From painting caves to making medicine, zinc is a mineral that has been widely used by humans for centuries, but it can get overlooked in a landscape of techy skincare ingredients, cutting-edge treatments and whizzy gadgets. Here’s your (non-alphabetical) A-Z of what it’s good for…
The active ingredient in mineral sunscreen (hence the name), zinc oxide quite literally shields skin from UVA and UVB rays, and unlike chemical sunscreen, mineral formulations are effective as soon as they’re applied- there’s no hanging around for twenty minutes to wait for your sun cream to ‘set’.
It’s this ‘shield’ effect that made former zinc based sunscreen options chalky, ashy and thick in texture, but developments in cosmetic ‘nanotechnology’ mean that zinc oxide now adheres better to skin, making sunscreens not only lighter in texture and more wearable, but more effective from an SPF point of view. There have been concerns that said nano particles can enter the bloodstream and constitute ‘toxins’, but after reviewing all current research, skincare expert and founder of Paula’s Choice Paula Begoun concludes that you needn’t worry about your zinc based sunscreen causing any damage- in fact, it’s far more likely to prevent it…
“There is no evidence that nano-sized titanium dioxide or zinc oxide sunscreen actives pose any health risk (certainly not in comparison to skipping, or skimping on, your SPF). Globally, extensive and continuous scientific research has shown that your sunscreen remains safe to use, and that unprotected exposure to the sun itself is the ‘toxin” about which you should be concerned.”
What’s more, mineral zinc oxide based sunscreens are considered the ‘safest’ option for sensitive skin , and if your skin is inflamed, sore or in any way sensitised on the daily after using a chemical SPF, switching sunscreen formulas could be the first step in calming skin and identifying the root cause of reactivity, as Paula explains:
“A starting point would be to change your sunscreen to one that contains only the mineral actives titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which have minimal risk of causing a reaction. These mineral actives are also super-gentle, making them good for use around the eyes and on reddened skin.”
Improvements in zinc oxide sunscreen technology also means that modern formulas are far less likely to clog pores and trigger or aggravate breakouts- while the thick, white stuff of old often proved occlusive, nano particles have changed the sunscreen game for acne sufferers. If you were previously stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of reacting to chemical sunscreens and finding mineral options sticky, slimy and zit-inducing, Paula has glad tidings:
“The types of zinc oxide used in sunscreens are typically “wrapped” in other ingredients that improve application and keep the zinc oxide on skin’s surface to protect it from harmful sources of light. In this situation it can’t get inside the pores where clogs start, which makes modern-day sunscreens with zinc oxide a good choice even if you have breakout-prone skin.”
Which brings us to...
While not as effective as other blemish minimising ingredients such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, zinc has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that can help to alleviate active acne, and studies look particularly promising in terms of zinc’s potential to reduce sebum protection, making angry breakouts all the less likely. It’s thought that the topical application of zinc helps to regulate the production of male hormones (androgens) that are so often implicated in the development of acne, thereby reducing incidences of acne.
It’s also thought that zinc can slow the growth of acne bacteria when applied to skin, boosting and balancing the skin’s microbiome so that your chin/ nose/ entire face is less of a fertile ground for spots causing bugs. Further studies are needed, but consultant dermatologist, acne specialist and author of The Skincare Bible Dr Anjali Mahto recommends incorporating zinc into your skincare regime alongside other prove, powerful ingredients to address breakouts:
“Cleanse your face twice a day with a face wash designed for acne-prone skin. Products that contain salicylic acid and zinc in particular may be beneficial. Exfoliate your skin weekly- this will remove the upper layer of skin cells, resulting in a brighter complexion and helping to reduce blackheads.”
Where zinc may show even more prowess in getting to the route of breakouts is when taken orally, as Paula illustrates:
“When it comes to acne, the trace mineral zinc has an interesting track record that makes it worth considering. This connection was first made in the late 1970s, when researchers noted in an acne zinc study that participants with acne tended to have low levels of zinc in their bodily fluids (bodily fluids other than blood, as blood tests alone aren’t helpful for determining zinc levels), while participants with minimal to no acne had normal levels of zinc. It turned out that taking zinc supplements led to a visible improvement in acne for many of the zinc-deficient people, establishing zinc’s role as a potential acne-fighter.”
There’s no conclusive recommended dosage for zinc supplementation to treat acne, and it doesn’t work for every sufferer. Dr Mahto advises 200mg daily of zinc gluconate or 400-600mg daily of zinc sulphate, but always discuss the addition of any supplements with your doctor or a dermatologist. Dr Mahto remains pragmatic regarding the role of zinc and other supplements such as omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin A:
“There is data from small studies regarding more ‘natural’ therapies. I am not an advocate of making recommendations that are not robustly supported by science, and think that there are better treatments than taking supplements, but these oral agents are readily available in health food shops and may have a role to play, so consider giving them a try.”
You can also up your intake of zinc rich foods such as almonds, cashews, milk, yogurt, oats, prawns, oysters, beef, chicken and chickpeas. They won’t ‘cure’ acne, but they could play their part in reducing inflammation.
Sensitivity and nappy rash
On the topic of inflammation, zinc oxide is a key ingredient in calamine cream , often used to treat nappy rash. Its use in wound-healing ointments has been noted in ancient Greek and Indian medicine, and its antiseptic properties combined with the fact that it helps to strengthen the skin barrier explain why it’s often considered a ‘healing’ mineral.
Babies bums’ aside, zinc’s anti-inflammatory effect means that it’s commonly used in treatments for eczema and dermatitis, and the fact that it’s an antioxidant adds a further element of protection, as it helps to combat free radical damage and in turn speed up collagen synthesis, meaning that skin is better able to repair itself. The fact that zinc is also thought to foster the growth of good bacteria on the skin’s surface is also a bonus in terms of alleviating skin sensitivity and reactions.
Another zinc plus in terms of quelling skin rashes and reactions is the fact that zinc also appears to slow down the body’s secretion of histamine, which reduces itching, irritation and inflammation, hence why many of us smother on calamine cream as soon as the creeping sensation of prickly heat sets in. It’s worth a shot if the heatwave is making you itchy and scratchy...
In addition to often lending bonus sun protection to your makeup, zinc can make both powder and liquid base more opaque according to Paula, which is ideal if you’re after a stay-put foundation with medium to high coverage (say, if you’ve had an attack of prickly heat, acne or any other kind of dermatological upset). If today’s not the day for something sheer and flimsy, zinc could be your knight in mineral armour.