TITANIUM DIOXIDE and cosmetics. Why is it a controversial subject?

Let’s review the situation:

What exactly is it?

Titanium dioxide is a mineral which belongs to the iron oxide group.

It is used in the food industry (colouring), cosmetics (UV filters) and paint (for example for dye or pigments).

In cosmetics, this component is generally used as a mineral filter as it is able to reflect, disperse and absorb ultraviolet (UV) rays. It is a component that is used in different cosmetic products (conventional OR organic), it is therefore also authorised by the different specifications in natural and organic cosmetics (BDIH, NaTrue, Ecocert, Cosmébio, Soil Association, ICEA, etc.). 

Its use in natural and organic cosmetics is therefore quite widespread, since titanium dioxide is mainly used as a mineral filter in sunscreen products or as pigment in make-up products.

It is one of the only alternatives (along with zinc oxide) to synthetic UV filters, most of which are highly controversial, classified as endocrine disruptors, etc.

So what’s all the fuss about?

The distrust of the component comes from the fact that the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) has classified titanium dioxide as a potentially carcinogenic component (category 2B).  As always, scientific studies must be interpreted in context and it is important not to generalise or draw hasty conclusions from them.

Indeed, the IARC study suggests that titanium dioxide can present a carcinogenic risk in the form of dust inhaled by the lungs (in the air, in suspension). Therefore intensive inhalation of titanium dioxide as « loose powder » can be problematic and requires protective measures, especially for workers who are exposed to fine particles of the component.

This problem of massive inhalation of fine particles, which can pose significant health problems, concerns not only this component, but also other components that are inhaled on a large scale in a professional context (coal, mineral wool, graphite, etc.)

So should all creams containing titanium dioxide be systematically avoided?

The application on the skin of creams containing titanium dioxide is not being questioned by this study, it is important to distinguish between the different contexts of use

There are also certain recommendations for sunscreen products which contain titanium dioxide in the form of sprays. Here too, it is important to differentiate; this is not a « titanium dioxide sunscreen spray », but a cream formulation in the form of a spray which also contains this mineral filter.

Most titanium dioxides currently used in cosmetics have also undergone a surface treatment which consists of coating each oxide grain with layers of organic (polyols, esters, etc.) or inorganic (alumina, silica, etc.) compounds. This phase stabilises it, making it non-volatile and preventing its assimilation by the body.

And what about titanium dioxide as a food additive?

This is a topic related to the ingestion of titanium dioxide (as a food additive: E 171) in the form of nanoparticles, which can be problematic in the long term.

The problem is the absorption of this component in the form of nanoparticles, in sweets, for example. One study by the INRA completed in 2017, focuses on titanium dioxide as a food additive E171/ (=nanoparticles), which is widely used in sweets, etc.

http://presse.inra.fr/Communiques-de-presse/Additif-alimentaire-E171

So should all creams containing titanium dioxide be systematically avoided?

The application on the skin of creams containing titanium dioxide is not questioned by these studies, it is important to distinguish between the different contexts of use. 

There are also certain recommendations for sunscreen products which contain titanium dioxide in the form of sprays. Here too, it is important to differentiate; this is not a « titanium dioxide sunscreen spray », but a cream formulation in the form of a spray which also contains this mineral filter.

Most titanium dioxides currently used in cosmetics have also undergone a surface treatment which consists of coating each oxide grain with layers of organic (polyols, esters, etc.) or inorganic (alumina, silica, etc.) compounds. This phase stabilises it, making it non-volatile and preventing its assimilation by the body.

 

Are all sunscreen products (organic or conventional) which contain titanium dioxide concerned by this issue?

To summarise: the problem is the massive inhalation of titanium dioxide dust and its ingestion as a food additive, not simply its presence in a cream formulation.

What could also possibly be problematic is the presence of this component in the form of nanoparticles in creams, which is not an issue for healthy skin (EU NanoDerm* study), but other studies are looking at the effect that products containing nanoparticles could have on damaged skin, although according to the latest studies it would seem that the protective barrier remains intact and that the substances do not extend beyond the epidermis. To be continued…

But the presence of titanium dioxide in a cosmetic product does not mean « massive inhalation of fine dust », nor does it automatically mean that this component is present in the form of « nanoparticles ».

•   https://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/67162_de.html

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016836591200524X?via%3Dihub

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Another more recent study in France ( APRIL 2021) confirms that titanium dioxide, as such, does not penetrate the skin barrier

https://www.cosmed.fr/app/uploads/2021/04/communique-de-presse-du-collectif-des-solaires-bio-20-avril-2021.pdf

 

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However, it is important to distinguish between titanium dioxide ingested in nanoparticles as a food additive, titanium dioxide inhaled as « loose powder » (which is more relevant to the industrial sector), titanium dioxide in the field of medicine, and titanium dioxide as a mineral incorporated in creams or other cosmetics.

On the subject of nanoparticles in sunscreen products, please read the following article ( in french) , in particular the question  » below:

https://blog.laveritesurlescosmetiques.com/5-mythes-autour-produits-solaires/

5 / All organic sunscreen products contain « nanoparticles » of mineral filters.

False!

Organic sunscreen products contain micronised mineral screens, (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) sometimes coated, but micronised does not mean « nanoparticles ».

Nanoparticles are defined as elements whose size are on a scale from 1 to 100 nm. Since 2013, the legislation states that components used in the form of « nanoparticles » must be declared with the symbol (Nano). The obligation to declare this on the packaging makes identification easier.

Just as a reminder: organic sunscreen products contain only mineral UV filters, conventional products contain mainly chemical synthetic UV filters or sometimes a combination of synthetic filters and mineral filters.

As far as we know, after close examination of numerous sunscreen products, it is mainly mainstream brands which use mineral filters in nanoparticle form. We have only found a few certified organic brands where the presence of nanoparticles are indicated and they will almost certainly be required to review their formulas in accordance with the upcoming instructions regarding various specifications concerning natural and organic cosmetics.

Just take a close look at the list of ingredients on the packaging, especially in the “conventional” product category with higher indexes of protection, which sometimes use a combination of synthetic UV filters and mineral filters in the form of nanoparticles. These micronised UV filters in nano form will be indicated in the INCI list, for example  METHYLENE BIS-BENZOTRIAZOLYL TETRAMETHYLBUTYLPHENOL [nano] or Titanium Dioxide [nano].

Without getting into an intensive discussion on the issue of nanoparticles in cosmetics, it should be noted that the various specifications in natural and organic cosmetics (Cosmos, Natrue, Ecocert, BDIH, Soil Association, etc.) are in the process of ruling on the subject. The regulations on components evolve regularly, the risk assessment process is a continuous process which must be up to date with the evolution of the level of knowledge and recent scientific studies.

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