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Which kind of titanium dioxide is safer in sunscreens?

Kate G says…Now how are we able to tell which kind of titanium dioxide is used in our favourite cosmetics? (This question is in response to an article we posted on Facebook about the new research on the safety of titanium dioxide.)

The Beauty Brains respond:

First a quick bit off background and then we’ll explain what this new research means.

As many of you may be aware titanium dioxide (TiO2) is very good at reflecting UV rays so it’s often used in sunblocks. Traditionally it has been considered to be a very safe ingredient because it is chemically inert and does not penetrate skin. But in the last few years there has been some research to indicate that this chemical may be reactive in the presence of UV light and can actually generate free radicals which can damage the skin.

New research reveals a safer form

But now a new study shows that the “rutile” form of TiO2 may be less reactive than the “anastase” form. Therefore, products made with with the rutile version are less likely to form free radicals. It sounds like this version of TiO2 would be the obvious choice to use in sunscreens, right?

However, upon closer reading you’ll find that the difference between the two forms is that the rutile version washes off more easily and therefore is not left on the skin to react with UV rays. Since the point of a sunscreen is to stay on the skin where it can provide protection, it doesn’t seem to make sense to recommend a sunscreen active that is only safer when it is washed away. Sunscreen actives should be waterproof so they last longer at the beach, when you sweat, etc. Gaining an advantage in safety at the expense of efficacy doesn’t seem like a good tradeoff in this case.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

For now we wouldn’t worry about which version of TiO2 your sunscreen contains. The risk of potential of free radical damage from titanium dioxide seems small compared to the risk associated with of photo-aging or even getting skin cancer.