Zinc Tablets for Acne: Do They Really Help?
Aside from its appearance, one other characteristic of acne that’s at the front of our minds is its stubbornness. It’s notoriously hard to treat, with most advice being to simply wash with specially-formulated soap every day and to control grease levels on the skin. For something that has a physical impact on our body, it can be frustrating to know. What if, though, a mineral we’re commonly deficient in has an answer?
In this article we’ll be delving into the idea that zinc may be able to help with acne, possibly playing a part in clearing up outbreaks. Can this element really stand beside your soaps and showers as another tool in your arsenal against outbreaks? It’s important we look into the science to find out the truth on these matters, before we jump to conclusions. First of all, we need to clearly lay out some definitions when it comes to the condition.
What is Acne?
As many of you may be familiar with, acne is a skin condition where various spots and blemishes flare up on the body, most commonly found on the face, back and chest. These blemishes are a collection of different kinds of spot, aside from the well-known white and blackheads. Others include:
- Papules and pustules: small red lumps (sometimes with white centres) that can be painful.
- Nodules: hard spots that rise up from the skin which can, again, be painful to the touch.
- Cysts: boil-like spots filled with pus that carry the greatest chance of scarring the skin.
As you can see, there’s a fair amount of variance when it comes to the way that acne can affect the skin. This is most associated with the struggling teenager trying to clear their skin ready for their big date, but this can affect people past adolescence too. This is because of the main reason for acne.
Causes of Acne
One main component of acne breakouts are surges in hormonal action. This is why it often occurs during our teenage years, but sometimes hormone levels can change in our 20s and 30s too (especially during periods of great stress or if you have underlying conditions, like PCOS). In those prone to acne, the oil-producing glands in their skin are much more sensitive to hormones, causing them to overproduce when hormone levels are high.
This oil then causes two different things to happen on the skin. Firstly, follicles that get clogged with dead skin cells trap the oil, causing white and blackheads. Secondly, the oil is a perfect environment for a type of bacteria that causes other kinds of acne. Everyone has this bacteria (named Propionibacterium acnes) on their skin, but it’s the abundance of oil that causes it to flourish into the outbreaks we’re familiar with.
So what about Zinc? How does this even work on the skin?
Can Zinc Help?
What’s interesting about zinc is that the skin has one of the highest concentrations of it, compared to other parts of the body – only the muscles and bones have a higher percentage of zinc. And it does play a fairly important role in the skin too: it’s used during the healing process, when your skin is cut or damaged. Some studies have found that zinc deficiencies can slow healing, and that zinc levels can even change in different areas of the skin, dependent on how much healing is happening at those locations.
A more well-known use for zinc is in the immune system. A lot has been said about its ability to help people recover quicker from common illnesses, like colds and flu, which can be a boon for many people during the winter months. In a similar role, it can also assist with fighting bacteria. You may be connecting the dots here, but let us confirm what you may be thinking…
These characteristics of zinc mean that it has potential against acne. The healing assistance works against the scarring and aids the recovery processes, and its bacteria-fighting ability helps protect against Propionibacterium acnes.
What the Science Says
A lot of the research available for this topic was conducted in the late 70s and early 80s, which shows how long we’ve known about zinc’s acne-fighting abilities.
A 1977 study into the effects of zinc sulphate against acne found that its use caused “a significant decrease in the number of papules, pustules, and infiltrates (small pink spots) in the zinc-treated groups.” Each of these types of spots were counted after four weeks of treatment, and the average ‘acne score’ dropped 85% with treatment.
Another piece from the same year measured the levels of zinc in 173 acne patients and compared them to a healthy control group. They found that those with severe acne had ‘significantly lower’ zinc levels compared to those in the control group. There is one note about this result, though – this was only observed in male patients. This was the only piece that mentioned this gender disparity, though.
This is the general trend when it comes to research into zinc’s effects – there’s strong arguments for it being able to help in the treatment against acne. Of course, that’s not to say it’s a miracle cure or that you should begin taking as much as possible to fight acne (one study found nausea and diarrhoea to be side effects, although these are less common nowadays with better supplements and greater knowledge of zinc.) Using zinc alongside specially-formulated soaps and a strict regime can help you keep the spots at bay. One question remains, though: what is the best way to take zinc to maximise its effects?
Types of Zinc
There’s two ways you can take zinc to help with acne: orally or topically (applied straight to the skin via a cream). The above studies all used oral zinc supplements to measure its effects, but there are differences between the two forms that may affect your choice between which you use.
Oral zinc is its most potent form, having a greater effect against acne compared to the topical version. Another great reason for taking it as a supplement is that it enters the bloodstream and increases your entire body’s levels of zinc. As mentioned, the mineral contributes to the immune system, alongside fertility and reproduction. Taking it in this form will help with more than just your spots.
Topical zinc treatments are popular and widely available. For many, it’s a way to get around the nausea and vomiting that comes with taking high levels of zinc, although it’s reportedly a weaker treatment overall. One place where it does have an advantage is with bacteria – direct application of zinc to problems can fight the acne-causing strain, helping to reduce some of the more stubborn blemishes. Moreover, anti-inflammatory creams can soften the look and reduce the swelling of outbreaks.
With this information, it’s important to remember that the skin is something that’s unique to us. Its sensitivities, moisture levels and proneness to outbreaks are going to be different for each person who uses these treatments – what works for one person might not work for the next. It’s important to be patient when trying treatments and to use what’s best for your skin, not what promises the best results or what might be popular.
There’s many dimensions when it comes to zinc’s effects against acne. It has different properties against the various causes of acne, and its different forms can handle different parts of the condition. Overall, zinc does have a beneficial effect, helping against the bacteria and damage to the skin outbreaks of acne can cause. Alongside proper skincare – use of specialist soaps, managing moisture levels, keeping a strict schedule, etc – zinc can be another tool against spots.
As always, please consult your doctor if you’re concerned that zinc treatments may interfere with other medications you may be taking, or if you believe your acne may be more serious than normal. This is when you may have more nodules or cysts than is common or have more scarring.