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The first time I ever heard about taking zinc for skin was back during my first year of college when I had my first-ever encounter with a bad case of acne. (My skin was perpetually blemish-free all through high school—go figure). And even though the campus was only about two and a half hours from where I grew up, I rarely went home. So, when I arrived back in Minnetonka, Minnesota, for a week of R&R during spring break (lame, I know) my parents were slightly taken aback by the seemingly sudden shift in my skin. They didn't say anything to me directly (they already knew how mortified and frustrated I was by the situation), but my dad (ever the perpetual "fixer") sent me an email after I'd gone back to school containing research about the correlation between zinc and skin health. The epic sign off: 'Thought this was interesting, Mom and I ordered you some from Amazon and it should arrive in a couple of days.' Thanks, dad.
Even though I was slightly offended, I knew the gesture came from a place of love—and their concern for my dwindling confidence. So I read the research and I took the pills, and much to my surprise, my skin did eventually improve. However, whether or not it was directly correlated to the zinc I was never quite sure. So I decided to investigate zinc for skin, and exactly what it does (and doesn't do). For a fully balanced perspective, we consulted a number of experts from different fields: Jennifer Herrmann, MD, FAAD at Moy Fincher Chipps Facial Plastics & Dermatology in Beverly Hills; holistic nutritionist Elissa Goodman; registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning coach Alissa Rumsey; Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of Real Nutrition NYC; Dr. Morgan Rabach of LM Medical in NYC; Ee Ting Ng, hop & cotton Founder and Formulator; and Danielle Frank, a senior dietitian at Top Balance Nutrition.
Type of ingredient: Anti-acneic
Main benefits: Anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, regulates oil
Who should use it: In general, people with acneic skin.
How often can you use it?: You should only take it once a day, 40mg max.
Don't use with: Multivitamins, other sources of zinc that might overload you.
What Is Zinc?
According to Herrmann, "Zinc is an essential mineral that is needed for numerous healthy bodily functions, including boosting the immune system, healing wounds, assisting in DNA/protein synthesis and growth, and the development of children."
She adds that since zinc is not stored for long periods of time in the body, daily consumption is important for overall maintained health. And without it (or if you're deficient), Goodman points out that it can lead to a variety of conditions like rashes and lesions.
And interestingly, according to Rumsey, the top layer of our skin contains more zinc than any layer underneath, which is why supplementing with the mineral and making sure you have enough can support the growth of new, healthy skin cells.
Benefits of Zinc For Skin
The resounding answer: yes. As Shapiro explains, zinc works with other vitamins and minerals to help treat skin lesions and when taken orally, it can decrease the severity of acne and early signs of maturing skin (lines, wrinkles, spots, etc.). If applied topically via products containing zinc oxide (like Renée Rouleau's formula, below), the mineral has been shown "to protect the skin and aid in wound healing and regeneration." This is why, she says, zinc oxide is so often found in high-performing sunscreens, as it can reflect the sun and it creates a barrier between the skin and any damaging UV rays.
Ng agrees resoundingly: "Zinc (oxide) is one of the two physical sun filters capable of deflecting UV rays, protecting skin from sun damage such from erythema to premature ageing," she says. "It is by nature inert, making it a great sun filter for children, or anyone with extremely sensitive or reactive skins. Zinc is also anti-bacterial, astringent and barrier-protective."
And from a dermatologic standpoint, Herrmann agrees as well. "Using zinc for skin can help when it's taken both internally and externally. As mentioned earlier, taking zinc orally can help heal wounds, lessen inflammation, and improve inflammatory conditions such as acne." However, she points out that research is ongoing. "Because zinc acts as an enzyme cofactor, it assists in collagen synthesis and DNA repair, which can help keep skin looking younger and healthier."
Dr. Rabach echoed the sentiments of Shapiro and Herrmann, but has her own more cautious take on the element: "As an oral supplement, zinc may help acne a little bit, but definitely not as effectively as more traditional oral medications for acne. There are not standardized or controlled studies for dosing or efficacy of oral zinc compared to other oral medications proven to work for acne. Because of bioavailability, people with low zinc levels should choose food rich in zinc before taking oral supplements, as zinc found in foods are better absorbed. Some foods with zinc are super luxurious like oysters, so that can be fun."
Side Effects of Zinc
If you do your research on quality brands (Twinlab, Solgar, Rainbow Light, Metagenics, Thorne, Pure Encapsulations, and Eidon are expert-approved) and keep your daily dose to the recommendation of up to eight or nine mg daily, 11mg if pregnant, and 12 mg if lactating—although as much as 40 mg is the TUL—supplements can also be an option if you're looking to take zinc for skin.
"These daily recommendations of zinc are very small, as our bodies don't require the mineral in large quantities. So again, eating a diet that includes foods high in zinc should be enough to prevent deficiency. It should be noted taking extra zinc is not likely to improve your skin, but not getting enough can definitely cause problems like acne, eczema, and dermatitis," says Frank.
"If a person gets too much zinc, they may develop symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and headaches. Too much zinc can also lead to low copper levels and a weakened immune response. Therefore, it is extremely important to be careful when taking supplements, as too much can cause serious problems. A person should not exceed 40 mg of zinc daily," she warns. So again, it's always best to talk with your physician, and then begin with a lower dose and work your way up depending on your body's reaction.
According to Herrmann, certain antibiotic medications and a few other prescriptions can inhibit zinc absorption—as does alcohol, says Rumsey.
How to Use It
As mentioned before, zinc oxide is a popular sun filter. Ng makes sure to note that it's "also popular in spot treatments by reducing redness/swelling, drying out ‘weeping’ or wet blemishes of any sort, and preventing active spots from further infection by physically separating them from the environment." However, she does say that it's "most sun protective when it sits on the skin surface, so the method of application matters. Gently pat/press product into the skin, ensuring that all sun exposed areas are evenly covered."
Almost every expert we talked to maintained that internally, getting your daily quota of zinc through a healthy and richly diverse diet is the best way to supplement your skin. "The best way to make sure you are consuming the right amount of zinc for healthy skin is to incorporate foods that are known to be good sources of the essential mineral," Frank elaborates. "Your body does a much better job absorbing vitamins and minerals that come from food than from any other form."
Plus, Frank adds, you are also much less likely to exceed the upper limit of zinc from food than you are from a pill form. In fact, according to Herrmann, because supplements are not approved by the FDA, amounts of vitamins, minerals, and extracts can ultimately add up to 1000x more or less than what's stated on the bottle.
However, as with any supplement, it's always important to talk to your physician before incorporating it into your routine. And as Frank says, if you struggle with any of the aforementioned skin conditions, struggle with wound healing, or have brittle hair and nails, you should discuss your symptoms first and foremost with your physician.
Oysters, beef, chicken, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cashews, beans, and fortified breakfast cereal are a handful of the best sources of zinc if you're looking to naturally improve your skin's glow.
Keep scrolling for a special zinc-rich smoothie recipe, courtesy of Meryl Pritchard, holistic nutritionist and founder of organic meal delivery and cleanse service, Kore Kitchen).
Makes 2 Servings
2 cups of nut milk
2 servings protein powder
3 tbsp. cacao
2 tbsp. maca
1 frozen banana (if you don't have a frozen banana, use a regular one + 1 handful of ice)
2 Medjool dates, pitted
1 tbsp. hemp
1 tbsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. coconut oil
1/3 cup cashews or any nuts you have on hand (almond, walnut, hazelnut also work)
Stevia to taste—cacao can be really bitter and sometimes needs extra sweetener
The Best Products With Zinc
If you're trying to battle acne with zinc, try one of the methods most proven to work—in this case, that's zinc supplements.
While zinc in our food is preventing us from developing acneic skin, when placed on skin, zinc helps prevent other maladies—namely, skin cancer. That's right, zinc is a fantastic (key, even) ingredient in natural sunscreens.
Murad make plenty of acne-clearing skincare products, but this one is different in that it works from the inside out and not the outside in. Vitamin A, zinc, and burdock each play a key part in supporting the body's ability to cleanse itself from anything that would otherwise cause acne.
The Nue Co. specialize in clean supplements, and this one is about as clean as it gets. The zinc in the product comes from berries, and so do the vitamin c and beta-carotene that round out the supplement. Combined, they're meant to stimulate collagen production and keep your skin healthy as can be. Organic inulin rounds out the ingredients list, acting as a prebiotic so you can look and feel your best.
Although zinc is great for skin as a supplement, added zinc in clarifying products has its own skincare benefits. REN Clean Skincare's mineral-based cleanser is great for someone dealing with severe acne—the kind you would otherwise take supplements for.
Like Farmacy's sunscreen, Rouleau's primarily uses zinc as SPF—however, that doesn't mean its anti-acneic properties don't translate. Zinc-based sunscreens are great for people who struggle to find a good sunscreen due to their typically pore-clogging properties.
The efficacy of Pai's product is twofold. Copaiba works in this formulation to reduce future damage to your skin by reducing inflammation and delivering antioxidant power. Simultaneously, zinc is used to eliminate skin congestion and provide a much-needed boost of hydration. Together, they work to bring acneic skin to a more balanced place.
Brandt S. The clinical effects of zinc as a topical or oral agent on the clinical response and pathophysiologic mechanisms of acne: a systematic review of the literature. J Drugs Dermatol. 2013;12(5):542-545.
Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Zinc. Updated Jul 16, 2013.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Zinc Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Updated July 15, 2020.
Cervantes J, Eber AE, Perper M, Nascimento VM, Nouri K, Keri JE. The role of zinc in the treatment of acne: a review of the literature. Dermatol Ther. 2018;31(1). doi:10.1111/dth.12576