zinc treat acne

Move over, Benzoyl Peroxide. Zinc’s the new acne fighter on the block. Riding the wave of natural skincare, this mineral’s recently found its way into all kinds of products for oily skin, from lightweight moisturisers to spot treatments. I totally see why: it’s natural, gentle and said to help regulate oil production and kick acne in the butt. What’s not to love? Here’s what: the jury’s still out there on whether zinc really helps treat acne or not. So should you give it a chance or is it just another fad to ignore? Let’s find out:

What Is Zinc?

Zinc is a metal ion naturally found in meat, nuts, whole grains and legumes. It’s an essential nutrient your body needs to work properly. For example, wounds can’t heal without it. In the 1970s, researched noticed that acne patients tended to have lower levels of zinc than people without acne. Turns out, taking zinc supplements helps improved acne in zinc-deficient people.

But not all types of zinc is good for this. Yep, zinc comes in many forms. The most common is zinc oxide, the UV filter found in mineral sunscreens. You’ve also probably heard of zinc PCA or zinc pyrithione, which are more common in anti-acne and anti-dandruff treatments. So just because that moisturiser has zinc, it doesn’t mean it’s the right kind of zinc that can regulate oil production.

Related: Why Zinc Oxide Is My Fave UV Filter

Don’t know which skincare products you can mix and match together and which ones deactivate each other? Download your FREE “How To Layer Actives Like A Pro” cheat sheet to get the most out of your skincare products:

Zinc Benefits For Skin

Zinc has several skincare superpowers that help you achieve clearer, younger-looking skin:

Related: How To Deal With Rosacea

Zinc For Acne: Does It Work?

Since The Ordinary came up with The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, everyone wants to know: does zinc help acne? Here’s what the science says:

Does Zinc Help Acne?

In theory, zinc can help treat acne in several ways: it regulates oil production so there’s no extra sebum that can clog pores, soothes the inflammation that triggers acnes and inhibits certain fatty acids acne bacteria feed on.

In practice? Well, studies show that zinc alone has NO effect on acne. But when you use zinc together with prescription topical antiobiotics, you get better results than when you use antibiotics alone.

If you’re not on prescription meds because your acne isn’t that severe yet, you’re better off with traditional acne treatments like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. If you want to go down the natural route, try sulfur instead.

P.S. That doesn’t mean zinc doesn’t have a place in your skincare routine. It just shouldn’t be your ONLY acne treatment.

Related: Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Is Right For You?

Zinc Supplements For Acne: Do They Work?

I have good and bad news for you. Let’s start with the good news: studies show zinc supplements may help treat acne. Zinc orotate, zinc methionine, and zinc acetate are the most effective forms. Zinc gluconate and zinc sulfate don’t really do much for acne.

The bad news? Even when zinc supplements work, they’re NOT as effective as prescription oral antibiotics. Bummer! Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York City, says “Zinc supplements are not considered first line therapy, and generally, do not work as well as traditional acne treatments. Zinc supplements certainly can be used alongside traditional acne medications, however, I do not believe it should take the place of treatments that we know are safe and effective.”

FYI, before considering a supplement, make sure you’re getting enough zinc in your diet. Meat is high in zinc so if you love your steaks, you’re probably getting all the zinc you need from your food. Fruits and vegs (with few exceptions) are very low in zinc, so if your acne has gotten worse after going vegetarian or vegan, you may want to see your doctor for a supplement recommendation.

I know what you’re going to say: “Oh, but I get my zinc fix from whole grains and legumes. I don’t need a supplement.” Tough luck. Whole grains and legumes are great but they contain phytates, a family of ingredients that binds to zinc and get it eliminated from your body before it can do your skin much good. So how do you know if you’re getting enough zinc from your diet? Here are the foods highest in zinc:

  • Beef
  • Chickpeas
  • Meat (red meat is higher in zinc than white meat)
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Oatmeal
  • Shellfish (oysters are super high in zinc)
  • Swiss cheese
  • Yogurt

If you’re not getting enough zinc from your diet and need a supplement, consult a doctor. Going over the recommended daily intake of zinc can have serious side effects.

Can Zinc Prevent Acne?

On its own, Zinc may not be the best anti-acne treatment out there. But can it prevent acne in the first place? “Zinc is necessary for collagen synthesis, and when deficient, the keratin in the skin can be more ‘sticky,’ resulting in more clogged pores,” explains board-certified dermatologist Purvisha Patel, MD. Clogged pores are a leading cause of acne. Anything that can reduce them, can reduce breakouts.

Plus, studies have shown that people who suffer from acne prone skin have lower levels of Zinc in their blood. Zinc helps Vitamin A (one of the best acne treatments) speed up cellular turnover and boost collagen production. It makes sense that boosting your zinc intake can help your skin stay in top shape and decrease your chance of developing acne in the first place.

How Does Zinc Work For Acne?

We still don’t exactly how zinc works when topically applied. But this is what scientists think so far. Zinc has soothing properties. Acne is an inflammatory disease. Anything that helps reduce inflammation in your skin helps reduce acne. This is why acne patients are told to stay away from processed foods, dairy and anything that can cause inflammation in the body. Plus, its soothing properties mean zinc can reduce acne-related redness.

Some forms of zinc, including zinc sulfate and zinc acetate, can inhibit enzymes and “rough” fatty acids that boost the growth of P.Acnes. Plus, it has a balancing effects on the microbiome, preventing the bad bacteria from overpowering the good ones. Taken orally, it also helps control oil production, possibly by lowering the amount of male hormones that contribute to the development of acne.

How To Use Zinc

Zinc is one of the supporting tools in your anti-acne routine. For best results, use it together with other anti-acne actives like retinol, benzoyl peroxide or sulfur (FYI, you don’t need all of them – pick ONE!).

Who Should Use It?

Zinc may help treat acne, but it works better for some types than others. “If zinc therapy is going to help, it will most likely benefit people who suffer from red, angry papules, as opposed to those who suffer from blackheads and whiteheads,” Zeichner says.

How Long Does Zinc Take To Work?

Interestingly, topical application seems to work faster than supplements.  “With topical products, when used twice a day, there should be a decrease in acne within two weeks. When taken orally, there should be a difference in four weeks,” says Patel.

What Are The Best Products With Zinc?

Zinc can’t single-handedly heal your acne, but it can be an useful tool in your anti-acne arsenal. Here are my fave picks:

  • Hero Cosmetics Clear Collective Balancing Capsule Toner ($12.99): A soothing toner that reduces redness and controls oil production. Available at iHerb and Ulta.
  • Keys Soulcare Promise Serum ($28.00): A lightweight, runny serum with niacinamide and zinc to balance oil production, reduce the risk of breakouts, and soothe skin. Available at Harrods and Ulta.
  • The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% ($6.00): Ideal for oily, acne-prone skin, it uses zinc PCA to reduce inflammation + Niacinamide, another soothing agent with anti-acne properties. Available at Beauty Bay, Boots, Cult Beauty, Sephora, SpaceNK, The Ordinary, Ulta

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Related: What Are The Best Sunscreens For Oily Skin?

The Bottom Line

Zinc isn’t the most powerful acne remedy. Even when it works, it’s not as effective as more traditional acne remedies. It does help to regulate oil production and reduce inflammation, so it can be part of your anti-acne arsenal, but never on its own. For best results, use it together with other acne fighters.