zinc skin-care products

Zinc Up Your Beauty Routine for Clearer Skin

Why an oft-forgotten ingredient is back in the spotlight.

By: Megan McIntyre

For an ingredient that’s been around in beauty for legit centuries, zinc has recently become somewhat of a cool kid on the skin-care block. Known best for its use in sunscreens and anti-dandruff treatments, zinc in all its various forms is now popping up in everything from trendy skin supplements to clarifying ranges and sensitive skin creams, all claiming to help clear up breakout-prone skin, reduce redness, and restore a vivacious glow to your complexion. But is it for real? Well, that depends on who you ask.

First, a quick primer on zinc: It’s an essential mineral for your health that helps boost your immune system and can help with wound healing. Our bodies don’t naturally produce it, meaning we need to eat zinc-rich foods or supplements in order to get our recommended daily amounts—8 mg for women, and 11 mg for men.

Additionally, zinc is known for being anti-inflammatory, which is where its place in skin care comes in. “Back in the early 1970s, doctor J. C. Fitzherbert first recognized an improvement in patients’ acne when treated with zinc,” says Dr. Morgan Rabach, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical NYC. It was used regularly on patients during that time, but eventually fell out of favor with derms, she notes, when more effective treatments were discovered.

That doesn’t necessarily mean zinc is old news—there are actually some promising studies being conducted that show there’s more to zinc than history has shown. “Zinc and acne is an interesting avenue,” says Dr. Kenneth Howe, a Manhattan dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai. “There is quite a bit of evidence that both topical and ingestible zinc can be helpful, from studies showing it might be toxic to the bacteria that causes acne, to people with acne [possibly having] lower levels of zinc. But this is all fringe stuff—if you do a standard medical search, you don’t get much.”

Adds Dr. Ted Lain, board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology, “The exact method of how zinc helps with acne is poorly understood. However, if zinc does help with acne, it may be related to its effect on sebum production, as an antibacterial agent, and/or as an anti-inflammatory. Zinc is well-known to help a few other inflammatory conditions, like seborrheic dermatitis.”

Ingestible zinc is still a hot-button topic in dermatology, as most unregulated supplements tend to be in the medical community. Dr. Howe explains that there needs to be a lot more testing on zinc supplements in order for him to say the science is there, while Drs. Lain and Rabach say they are more likely to recommend scientifically proven, traditional acne treatments like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics, spironolactone, and Accutane over zinc supplements.

As far as topical zinc products go, there is a bit more enthusiasm. As Dr. Rabach points out, many of those traditional acne treatments can be harsh on the skin and actually lead to more inflammation and redness. Topical zinc doesn’t carry that same risk and can actually be used to counteract those side effects from other products.

“Zinc PCA, or zinc salts, are the most effective [type of zinc] for topical acne,” says Dr. Barbara Sturm, aesthetics medicine specialist, skin-care founder, and the brains behind that internet-famous Blood Cream. “In addition to its anti-acne properties, Zinc PCA is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs large amounts of water. Since it is a myth that acne-prone skin needs to be dried out—it in fact needs hydration—zinc PCA is therefore great for both suppressing the causes of acne and simultaneously maintaining acne-prone skin’s humidity and slowing its trans-epidermal water loss.”

The verdict: While other, technically more effective acne treatments exist on the market, zinc still has some street cred in its ability to help manage inflammatory conditions in a more gentle, skin-friendly way. And although it’s considered more of an oldie-but-goodie ingredient, there are some reasons many might prefer it to newer options. As Dr. Rabach puts it, “I think there is a renewed interest in zinc as people look for more natural remedies, fewer synthetic ingredients, and vitamins that are more earth friendly.”

With that in mind, we rounded up our 10 favorite zinc-based supplements and skin-care products to try if you are interested in switching or adding zinc in tandem with your regular skin-clarifying regimen.

*As always, be sure to check with your doctor before taking any new supplements or topicals, as there is always a risk of a reaction.

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