Have you heard that zinc could help with acne?
As with any acne approach, there’s nuance to this! This article delves into zinc, how it could help your acne, and what to look for when buying zinc supplements.
Let’s delve in.
What is zinc?
Are you getting enough zinc?
Does zinc help with acne? What the science says
How does zinc help with acne?
How to take zinc for acne
How long should I take zinc for acne?
Zinc is a trace mineral found in lots of foods. Although you only need it in tiny amounts, it has some big, important jobs in your body. It’s an essential component of more than 300 enzymes, and it helps you metabolise proteins and fats . It’s even involved in DNA expression .
Zinc is also a big deal for your skin. A large proportion of the zinc you consume heads straight to your dermis and epidermis and, with no storage depot for zinc in your body, you need a continuous supply to keep your skin cells happy .
If you eat an omnivorous diet, it’s easy to hit this target. That’s because the richest sources of zinc are animal foods such as meat, eggs, fish and oysters.
Plant-based foods such as grains and legumes contain zinc too, but only 20–40% of it is absorbed . Whereas animal protein helps your body absorb zinc, plant compounds such as phytates stop your body from using zinc effectively.
This is a serious issue. Scientists believe the endemic zinc deficiency in rural Iran, Egypt and Turkey is down to the high consumption of wholegrain bread in those areas. This bread is high in fibres and phytates that render zinc almost unabsorbable .
So, if you eat a predominantly plant-based diet and you have acne, it’s worth paying attention. Studies have found that people with acne have significantly lower levels of zinc in their blood and skin [5,6]. And the lower the level of zinc, the worse the acne .
Whether you’re eating enough zinc in your diet or not, supplementing with zinc can help to calm your skin.
Here’s the bottom line: supplementing with zinc may help with inflammatory acne . Let’s look at some study findings:
Before you think zinc is the answer to all your acne prayers, it’s important to know that not all studies are so favourable. Others have found that zinc doesn’t help acne at all [13,14,15]. So, what’s going on?
It’s likely a question of dose, formulation and suitability.
Dose and formulation
When you take any zinc supplement, you need to consider:
a) The elemental value, or how much of the actual zinc element is in the supplement
b) Its bioavailability, or how easy it is for your body to access and use that zinc
Zinc became trendy in the 1970s and 1980s, so most studies looking at zinc date from that time. The go-to forms of zinc were zinc gluconate and zinc sulfate back then. These contain 14% and 23% elemental zinc respectively—which is respectable—but they’re less bioavailable than newer zinc formulations [16,17].
A newer study that used a more bioavailable form of zinc (along with some other antioxidant nutrients) found that 38 of the 48 included patients experienced 80–100% improvement in acne . They even snapped some pictures to prove it:
Before (left) and after (right) supplementing with zinc + antioxidants 
So, to maximise the chance of zinc helping your acne, you need to know both the elemental value and the bioavailability of the supplement you choose. We’ll chat a bit more about that later. But, before we do, let’s also talk about…
The driving factor of your acne may influence how well you respond to zinc.
As you’ll discover below, zinc is particularly good at combatting inflammation —so it’s a great choice for hormonal acne. But that doesn’t mean it works for all causes of acne. For example, if you have fungal acne, you may want to hold off on zinc and take a probiotic instead.
As well as being limited by the dose and bioavailability issues, none of the zinc studies delved into what was causing the subjects’ acne, which may explain why it didn’t work for everyone.
The exact mechanism by which zinc improves acne isn’t known . But studies have shown that:
– Zinc may fight acne-driving bacteria, making it a triple threat for inflamed acne lesions .
The bottom line? Zinc won’t do much to help your blackheads—but it’s great for those sore breakouts.
Choosing a supplement is a two-step process:
Step one: identify the elemental value
An effective therapeutic dose of zinc for adults is 15–30mg elemental zinc daily .
Remember: different formulations have different amounts of elemental zinc, so make sure you check the supplement label carefully. The elemental value should be listed clearly. If not, get in touch with the manufacturer to check.
It’s possible to reach toxic zinc levels, so do not exceed 30mg elemental zinc daily.
Step two: think about bioavailability
The evidence is far from conclusive here, but one small-scale study found that zinc picolinate is better absorbed than zinc citrate and zinc gluconate . Zinc citrate and zinc gluconate are in turn more bioavailable than zinc oxide —which is often the form used in the cheapest supplements.
In other words, zinc picolinate trumps zinc citrate and zinc gluconate. Zinc citrate and zinc gluconate trump zinc oxide.
Get the elemental value right first, and then work out how much you want to spend on the supplement, as that often goes hand-in-hand with bioavailability.
Please note, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or taking any medication, please check with your doctor before starting any new supplements.
There’s a lot of information here! Let’s recap what we’ve learnt:
– Zinc is a trace mineral that’s concentrated in your skin.
– We eat it in our diets. Animal foods offer a bioavailable form of zinc, while plant foods offer a less bioavailable form of zinc.
– Studies suggest that people with acne have lower levels of zinc in their skin and blood.
– Supplementing with zinc may help to improve inflammatory acne. If your acne isn’t inflammatory (think: it is red and tender?), zinc may not help you.
– When choosing a zinc supplement, think about the elemental value and bioavailability. An effective dose of elemental zinc is 15–30mg daily. Zinc picolinate is a particularly bioavailable form.
– Commit to taking a zinc supplement for 12 weeks to see an effect, and make sure you take it with or after food to avoid nausea.
Fiona Lawson is a former national magazine editor turned registered nutritionist and skin specialist. She holds an MSc in Nutritional Medicine and a BANT-registered post-graduate qualification in Nutritional Therapy.