What Is Titanium Dioxide Used For?

Titanium dioxide has been used for more than a century in various industrial and household applications. Chemically, its IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) name is titanium(IV) oxide, but it’s also informally known as titania. 

This is a naturally-occurring substance that has a relatively simple formula, TiO2. It’s most commonly used as a pigment, which you may recognise as titanium white, though the technical names for the colour are Pigment White 6 (PW6) and CI 77891.

Chemical formula of titanium dioxide molecule with white titanium dioxide (TiO2) powder

Products With Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide is an inorganic chemical that’s highly stable and non-reactive, even at high temperatures. This means it can be used in the manufacture of a range of products, from paint and food additives to ceramics, adhesives, and even toothpaste. In these products, it’s used either as one of the main ingredients, as a precursor, or as a catalyst. 

  • Paint: Titanium dioxide is used as a white colour pigment that provides an opaque coverage. Titanium white, the pigment, is the most popular shade of white to paint with because of this opaque and cloudy effect.
  • Food additive: As a food additive, TiO2 is mainly used as a food colourant, and is often used in confectionery, baking, and sauces.
  • Sunscreen: Together with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide is very effective at blocking ultraviolet rays from the sun, acting as a mineral sunscreen that physically blocks and deflects sunlight. This is because its nanoparticles act as very small mirrors that reflect sunlight.
  • Coatings: Since this compound can naturally block UV rays, it’s also an effective chemical coating that can protect painted surfaces against UV damage. In this way, it helps in the longevity of the surface.
  • Adhesives: Titanium dioxide minimises the potential of cracking or colour fading in plastics. Similarly, it prevents brittleness in rubber when exposed to sunlight, and is added to adhesives for rubber and plastic materials for these reasons.
  • Ceramics: Pure or elemental titanium has the highest tensile strength to density ratio. This means that it can handle tremendous pull and shear force. However, titanium dioxide is a mineral and can easily become powdered. With that in mind, it’s used in ceramic manufacturing not for its strength, but for the glaze it imparts on the ceramic as a result of this mineral crystallizing during cooling.
  • Floor coverings: TiO2 can be applied to floorboards or other types of flooring in order to enhance the shine, as well as make the floor tougher to the abrasive action of foot traffic.
  • Cosmetics: In the cosmetics industry, titanium dioxide is mainly used as a pigment, though it also finds application as a thickener in many cosmetic products.
  • Toothpaste: While this compound doesn’t have any oral or dental benefit, it’s often added to toothpastes in order to improve the whiteness of the product.
  • Soaps: TiO2 provides white opaque colour to soaps, which is hard to achieve using other types of pigments.

TiO2 is generally derived from minerals like ilmenite, rutile, and anatase. Of the total global production of titanium dioxide, around two-thirds of it is used in pigments. The total value of pigments based on titanium dioxide is around $13.2 billion.

Titanium dioxide is commonly used to create titanium white paint

Foods That Contain Titanium Dioxide

Food-grade titanium dioxide powder particles are 200-300 nanometers (nm) in diameter. As an additive, this compound is 99% pure and considered very safe. The reason titanium dioxide is used as a food additive is because the light-scattering property of this powdered mineral can help to enhance the opaque whiteness of many food products, like cake decorations or sweets.

This compound also aids in food preservation because it decreases the ethylene production in food, thereby prolonging its shelf life. It can similarly kill many types of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

As a food additive, titanium dioxide has the E number E171. Some food products that commonly include this additive are:

  • Chewing gum
  • Sweets
  • Pasties
  • Chocolates
  • Coffee creamers
  • Cake decorations

Does Titanium Dioxide Pose Any Health Risks?

There are two sides to this. The first is that some believe the smallness of titanium dioxide nanoparticles might be able to cause problems when ingested. Since nanoparticles can pass through the filters of the kidney, the barrier of the intestines, and through the blood-brain barrier, they could have some toxic effects, like inflammatory reactions. 

Other identified health risks of an over-consumption of sweets containing TiO2 nanoparticles could include:

  • Inflammatory or allergic reactions
  • Death of the cells due to oxidative stress
  • Some chronic health conditions, such as cataracts

The parliament of the European Union is calling for a ban on the sale of food that contains titanium dioxide because of the risks involved. In fact, as of January 2020, France has already banned it as a food additive.

However, the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association (TDMA) states that E171 has been thoroughly tested and no link has been found between ingesting titanium dioxide and ill health. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has confirmed this, stating that TiO2 is not a safety concern.

Can You Find Titanium Dioxide In Sweets?

We’ve just touched on it briefly, but TiO2 is actually a common ingredient in many sweets, like candies, chocolates, and cake decorations. Aside from providing the opaque white, shiny pigment that so many sweets require, this additive also helps in the preservation of these confectionary goods.

As a highly stable and inert compound, titanium dioxide doesn’t react with other ingredients in sweets, even when being cooked at high temperatures.

Molding white icing around a fresh cake
White cake icing, fondant, and other cake decorations contain titanium dioxide

Is Titanium Dioxide Safe In Soap?

Despite what we’ve just said, titanium dioxide is actually pretty safe when it’s not ingested or inhaled as nanoparticles. When added to soap as a pigment, it’s inert, stable, and provides the characteristic opaque white colour of most soaps. 

When used in this way, i.e. topically, TiO2 is completely safe for the skin. This is because it can be easily washed off and isn’t readily absorbed by the skin. Unlike the food additive particles, the soap additive particles of titanium dioxide aren’t small enough to pass through the skin and be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Based on one study, TiOnanoparticles don’t have the ability to permeate or damage the skin: it can only be found in the stratum corneum and epidermis. The toxicity, then, only has significant effects after an extreme amount of exposure.

What Does Titanium Dioxide Do In Makeup?

TiO2 is used as pigment in most makeup products, including blusher, face primer, face powder, foundation, highlight, lip gloss, mascara, and concealer. It’s used in these types of products for its opaque and shiny appearance, which allows makeup to be applied in thin coatings because the pigment will be better. 

We mentioned earlier that titanium dioxide is an effective sunscreen because of its ability to block ultraviolet rays. For the same reason, this powdery mineral is also used in makeup to protect the skin against the harmful effects of UV exposure. In this way, TiO2 in makeup also acts as an extra barrier between your skin and the sun. 

TiO2 is in many makeup and skincare products, like BB creams and SPF

Is Titanium Dioxide Safe In Makeup?

As with soap, since the nanoparticles of TiO2 don’t penetrate the skin beyond the outer layers of the stratum corneum, titanium dioxide is considered safe to use in makeup. Similarly, TiO2 nanoparticles don’t reach the viable cells or enter the blood circulation. According to the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), these nanoparticles are non-sensitizers and not skin irritants. There’s also no evidence of mutagenic or carcinogenic effects on the skin as a result of TiO2 in makeup.

TiO2 nanoparticles only become dangerous when inhaled or ingested because they can easily enter the bloodstream this way. Therefore, you should avoid inhaling any powdered makeup and also make sure that you remove your makeup at the end of each day – which your skin will thank you for, anyway!

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