Zinc is an essential nutrient that the body requires for optimal health. This mineral supports the immune system and reduces illnesses by blocking harmful cells and pathogens. Zinc plays an essential role in the catalysis of over 100 metabolic and enzymatic activities in the body, and it is integral to homeostasis and balance within the system.
The antioxidant ability to reduce inflammation and acne-causing bacteria make zinc a viable ingredient in topical and supplemental treatments. Taking a look at the uses and benefits of zinc for acne can help you make the most of zinc product application.
What are the Benefits of Zinc for Acne?
Zinc is one of the most extensively studied minerals for acne treatment. According to Dermatology Research and Practice, both the elemental and salt form of zinc can resolve a wide range of skin ailments. The antioxidant impact on inflammation and bacteria-fighting properties are the two primary ways that zinc can reduce the occurrence of acne and breakouts.
Foremost, zinc has antioxidant properties that reduce the inflammatory response to dead cells, dirt, oil, and bacteria. When excess cells accumulate within the skin glands (often due to hormonal changes or excessive oil production), the buildup can lead to blocked or clogged pores.
This epidermal buildup results in visible breakouts. Furthermore, bacteria can also invade these clogged pores and cause extreme irritation. This phenomenon is a primary reason that pimples turn red, pus-filled, or painful to touch. Inflammation is the skin’s natural response to blocked pores, and heightened inflammation results in swelling and acne.
Zinc can lower this inflammatory response by reducing activity in the skin’s NF-κB inflammation pathway, stopping bacteria that invade pores and helping to scour away dead cells that blocked pores in the first place. The mineral also plays a central role in the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids. When activated, these omega-3 fatty acids the lower blood markers of inflammation in organs like the skin.
In addition, zinc’s antioxidant properties help regulate keratinocyte activation. Keratinocytes are skin cells that generate keratin, a fibrous protein that binds skin cells and hair filaments. While keratinocytes form an important barrier between the skin and environmental damage, too many keratinocytes can prevent cells from separating properly. This buildup of “packed in” cells can cause blocked pores and acne. Zinc halts the over-production of keratinocytes and helps clear up acne over time. It also helps with the epidermal balance of keratin and collagen to help prevent blockage within the skin.
Similarly, zinc is a natural DHT-blocker that lowers the amount of sebum that the skin produces. Sebum is an oil that lubricates the skin, but too much sebum can cause follicular occlusion and acne. Zinc stops the over-production of oily sebum, and it also lowers the impact of DHT androgen hormones that induce sebum in response to inflammation and stress.
In addition to normal hormonal and glandular activity, the nerve chemical is known as substance P also stimulates more sebum when the body is under pressure or attack. Zinc can break down or deactivate this chemical peptide the eliminate the over-abundance of oil.
Combined with alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHA and BHA), zinc can also slough off residual skin cells from dried sebum and curtail overly active sebaceous glands. Importantly, zinc also plays a central role in apoptosis (natural cell death and renewal at the end of the cellular life cycle).
Without zinc, normal apoptosis fails to occur, leading to the unnatural buildup of dying cells. Zinc helps to stabilize this normal cell life cycle, particularly during stages of rapid growth. Because the hormonal activity of the adrenal glands and oil production of the sebaceous glands increase naturally during puberty, use of topical or dietary zinc is a common treatment for pubescent acne.
Studies have shown that zinc can kill the bacteria (known as Cutibacterium acnes or Propionibacterium acnes) that invade pores and cause acne. Zinc can also prevent the reproduction or growth of latent bacteria. Importantly, most bacteria and fungi cannot develop resistant strains to zinc because it is a mineral element rather than a chemical antibiotic. For example, a 2015 study in the European Journal of Dermatology found that the most common acne-causing bacteria had developed a resistance to erythromycin (an antibiotic used to clear breakouts).
However, the use of zinc lowered resistance to these treatments. In this way, zinc can help clear breakouts in people with antibiotic-resistant skin.
Because zinc does not negatively affect digestive gut flora, many health professionals consider the mineral a safer alternative to antibiotics (which can inadvertently destroy healthy intestinal bacteria). Similarly, zinc is often an effective alternative to corticosteroids and other common injections for acne. While steroids may lower swelling and inflammation for emergencies and the most severe forms of bacterial acne, too many steroids can cause problems with blood pressure and digestive health.
Zinc is naturally antimicrobial and can gradually kill off acne-causing bacteria with fewer potential side effects.
Zinc also helps proteins within the body convert vitamin A into a usable form known as retinol. Research has shown that retinol-A compounds can kill acne-causing bacteria and prevent the growth of several types of organisms in clogged skin pores. Retinol can also help repair lesions or scars that result from repeated breakouts.
Zinc boosts the effectiveness of topical retinol treatments, and it can also transport stored vitamin A from the liver. Similarly, zinc helps boost the absorption and transport of vitamin E, a fat-soluble nutrient that has healing properties for the skin.
Dermatologists may combine treatments of zinc, vitamin E, and selenium to repair damaged cell membranes or inflamed sebaceous glands. The mineral zinc can also help expand the growth of white blood cells that fight invasive organisms and prevent pores from becoming infected.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Clinical Aesthetic Dermatology found that oral zinc supplements may lower inflammation and limit the pervasiveness of bacteria that causes acne. Topical zinc may also subdue surface irritation and acne scars.
The types of acne that zinc may help suppress include the following:
Acne vulgaris – The most common type of acne breakouts.
Cystic acne – Breakouts that include sac-like pockets that may be filled with pus or other substances.
Pustules – Red, swollen, and eruptive form of acne that often contains yellow pus. Pustules are usually painful to the touch. If picked or squeezed, pustules can lead to acne scars or permanent hyperpigmentation on the skin.
Melasma – Patches of skin discoloration or hyperpigmentation (often due to hormonal changes)
Rosacea – Skin disease that causes extreme redness, visible blood vessels, and pink, pus-filled eruptions on the face.
Comedones – Follicular blockages in which pores or hair follicles become packed with dead skin, sebum, or makeup. Dermatologists refer to products that contribute to this type of acne as “comedogenic.” For this reason, people with sensitive skin often shop for noncomedogenic products to avoid exacerbating acne. Noncomedogenic cosmetics typically sit on the surface of the skin and rinse off easily (rather than entering pores and causing acne).
Whiteheads – These types of comedones completely block the upper opening of a pore or hair follicle. Because the skin life cycle attempts to continue, a thin layer of skin forms over the blockage and appears “white” at the surface. For this reason, you should not attempt to squeeze or “pop” whiteheads as this can lead to bleeding and scarring of torn skin tissue.
Blackheads – These types of comedones consist of deeply blocked pores that are open at the surface of the skin. Because the dead skin and sebum builds up irregularly within these comedones, the clogging diffuses the natural reflection of light against your pores and causes the acne to appear “black.” Individuals often attempt to remove the clogging with pore-cleansing strips or skin peels.
Papules – Types of comedones that have become inflamed or infected. Papules usually occur along with redness and may be tender to the touch. Left untreated, papules can lead to facial acne scars.
Nodules – Inflamed, painful bumps just beneath the skin’s surface. Infections or invasive bacteria deep within pores or hair follicles usually cause nodules. Individuals often consult health professionals to treat nodules with prescriptions because they are difficult to eliminate at the surface level.
Seborrheic dermatitis – Skin disorder that causes flaky patches on the surface of the skin (such as the face, scalp, and outer ears).
Eczema – Skin condition that may cause a visible rash, inflammation, swelling, or blisters.
While acne is not contagious, most people consider it unsightly. Untreated acne can also lead to permanent scarring.
How to Supplement with Zinc for Acne?
Because the body does not store the trace mineral zinc, humans must get it from external sources. You can obtain internal zinc from food or supplements, and you can get topical zinc from medicinal cream.
Topical or over-the-counter (OTC) zinc creams may help treat mild to moderate breakouts. These types of breakouts include mild and non-irritating blemishes like whiteheads and blackheads. Intensive creams may also treat moderate eruptions like postules and papules.
A treatment plan may combine topical zinc cream with a beta hydroxy acid (such as salicylic acid) toner to help clear skin conditions. Washes and creams may also contain benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, or sulfur to remove dead cells and calm inflamed skin. Retinol-enhanced gel or serum may also help repair cellular trauma and foster the healthy growth of new skin cells.
Although most specialists consider topical zinc a mild treatment on the skin, you may wish to test any zinc product before putting it to regular use.
Dermatologists recommend testing any zinc treatment using the following steps:
1. Choose a small patch of skin with properties similar to your face (such as the underside of your arm).
2. Apply a small amount of the product (about the circumference of two large coins) and wait 24 hours.
3. If no adverse side effects occur after 24 hours, you may proceed to apply the treatment to acne or infected areas. However, if you develop itching, redness, peeling, or a rash, discontinue use of the product.
Using a topical zinc treatment can take up to 12 weeks before a person sees visible results. When acne comes from deeply clogged pores, however, topical treatments may not reach far enough to resolve the root of the problem. In these circumstances, you may opt to increase your zinc intake internally. The two most popular ways to increase zinc intake are through dietary choices or mineral supplements.
Food choice is one of the best ways to increase long-term consumption of zinc. Cereal and legumes (such as whole grain and red beans), natural foods high in fatty acids and plant protein (such as walnuts), and animal protein high in omega-3 fatty acid (such as eggs and oysters) are the most commonly used dietary sources of zinc.
As a supplement, you can often purchase zinc combined with another mineral (such as calcium). Some multivitamins also include zinc as an amino acid chelate (molecularly attached to organic compounds for better absorption). The standard therapeutic dose is around 30-45 milligrams (mg) of zinc each day.
Other types of zinc supplements include the following:
Zinc acetate – Compound form of zinc used as a supplement or dry or liquid food additive. Also known as zinc salt, this compound may reduce internal inflammation and bacterial invasion.
Zinc gluconate – Tablet form of zinc used as an alternative to antibiotics.
Zinc methionine – A compound of the mineral zinc and the amino acid methionine used to heighten the availability of zinc within the body.
Zinc picolinate – Salt form of zinc (with high bioavailability) used to fight acne and boost the immune system.
Zinc sulfate – Compound version of the mineral used to treat severe zinc deficiency.
Although most professionals view zinc as a safer alternative to antibiotics and steroids, it can cause side effects in some individuals. For example, higher dosages may cause nausea, tiredness, headaches, or lower copper absorption. You may wish to take supplements under the supervision of a dermatologist to avoid excessive use.
Decker, A. et. al; Over-the-counter Acne Treatments; Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366450
Dreno, B. et al; Efficacy of zinc gluconate in the treatment of inflammatory acne vulgaris; Dermatology Review; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11586012
Gupta, M. et. al; Zinc Therapy in Dermatology; Dermatology Research and Practice; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4120804
Ozuguz, P. et. al; Evaluation of serum vitamins A and E and zinc levels acne vulgaris; Cutaneous and Ocular Toxicology; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23826827
Prasad, Ananda. Zinc is an Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Agent; Frontiers in Nutrition; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4429650