7 Things You Should Know Before Trying Zinc for Acne

Jeff Hautala
By Jeff Hautala, Co-Founder of Exposed Skincare

It’s natural to be skeptical of natural remedies like supplements and vitamins, but there has been a surprising amount of research done on the effectiveness of using zinc for acne treatment. Many studies have found that zinc can significantly improve acne, although it can’t get rid of it completely on its own. There are a few things you should know before you start using zinc for acne.

using a zinc cream for acne-prone skin
Find out if you should add zinc for acne to your skin care routine.

1. Zinc for acne works by regulating the immune system’s response.

That might sound like the opposite of what you want from an acne treatment, but it’s actually very effective because of the way our bodies react to acne-causing bacteria. Think of it like allergies: when you’re allergic to something, your body overreacts to a normal substance, and that reaction is what really causes the problem.

Surprisingly, acne works in a similar way. It’s true, acne-causing bacteria can be harmful on their own, unlike peanut butter, but their real danger is how they confuse your immune system. Acne is caused by a specific kind of bacteria, called p. acnes. These bacteria always live on the surface of our skin, and usually they’re pretty harmless. They may actually reduce acne slightly, because their main food source is the oil our skin produces. By consuming the oil, p. acnes can help prevent oil buildup that leads to blackheads, whiteheads, and other acne issues.

However, once p. acnes get trapped in a pore, they start to multiply until they create a minor infection. If this were any other type of bacteria, the immune system would send cells to kill the bacteria and there would be no issue. But p. acnes release a chemical that makes the skin cells seem like bacterial cells, so the immune system starts attacking your own body rather than the bacteria.

This creates a much more difficult infection to defeat, and when your immune system sees how difficult it is, it can overreact, like with allergies. Zinc for acne works so well because it suppresses the immune system slightly when it tries to fight your own skin cells. Instead of launching a full-blown attack, zinc holds the immune system back so it doesn’t make things worse.

2. People with moderate to severe acne may have a zinc deficiency.

Some studies show that people with acne are more likely to have a zinc deficiency. This doesn’t mean the acne is necessarily caused by the zinc deficiency (plenty of people with zinc deficiencies don’t have serious acne) but dermatologists think balancing this deficiency could produce some skin improvements. Not sure if you fall into the category of the zinc-deprived? Look for these other symptoms:

  • Dermatitis/Acne
  • Low body temperature
  • Hair loss
  • Low blood pressure
  • Diarrhea
  • Taste abnormalities
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Abnormal nervous system functioning
  • Abnormal reproductive system functioning
  • Abnormal skeletal system functioning

If you experience several of these symptoms, you should bring it up during your next dermatology appointment. Your dermatologist may be able to determine if you have a zinc deficiency and whether or not you should try using zinc for acne.

3. You can get zinc from supplements, creams, or your daily diet.

If you think you could have a zinc deficiency, there are a couple of ways to make sure you’re getting your recommended daily allowance: supplements, zinc products you can apply directly to your skin, or regular food. Food and supplements will have a greater impact on your body as a whole, but topical products will have a greater impact if you want to try using zinc for acne specifically.

If you like cooking or trying new foods, getting more zinc through your diet is probably the best way to go. Shellfish, meat, and legumes (like chickpeas or beans) are all rich in zinc, but if you don’t love cooking, you can still get more zinc in your diet. It turns out many cereals also have healthy levels of zinc that could help reverse your deficiency.

Zinc for Acne
You can add chickpeas and other legumes to your diet to use zinc for acne.

If you would rather know you’ve gotten your daily dose of zinc without having to keep track of what you’re eating and buying at the grocery store, supplements may be a better option. These can be purchased from most health foods stores, or even online, though we recommend using noncommercial websites, like the NIH, FDA, or USDA to avoid getting scammed.

You can also get more zinc by applying zinc creams to the skin. Although diet changes and supplements could help acne, the jury is still out on how food affects the skin. If you’re wanting to use zinc for acne, your best bet is a topical cream, but there are lots of different types of zinc to choose from.

4. There are several types of zinc you can try for acne.

So far we’ve been talking about zinc in general, but there are actually several different forms of zinc. They’re very similar, but they have some minor differences in price and effectiveness for various skin types. Many dermatologists recommend zinc gluconate because it is good for any skin type or budget, but zinc oxide can be also be helpful for fair skin, and those with sensitive skin may want to try zinc ascorbate.

Some topical acne treatments, like hydroquinone, are not safe for dark skin because they can cause discoloration or hyperpigmentation, but zinc gluconate is safe for all skin types, dark to light, oily to dry. It also absorbs into the digestive tract easily, if you decide to take it as a supplement. It is a reasonable option for most people’s budgets, at only $4-5 for 150 50mg tablets.

You may have heard of zinc oxide before—it’s the stuff in certain sunscreens that makes them completely white, the kind you can’t rub in. Because of this, you won’t want to use zinc oxide during your morning routine, but you could add it to your nighttime routine. Zinc oxide also comes as an oral supplement, for around the same price as zinc gluconate. This type of zinc, in supplement or topical form, is not recommended for dark skin because it can create white spots.

Zinc ascorbate is typically the best option for sensitive skin because it fights free radicals and decreases inflammation. The “ascorbate” part means that this form of zinc also has some vitamin C, which can also reduce acne scarring, but might not be safe for dark skin. It’s also the priciest of these three options, costing anywhere from $5 to $25 for 150 50 mg tablets.

5. Using zinc for acne is approximately as effective as antibiotics.

This is true, zinc is nearly as effective as antibiotics, but the issue is, antibiotics aren’t actually all that effective.

When antibiotics were first introduced as an acne treatment, they cleared a little over 60% of acne. While that can make a world of difference, it’s not as high as you might have expected. Antibiotics are often the go-to prescription for acne, so you might have assumed they would be more effective. Today, antibiotics for acne are even less effective due to antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, and some of the bacteria randomly mutate in ways that prevent them from being killed by the antibiotic. These bacteria reproduce until there is an entire colony of bacteria that can’t be killed by the antibiotic, which is now more or less useless. Because humans have been using antibiotics for so long now, most of us have some form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which means antibiotics have become even less effective in treating acne.

This also means that dermatologists are prescribing fewer antibiotics. They aren’t as effective as other options, and they have to be discontinued after 3 months to prevent antibiotic resistance from getting worse.

If you are taking antibiotics though, you should ask your doctor about taking zinc for acne as well. Used alone, zinc for acne has the same middling effectiveness as antibiotics, but when combined with antibiotics, your skin could see a real improvement. Studies have found that zinc can help make antibiotics more effective, and zinc can help make the transition from antibiotics to no-antibiotics smoother after that 3 month point. Some people see a resurgence of acne when they stop taking their antibiotic, which can be very disheartening after 3 months of clearer skin, but the zinc should prevent too much acne from returning.

6. If you are increasing your zinc levels, make sure you keep an eye on your copper levels too.

Zinc is an essential mineral, meaning its something your body needs for proper functioning, but it has a twin mineral: copper. Our bodies absorb zinc and copper together in a way. Imagine you had an individual jar for each of your essential minerals, and every time you ate something with that mineral or took a supplement, it got added directly to the jar. Copper and zinc share a jar. If you take in a lot of copper one day, then there’s less room in the jar for any zinc.

This is something to watch out for if you decide to start taking zinc supplements or adding zinc to your diet. If you start taking in more zinc, your body can’t absorb as much copper, which can lead to a copper deficiency.

You don’t want to have a zinc deficiency, but a copper deficiency isn’t good either. Without enough copper, you can develop anemia, muscle weakness, mental fatigue, and psychological symptoms. To keep yourself balanced, it’s important to know the FDA’s recommended daily allowance of zinc. According to the FDA, an adult should get 8 to 11mg of zinc per day.

If you remember the previous section where we discussed supplements, you might recall that those tablets were 50mg, but don’t worry, most of that isn’t zinc. Most supplements contain 15-20% elemental zinc, meaning a 50mg tablet has anywhere from 7.5mg to 10mg of zinc, the perfect amount.

7. Zinc shouldn’t be your only acne treatment product.

Zinc can help reduce acne, but it isn’t meant to be used on its own. No one single product can magically cure acne, unfortunately. The best acne treatment is consistent, gentle treatment that does away with acne without irritating the skin. Zinc for acne can be used as a supplement or topical cream, but it should always be added to a skin care regimen that cleanses, treats, and moisturizes the skin.

At Exposed Skin Care, we focus on getting rid of acne for good through a 3-step system that is tough on acne but gentle with your skin, available in each of our skin care kits. Each step combines scientific and natural ingredients, all proven to get rid of acne and keep the skin healthy. The first step is a Facial Cleanser with a low concentration of salicylic acid to clear away excess oil or dead skin cells which could clog pores, and sage extract, to prevent dryness or irritation.

The second step is Clearing Tonic, which also uses a small amount of salicylic acid, but our Tonic also utilizes green tea extract, passion flower extract, and azelaic acid, all of which prevent redness and irritation. Our third step is split into a morning routine and an evening routine. In the morning, you’ll follow steps one and two, then follow step three and apply our Acne Treatment Serum, which contains benzoyl peroxide and tea tree oil to kill acne-causing bacteria, along with green tea extract to protect the skin.

In the evening, step three is our Clear Pore Serum with salicylic acid and licorice root extract, which evens skin tone. If you have dry skin, our Expanded Kit offers a fourth step: our signature Moisture Complex. It uses pumpkin seed, green tea extract, and small amounts of caffeine to calm irritated skin and reduce redness. See our Ultimate Kit for the full range of Exposed products, including a Probiotic Complex to promote healthy gut bacteria, a Clarifying Mask to remove excess oil and dead skin cells from clogged pores, and a Microderm Scrub to exfoliate the skin.

7 Things You Should Know Before Trying Zinc for Acne
Exposed has everything you need to take care of your skin and get rid of acne.