Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/26/2020
Acne is a common skin condition, but that doesn’t make it easy to live with. Whether you’re 15 or 50, acne can be painful, disruptive and embarrassing.
With something as common as acne, there’s little surprise the list of possible treatments is long. So, how do you know which is worth your money?
Some acne treatments — like topical treatments containing retinoids — have been called the gold standard in acne medicines.
However, others, like zinc, are offered as low-cost, easy-to-find alternatives.
Below, we discuss what you need to know about the actual evidence behind zinc as an acne treatment, to help you decide whether or not it’s worth your time.
Fifty million people in the U.S. have acne, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. While the condition is most common among adolescents, many adults struggle with it too.
You likely know what acne is, but just in case: it’s a skin condition marked by breakouts of whiteheads, blackheads, papules, pimples and/or cystic lesions.
These breakouts are caused by oil and dead skin cells that clog pores.
Acne can be painful and embarrassing, and even leave scars in severe cases. There are numerous potential treatments available for acne, including medications with retinoids, antibiotics and drying aids like salicylic acid. Zinc is occasionally suggested as a low-cost, easy-to-find acne solution, too, but the research on this is mixed.
Zinc is a mineral you get through your diet.
It’s found in a variety of foods, but is particularly rich in oysters, beef, fortified cereals, pork chops, dark meat chicken and shellfish.
Most U.S. adults get plenty of zinc naturally in their diet, according to the National Institutes of Health.
People at risk of deficiency include: vegetarians, pregnant and nursing women, people with sickle cell disease, alcoholics and people with digestive diseases such as Chron’s and ulcerative colitis.
Signs of zinc deficiency include: slowed growth, lack of appetite, impaired immunity, hair loss, diarrhea, impotence, hypogonadism, eye and skin lesions, weight loss, delayed wound healing and mental lethargy.
Although acne is not considered a sign of zinc deficiency, some research has found a correlation between acne and low serum zinc levels.
Zinc deficiency is only common in “developing countries,” including some in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Zinc can be purchased in dietary supplements, and may be found in the form of zinc gluconate, zinc sulfate, and zinc acetate.
However, the National Institutes of Health reports there isn’t clear evidence on which of these zinc forms is best in regards to absorption, tolerability or bioavailability.
Topical forms of zinc include zinc oxide, calamine and zinc pyrithione.
Over the years, topical zinc has been used in a variety of dermatological treatments, including those for dandruff, diaper rash (and other skin irritations), warts, rosacea, melasma (discoloration) and yes, acne.
According to a review published in the journal , several studies have examined the use of zinc as a topical solution to acne. The results have been mixed.
Topical zinc sulfate has been shown ineffective in the treatment of acne, while causing “significant” irritation.
One study of just 47 patients found a five percent zinc sulfate solution provided benefits to people with mild acne when compared to a different treatment method.
Anti-acne medications including zinc acetate or octoate have been shown to be as or more effective than medications without for both acne severity and number of lesions.
There is some evidence that low serum zinc levels — or low levels of zinc within the body — may correlate to acne, though the link isn’t profound.
One study measured serum zinc levels in 100 participants with acne and 100 without.
Those with acne had levels of serum zinc just slightly lower than those without acne, leading the researchers to conclude this difference was not statistically significant.
However, they did write “zinc levels may be related to the severity and type of acne lesions in patients with acne vulgaris.”
A few studies have also analyzed the effects of oral zinc supplements on acne, and shown promising results.
Though research published in the said low zinc levels were not found in patients with acne, taking 220mg of zinc sulphate twice daily increased zinc levels and “exponential” results were seen in acne severity as those levels rose.
An older study (1977) compared oral zinc supplementation with vitamin A in the treatment of acne and found they both had similarly positive results, concluding supplementing with 135mg of zinc daily decreased the number of acne lesions significantly after four weeks, and continued to do so until the end of the 12-week study.
The inclusion of vitamin A didn’t have any effects.
While the most promising research on oral zinc comes from zinc sulfate, this form can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
The strongest evidence for using zinc in the treatment of acne seems to be associated with oral supplements of zinc sulfate.
However, because there is a risk of side effects with zinc sulfate, it’s crucial you follow dosing instructions on the bottle if you decide to take it. And when in doubt, don’t think twice about consulting with a healthcare professional.
Though there is nothing proving zinc is unequivocally effective in the treatment of acne, it is a low-cost option that may be worth exploring.
In other words, there are likely better options out there, but barring side effects, you have little to lose with exploring this treatment.