Zinc is found throughout the human body where it provides essential support to the immune system, central nervous system, skeletal system, digestive system, and reproductive system. When it comes to the skin, and particularly acne, zinc may help reduce acne by suppressing inflammation, reducing bacteria, and balancing hormone levels.1
Scientists have studied zinc deficiency in acne patients since the 1970s. The evidence at this point leads the dermatology community to believe that low levels of zinc is in fact associated with acne.
However, there is still controversy over whether zinc deficiency is correlated more with (1) incidence, or (2) severity of acne. This is an interesting distinction when we start to look at the science behind zinc and acne.
- Incidence refers to the mere occurrence of the condition.
- Severity refers to how severe the condition is
Some reports state that zinc deficiency correlates with acne incidence. In other words, if a person does not have adequate levels of zinc, they are more likely to have acne. However, a recent study suggests that zinc deficiency may correlate more strongly with acne severity.2 In other words, if a person who already has acne does not have adequate levels of zinc, their acne will become more severe.
Zinc Deficiency and Acne Incidence
Let's take a look first at the evidence that inadequate levels of zinc makes a person more likely to have acne. The first report of zinc levels in acne patients was published in the 1970s. Studies have since shown that zinc levels are lower in acne patients.
The authors of a 2006 review published in The Journal of Dermatological Treatment reported, “Serum levels of zinc surveyed in patients suffering from acne vulgaris were found to be significantly lower than normal.”3In other words, people with acne tend to have lower blood levels of zinc than people without acne.
Zinc Deficiency and Acne Severity
However, as is often the case in science, conflicting results can surface. In a more recent 2014 study published in BioMed Research International, researchers found no correlation between zinc levels and acne incidence. Instead, they found a correlation between zinc levels and the severity of acne.
The researchers looked at one group of 100 participants who had acne and another group of 100 who did not and measured serum zinc-levels in each group. They found that zinc levels in the group of people who had acne were not significantly lower than those present in the acne-free group. However, there was a significant correlation between zinc levels and the severity of acne lesions.2
Treating Acne with ZincBoth topical zinc treatment and oral zinc supplementation may help reduce acne symptoms.
Topical Zinc Treatment
Topical zinc formulations used for treating acne are at least as effective as topical antibiotics. However, as with topical antibiotics, reduction in acne is usually not dramatic, so experts suggest that topical zinc is best used in conjunction with other treatments. It is also important to use a topical zinc that reduces side effects like skin irritation.3
Zinc may help topical antibiotics work better
While there is serious controversy over using topical antibiotics for acne due to their incomplete and temporary results, and ability to create lifelong resistant strains of bacteria in people who use them, they do work to some degree in at least some people. And zinc may help them work a bit better.
According to an article in Dermatology Research and Practice, using zinc acetate or zinc octoate at the same time as topical antibiotics may increase the antibiotics' effectiveness.4
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of zinc in adults (19 years and above) is 11mg per day. When we take a zinc supplement, only a certain percentage of it is zinc, which varies according to the type of supplement. We refer to this percentage as elemental zinc. For example, zinc gluconate contains 14% of elemental zinc, so in a 30mg tablet, there is 4.2mg of elemental zinc. Another type of zinc supplement, zinc acetate, contains 30% of elemental zinc, so a 30mg tablet would contain 9mg of elemental zinc. Studies show that supplementing with up to 30mg of oral zinc gluconate per day is mildly effective when it comes to acne. It is equally or less effective compared to tetracyclines (oral antibiotics), which are also only moderately effective in acne treatment.4 This is why it is normally recommended to supplement with zinc alongside other therapies. Remember that we also get zinc through the food we eat, so we shouldn't take the entire RDA of zinc only through our oral supplement. Since zinc can become toxic when taken at high levels, it is wise to keep your daily supplementation to one 30mg pill, preferably zinc gluconate.
Several oral zinc supplements are available over-the-counter in drugstores, though some are better absorbed in the intestines than others, resulting in fewer side effects. A commonly-found and well-absorbed choice that can often be purchased in 30mg tablets is zinc gluconate. Other zinc supplements include:
- zinc ascorbate
- zinc acetate
- zinc citrate
- zinc octoate
- zinc picolinate
- methionine-bound zinc5
The author of an article published in the International Journal of Dermatology states that “oral zinc gluconate or methionine-based zinc could be a novel anti-acne approach, which could […] enhance the efficacy of the existing therapies.”5
Moderate zinc supplementation is safe, comes with only minor and/or temporary side effects, and does not increase sensitivity to the sun.
How Zinc Works to Reduce Acne
Zinc may reduce acne by several processes, including:
- Reducing inflammation: This is important since acne is an inflammatory disease.
- Inhibiting acne bacteria (P. acnes): This is important since P. acnes bacteria can lead to the redness and soreness found in pimples.
- Acting as an anti-androgen (a medication that reduces the levels of male hormones, which are present in men and women): This is important since both males and females who have acne tend to have elevated levels of androgens.
- Increasing effectiveness of topical antibiotics
These effects and their mechanisms of action are described in the table below:
Zinc seems to be significant when it comes to acne. Its effects include anti-inflammatory activity, reduction of P. acnes bacteria, and anti-androgen action.
If you suffer from acne, especially severe acne, you might be deficient in zinc. You can ask your doctor to run a blood test. If deficiency is detected, supplementing with zinc may prove to be another weapon in your arsenal against acne.