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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Titanium White

Summary: A very recent news article caught my attention regarding a ban on the use of titanium dioxide white in food products within the European Union (EU). Let’s explore this interesting pigment-related topic further.

It is extremely rare for me to post a Syntax of Color essay on a topic that has just appeared in the news. My normal “late-breaking news” is more like this: ATTENTION: This just in… Johann Diesbach has just announced the creation of a new color that will be the talk of the town in 1706. He calls it Prussian Blue. It is a strong, powerful blue hue made of a mysterious iron compound. More details to come as we get further information. So, yes, I am usually about 200 to 300 years late in reporting art material stories.

When the opportunity to discuss a recent news item involving a pigment known and loved by artists appeared, I jumped at the chance to share this with all of you. While this item of interest does not involve artists’ materials, it focuses on the use of titanium white as a colorant for several food items, many of which we use regularly.

The world of food additives is a bit different than the pigment and art materials industry. The food industry calls titanium dioxide E171. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, a branch of the Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) the phasing out of E171 started on February 7, 2022, and will be fully banned on August 7, 2022. This ban does not apply to products sold in the United States that contain titanium dioxide.

Moving on to the specifics and more interesting side notes, food whitening has been a normal part of the process of creating many consumables. From medicine to baked goods, from chewing gum to cheese, lightening or complete whitening products has been performed using titanium white.

The food additives industry never fails to come up with a formulation that is mind-boggling and disgusting at the same time. The Guardian newspaper provided some food additive horror stories in its coverage of the titanium white ban announcement. E71 joins other chemicals banned in Europe but is still allowed for use in the United States. “These include azodicarbonamide, a whitening agent found in food such as bread, bagels, pizza and pastries in the US, which has been banned in the EU for more than a decade. Known as the ‘yoga mat’ chemical because it is often found in foamed plastic, the additive has been linked to asthma and respiratory issues in exposed workers and, when baked, to cancer in mice studies.” Yum!

The Guardian article makes the old classic Saturday Night Live sketch about arguing that a product is both a floor wax and a dessert topping a sad, sarcastic view of the state of products we purchase. Comedy becomes reality and the ultimate consequence of chemical harm are buried deep in studies found in medical journals with which we never would be familiar or could easily decipher the medical math involved in reporting the results.

So, what do we do with this information? First, we might wonder why the United States does not mirror the EU in its decision to ban chemicals in a variety of products. The reason is also outlined in the Guardian article stating that the EU has an independent body for evaluating and suggesting what chemicals might be harmful to health. The United States relies on chemical manufacturers to provide evidence of safety based on the intended use and the FDA reviews and approves the application. The US and the EU use different mechanisms to determine food safety. We must keep up with the news on products and make educated choices on what we consume.

Second, how does this impact the world of art materials? In short, it has no obvious impact. Titanium dioxide will continue to be employed as a pigment in paints and since the colorant is not ingested as part of the painting process, and we use it mainly in a wet medium, the potential for harm is minimized. Examining all the materials used by artists, we need to be realistic in our assessment. All the adult-rated art materials we use contain chemicals that we must respect. Pigments mixed in most media do not appear to give off any harmful substances that can enter our bodies unnoticed. That is why health and safety articles for artists always emphasize avoiding physical contact with paints and to avoid eating when painting to thwart ingesting food that has gotten contaminated with paint. Do not use pigments like cadmium and lead-based colorants in spray applications.

The overarching idea is to not get into physical contact with art materials that could enter your body via your skin, mouth, eyes, or lungs. It is that simple. However, artists must answer for themselves that if merely being in the presence of pigments with a known level of toxicity that can cause harm makes them avoid or ban it from their studio.

Art forums are full of artists who are looking to avoid cadmium because the literature says they are toxic. But again, one asks, is having things that are toxic around you make you nervous or do you fear that you will somehow contaminate yourself with these substances? If you are an artist, and we all know a few of them, who after a few hours of painting appear to be “wearing” the paint they were using on their hands, faces and clothing, it might be a very good reason for them to avoid using the known toxic materials provided to artists. If you think that pigments in your studio are akin to a very sharp knife in your kitchen that you use with great care and respect to avoid cutting yourself, then, perhaps having lead and cadmium is comfortable enough to have around.

We live with risk daily. For the most part, we don’t stop using an automobile because we could get into a serious accident. We don’t stop cutting vegetables because the knife we use could harm us. We don’t stop bathing because the bathroom floor could be the scene of a serious fall.

The point is, for artists to evaluate their habits, risk tolerance and discipline. It is sad to see artists retire from painting because they were told by people, that they trust that the materials they use are killing them. On the opposing side, it is even worse to hear about artists who sand lead primed painting surfaces without the use of protective equipment, have an open can of high aromatic hydrocarbon solvents in their poorly ventilated studio space and who treat paint with reckless abandon, smearing it with bare fingers and then unconsciously touch their face or rub their eyes.

With regards to titanium dioxide in food products in the United States, the same metric should apply. Examine what you purchase to determine if you are comfortable with the chemicals within the product. In my opinion, it is one thing to have small amounts of titanium dioxide in things like medications and another to frivolous use titanium white to make bread whiter. Coloring bread products speaks to the idea of unconscionable use of food additives to heighten visual appeal rather than being necessary. Despite the effort, homemade bread is looking better and better.

Editorial note: Please, excuse the long absence from writing any Syntax essays. I just completed writing a book about my former boss, the late Ross Merrill who served as the Chief of Conservation at the National Gallery of Art from the 1980s to 2000. The book was commissioned by his wife, Alice and it provided a great opportunity to put down in writing, some of the amazing programs, fundraising and staff expansion that emerged during two decades that transformed the conservation division into a world-class treatment, research and archive of documents and materials. I am proud to have the Conservation Administrator working with Ross to bring his vision to reality.

The Syntax of Color

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Michael Chesley Johnson
Michael Chesley Johnson
Aug 04, 2022

Good article. How long has titanium dioxide been around and used as a pigment?

Michael Skalka
Michael Skalka
Nov 08, 2022
Replying to

Discovery of a pigment and its introduction into popular use sometimes are not aligned. It was discovered in 1791 but not used as a paint pigment until the second decade of the 20th century. Lead White was banned in 1978 so that solidified the mainstream use of Titanium Dioxide as a white pigment.

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