Skin Care Ingredient Focus: Zinc

Written by Donna Hart, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on September 3, 2021 No Comments

zinc skincare woman

Zinc is an essential trace element, meaning we only need a small amount for optimal functioning. The mineral is good for our overall health as it keeps our immune system functioning properly and reduces inflammation. Zinc (in the form of Zinc Oxide) is also a popular active ingredient in most physical sunscreens as it protects the skin form UV damage when applied topically. While its sun protection benefits are pretty widely known, Zinc can also benefit the skin in many other ways.

This post will provide an overview of the skin benefits Zinc can provide, along with how (and why) you should be adding Zinc to your existing skin care regimen. beneficial for your skin.

Skin Care Benefits of Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral that protects us against inflammation and activates the immune system to trigger healing. Its benefits for skin have been widely studied, and primarily include the prevention and treatment of acne.

Sun Protection

Zinc oxide is the active ingredient in most physical sunscreens (sunblocks). When topically applied to the skin, Zinc works by deflecting UV rays from the sun that would otherwise damage the skin. It also forms a barrier over the skin, helping to reduce absorption of UV rays that manage to evade deflection. Since Zinc is naturally occurring, it’s a great sun protection ingredient for people of all ages including children and those with sensitive skin.


There’s some evidence that zinc, when used alongside vitamin C and bioflavonoids, reduces the appearance of wrinkles after approximately 3 months. While research is ongoing, Zinc is believed to play a role in collagen synthesis and DNA repair; the combination of which can help keep skin looking healthier and more youthful.


Although it’s not clear why, zinc pyrithione appears to relieve the symptoms of dandruff and an itchy scalp. Low levels of zinc have also been associated with hair loss, although zinc supplements don’t appear to improve this condition.


Research is mixed on the use of zinc for acne, but several promising studies show zinc is beneficial for treating inflammatory or bacterial forms of acne. The acne benefits of zinc can be derived from using it as an oral and topical medication. Zinc reduces inflammation, and seems especially effective for acne when used alongside antibiotics. This means Zinc can help decrease the severity of acne breakouts, especially for people with minor acne. Mild acne includes blackheads, whiteheads, papules, and pustules.

Is Zinc Recommended for All Skin Types?

Zinc is recommended mostly for those who are deficient. A healthy diet is the preferred method of reaching optimal levels, although supplements are also effective.

If you have mild acne, zinc may be helpful in reducing inflammation and redness, but it’s unlikely to be effective against cystic acne. If you have severe acne, consider a combination of dietary or supplemental zinc alongside prescribed antibiotics. When using zinc to fight acne, be patient. It typically takes up to 3 months before you’ll notice visible results.

How and When to Use Zinc

Zinc can be used orally (via food or dietary supplements) or applied directly to the skin. Each method offers varying levels of effectiveness when it comes to mild to severe acne.

Food & Supplement Forms of Zinc

Zinc is not stored in the body, so it must be consumed daily for optimal health. Only trace amounts are needed, so it’s likely you get enough from your diet. Foods that are high in zinc include the following:

  • Oysters
  • Red Meat
  • Poultry
  • Dairy Products
  • Nuts

Vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be deficient in zinc, not only because they aren’t consuming meat, but because beans and whole grains contain phytates. Phytates bind to zinc and make it less available for use by the body.

If you are deficient in zinc, supplements are available. But proceed with caution. Most adults need fewer than 15 milligrams of zinc daily, and taking too much can cause serious side effects.

When zinc deficiency leads to acne, bioavailable zinc supplements in the form of zinc acetate, zinc orotate and zinc methionine are most effective and appear to work better than topical zinc skincare products.

Topical Zinc Products

Research shows zinc supplements are more effective at treating acne than topical products, but skincare products with zinc are still effective, especially for the treatment of mild acne. You’ll find zinc in the following skincare solutions:

  • Sunscreen
  • Facial cleansers
  • Creams
  • Serums

Zinc is most effective against acne when combined with an antibiotic. But thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, topical zinc alone reduces acne-related swelling and redness.

Potential Side Effects

Oral zinc supplementation is associated with more severe side effects than taking zinc topically. The side effects of oral zinc consumption can include stomach cramps, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you’re likely taking too much. Most adults need fewer than 15 milligrams per day. Taking more than 30-40 mg per day is potentially unsafe and could lead to neurological side effects.

If you’re pregnant or nursing, have auto-immune disease, or if you’re on antibiotics, consult with your doctor before taking zinc supplements.

Donna Hart, MD

Donna Hart, MD, a medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatologist, completed her dermatology residency at the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago, where she served as chief resident. Dr. Hart is Board Certified by the American Board of Dermatology, and is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and Women’s Dermatologic Society.

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