled or consumed), and the duration and intensity of exposure.
Inhaling high concentrations of titanium dioxide dust or fumes, which may occur in occupational settings — such as in the production or processing of products containing the mineral — may cause respiratory problems like coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, in addition to eye and skin irritation.
There’s also concern that exposure to the mineral over time, even in small amounts, can build up in the body, particularly in the kidneys, spleen and liver. Although most of the mineral is excreted in feces, there is evidence that a small percentage may remain in bodily organs.
There is also some evidence to suggest that exposure to titanium dioxide nanoparticles may be harmful or toxic to the environment, including aquatic life and other organisms. The production and disposal of the mineral may also release pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, into the air and water.
For people in occupational settings that increase the risk of titanium dioxide exposure, taking protective measures is helpful. This may include wearing protective equipment, such as respirators, and using ventilation systems.
The mineral appears to have low skin penetration, but it is a greater concern when inhaled frequently over time.
In summary, although more human evidence is needed to determine the risks of the mineral, potential titanium dioxide side effects from excessive exposure (especially when inhaled) may include:
- Respiratory issues
- Skin irritation
- Reproductive and developmental effects
Where It’s Hiding
Titanium dioxide in food is used in a variety of products as a color enhancer. The most common foods containing titanium dioxide include:
- Milk powders and other dairy products
- Chewing gum
- Candies and sugar-based treats
- Doughnut and pastry mixes
- Cake or cupcake decorations
- Sauces and condiments
- Salad dressings and mayonnaise
- Sports drinks and flavored waters
How to Avoid It
To avoid exposure to titanium dioxide, follow these recommendations:
- Read food labels: Titanium dioxide in food is often listed on food labels, sometimes by its chemical name, E171.
- Choose fresh, whole foods: Foods that are made from fresh, whole ingredients are less likely to contain additives like titanium dioxide. Wherever possible, choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Limiting your consumption of processed foods helps you avoid potentially dangerous additives.
- Check the ingredient lists of cosmetics: Titanium dioxide is commonly used as a whitening agent in cosmetics, including sunscreens, lotions, creams, lipsticks and makeup.
- Avoid inhaling fine particles: If you work in an industry that involves the production or handling of this mineral, take protective steps to minimize exposure by wearing appropriate gear, such as a respirator that will stop you from inhaling fine particles.
- Titanium dioxide is a common food additive that is used as a white pigment to enhance the brightness and opacity of certain foods.
- Food-grade titanium dioxide differs from what’s added to plastics and paints to enhance whiteness. However, there are concerns about the environmental impact of titanium dioxide production and the potential health risks from exposure to its particles, especially when inhaled in high amounts in an occupational setting.
- Titanium dioxide in food can be found in candies, creamers, pastries, sauces, salad dressings, cosmetics and more. To avoid exposure, check the ingredient list on all packaged products before purchase.