A viral TikTok with millions views about how tampons that contain titanium dioxide can cause cancer and other health problems has spurred calls on the platform to throw away all products that match that description. Before you start gathering all your tampons and scouring their ingredient lists, you should know that experts want you to chill and stop worrying: Your tampons are safe.
The virtual freak out on TikTok over titanium dioxide—a natural mineral approved by the Food and Drug Administration that is used in a variety of products, including sunscreen, cosmetics, food, and toothpaste—appears to have started with one video posted at the beginning of the week. In the video, which has received nearly eight million views and 1.5 million likes at the time of publication, user Rachel Morgan holds up a box of 100% organic cotton core tampons from the brand L., owned by Proctor & Gamble, and tells user to stop what they’re doing and check the ingredients on the back of the box.
The TikTok Claims That Tampons Cause Cancer
Morgan explains that she learned about the purported “dangers” of these tampons after TikTok showed her a video of a girl using the same brand that had experienced two weeks of excessive bleeding and extreme pain, ovarian cysts, and irreversible uterine damage.
“She’s getting checked for fucking cancer. You know why? Because one of the ingredients on the back of her container is titanium dioxide, which if you don’t know, causes cancer,” Morgan said. “[My container] doesn’t say it, but it’s getting thrown out regardless, because how can I consciously just be like, ‘Oh sure, yeah, I trust you.’ So yeah, go check your fucking box and if you had any adverse symptoms like her, call a fucking lawyer.”
Morgan’s TikTok has received more than 30,000 comments on the platform and spurred countless video responses from other users and creators swearing off L. tampons and any other tampons with titanium dioxide. In a somewhat tasteless move, some tampon brands even tried to take advantage of the fear gripping users on the platform and decided to take advantage of the moment to announce that their products did not have titanium dioxide.
What Science Says About the Health Risks of Titanium Dioxide
Nonetheless, doctors on TikTok and across social media have come out to say that tampon users should not panic, as there is no scientific evidence that titanium dioxide in tampons cause any harm. Experts that spoke to Gizmodo also insisted that there is no evidence that titanium dioxide in tampons, other topical products (sunscreen), and food is unsafe to humans as it currently used.
Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist and assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told Gizmodo in an email that inhaled titanium dioxide (primarily related to industrial exposure) is considered possibly carcinogenic. Marino emphasized that this is only when the mineral is inhaled and that it has only been demonstrated to be a true concern in rats, not humans.
In addition, Marino stated that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide have been shown to cause inflammatory responses and potentially genetic damage in mice, but again pointed out that this has not occurred in humans.
“It is important to note that studies in rats, mice and other animals are not directly applicable to humans. While animal studies give us important information, they cannot be directly generalized to people,” Marino said. “It is also important to note that the high-profile studies in mice showing inflammation and genetic changes involved force ingestion of massive amounts of titanium dioxide, which would not be possible for every day Americans to replicate through consumer product exposures.”
Marino speculated that the confusion and recent attention to titanium dioxide was related to a 2021 ban of the mineral by the European Food Safety Authority, which cited concern about the mouse data in its decision “although even that data did not support the idea that it is a carcinogen.”
“To be blunt, they are worried about the possibility of something happening that has never been demonstrated to happen,” Marino said.
When it comes to TikTok claims pointing out that Mars, Inc. is currently being sued for not disclosing that Skittles contained titanium dioxide, which the suit claims is “unfit for human consumption,” the toxicologist stated that the lawsuit is based on gross misinterpretations of the available data to claim a human cancer risk. He reiterated that no such evidence exists.
Doctors Say You Don’t Have to Worry About the Titanium Dioxide in Your Tampons
Dr. Jennifer Gunter, an OB/GYN and frequent debunker of outrageous and fake advice online, is one of the doctors that came out this week to try to reassure individuals that their tampons were not “toxic death sticks.”
In a post on her Vajenda Substack on Wednesday, Gunter said that as a result of the videos on TikTok, she had received panicked messages from women worried that their tampons were the cause of their pre-cancer of the cervix. These videos were “chemophobia,” Gunter declared, and fear mongering.
Addressing a popular TikTok concern over titanium dioxide getting absorbed by the vagina, Gunter said that this doesn’t happen because of titanium dioxide’s chemical composition.
“Titanium dioxide doesn’t dissolve in water, meaning the nanoparticles aren’t going to dissolve from the tampon string and get into the blood that might be pooling in the vagina and then get absorbed by the body,” she wrote. “Meaning, you don’t have to worry that the blood soaked tampon string is leaking titanium dioxide nanoparticles into your vagina.”
Gunter also added that when products like titanium dioxide are put on fabric, the point is to have them stay on the fabric. Research has shown that fabrics with titanium dioxide that are washed repeatedly release very little of the mineral, she said. In addition, Gunter stated that this wouldn’t apply anyway because no one is washing a tampon and reusing it, anyway.
Dr. Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist and adjunct assistant professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, is another debunker of TikTok misinformation and has more than 267,000 followers on the platform. Wallace told Gizmodo in an email that anecdotal stories like the one in Morgan’s TikTok go viral all the time because they are sensational and get a lot of shares and comments.
She stressed that it’s important to remember that correlation in this case does not equal causation.
“Just because someone had health problems after they used something doesn’t necessarily mean an ingredient in that thing caused the problem,” Wallace said. “The danger is that people will listen to the sensationalized viral video, instead of having a real conversation about risks with their doctor or health care provider.”
TikTok’s Response and What to Do If You’re Worried About Titanium Dioxide in Your Tampons
Gizmodo reached out to TikTok multiple times on Thursday to ask if it would take any action on content crying wolf about the dangers of titanium dioxide and tampons but did not receive a response. We also reached out to Proctor & Gamble, which makes the L. tampons, for comment multiple times with no response.
As of the time of publication of this article, Morgan’s TikTok as well as others on the subject with the hashtag #titaniumdioxide were still on the platform racking up views. Although there were also doctors and experts trying to quell the panic, like Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, they were, unfortunately, a minority.
“If you’re still super worried, and I hear you, then use something else, like pads or menstrual cups or whatnot,” Lincoln, who has 2.8 million followers on TikTok, said. “I just think it’s important to not think that because we see one TikTok of somebody having a problem and [saying] ‘this is what caused it’ to understand that that’s not the most scientific way to figure out what’s going on.”