For more than 2,000 years, we’ve turned to zinc to help deal with burns and wounds. Today, zinc oxide benefits are even more broad, but looking back (way back), records show that zinc itself was first used in natural healing skin salve called pushpanjan. This was first described in ancient Indian medicinal scripts around the year 500 B.C.
Today, zinc oxide is a key active ingredient in many diaper rash creams, calamine lotions, mineral sunscreens (including some of the best sunscreens), vitamin supplements and acne treatments sold in drug stores or prescribed by doctors.
What Is Zinc Oxide?
As you probably guessed, zinc oxide is made from zinc, a type of metallic element found in nature that is now used in many different electronic, chemical and household products. Just like other elemental metals, including iron or electrolytes like magnesium, zinc is able to carry a certain electric charge that gives it special benefits within the body.
Zinc benefits affect different systems of the body, including the immune system, digestive tract, brain and skin — where it is used as a type of important “building block” for protein synthesis, enzyme creation and metabolic processes.
While zinc itself can be found in nature, zinc oxide is not naturally occurring. Rather it’s created when zinc is chemically heated and combined with oxygen molecules.
The two elements are vaporized, condensed and formed into a powder that is fine, white, crystallized and sits on top of the skin to provide a protective layer.
Recent breakthroughs in zinc oxide particle size have led to a major increase in zinc oxide cream and zinc oxide sunscreen. Beginning in 2008, researchers created nano-sized zinc oxide particles, resulting in a revolution in sunscreen and skin care.
An advanced formula of zinc oxide is now capable of being applied to the skin without leaving behind a thick, white film, therefore opening the doors for much wider acceptance of natural sunscreen products. However, the jury is still out if these nanoparticles are truly safe.
Zinc oxide has been found to have the following uses and benefits:
- Helping lower skin inflammation associated with rashes, allergies or irritation (including diaper rash)
- Providing broad-spectrum sun protection that prevents burns (including on photosensitive skin)
- Providing protection from skin cancer/neoplasias (basal cell carcinoma)
- Improving wound healing and preventing bacterial infections
- Aiding in recovery of burns and damaged tissue
- Helping treat acne breakouts
- Keeping moisture locked into dry skin
- Reducing dandruff
- Treating warts
- Lowering inflammatory dermatoses (including rosacea)
- Treating pigmentary disorders (melasma)
- Preventing aging of the skin
- Improving synthesis of collagen and forming of new connective tissue
Because zinc oxide is not water-soluble, it needs to be combined with a carrier agent to be most effective. It’s commonly added to topical solutions like makeup (especially skin foundations), mineral sunscreens, salves or balms, and moisturizers.
Some lotions or creams contain zinc oxide so the oily substances seep into the skin. Zinc forms a barrier over them that keeps moisture locked in place.
Zinc oxide first made an appearance in commercial beauty or skin care products during the 1940s. However, records show that during the first century Greek physicians and botanists were already combining zinc with oxygen to form zinc oxide powder.
One of the oldest texts to mention the use of zinc oxide for healing the skin was the ancient Indian medical text called “The Charaka Samhita.” Physicians described using pushpanjan zinc salve to treat the eyes and open skin wounds.
From the 1940s through about the 1980s, zinc oxide products were used primarily to treat skin conditions unrelated to sun exposure, including poison ivy, dandruff and rashes. By the 1980s, zinc oxide’s benefits for naturally preventing and treating sun damage became clearer and widely supported through medical literature.
Perhaps zinc’s greatest reputation is its role as a natural alternative to chemical skin care formulations. Chemical ingredients often cause irritation, allergies or sunburns, particularly on sensitive skin.
In fact, did you know that up to 75 percent of sunscreens are toxic, hiding many irritating chemicals? There are several ways that zinc oxide works on the skin to block sun damage from UV light, making it a better choice to chemical skin care products:
- Because zinc is a mineral, it has the ability to sit atop the skin and reflect the sun by scattering away ultraviolet rays. Zinc oxide is called a “physical barrier substance” for this reason rather than a “chemical substance.” Due to this scattering ability, at least a small amount of zinc oxide is usually added to most commercial chemical sunscreens, too.
- As opposed to physical barrier solutions, chemical sunscreens absorb ultraviolet rays and keep them trapped on the surface of the skin so they cannot penetrate into deeper layers. Chemical sunscreens commonly include ingredients such as oxybenzone, an ingredient now tied to irritation and toxicity.
- The trouble with most commercial products is that individual chemicals often work by blocking either UVA or UVB rays but not both types. This means that chemical sunscreen manufacturers need to combine several different formulas/solutions into one product to prevent burns from happening. The more chemicals that are added, the higher the chances are for negative reactions, allergies and irritation. In sensitive skin, sunscreens won’t always prevent cancer and might cause reactions like hives, swelling and acne.
1. Protects Skin from Sun Burns and Damage
The natural sun-protecting benefits of zinc oxide have been the focus of much skin care research over the past three decades. Zinc oxide has been found to offer protection against “broad spectrum ultraviolet rays” (UVA/UVB), which is not always the case with chemical sunscreens that only block one type of UV light.
Today zinc oxide is added to many more skin care products beyond sunscreen. It’s also an ingredient in beauty lotions or foundations, including mineral makeup, concealers, moisturizers, BB creams and anti-aging formulas.
In the past, zinc oxide sunscreens had a bad reputation for causing noticeable white streaks on the skin, a sign that the zinc didn’t fully absorb. However, in recent years skin care technology has come a long way, and today you can find microfine zinc oxide formulations that no longer leave behind streaks or a chalky feel.
Again, these tiny particles are considered safe, although some scientists believe further research is needed to make sure they are safe for long-term use in humans.
Wondering how effective zinc oxide products are for repelling the sun?
- Some of the best sunscreens containing zinc oxide available today have similar effects as chemical products, however these use multiple substances to provide broad-spectrum protection.
- How reliably and strongly a product prevents burns depends on how much zinc oxide is used in the formula. Percentages of zinc oxide vary widely, and the final percentage determines the products specified “SPF” level.
- In sunscreens, zinc oxide percentages are usually around 25 percent to 30 percent.
- In products such as makeup, including foundation, BB creams and facial moisturizers, the percentage (and therefore coverage) is usually lower, around 10 percent to 19 percent.
- The less zinc oxide that is used, the shorter the window if protection. SPF 15 therefore lasts for less time than SPF 30, which contains more zinc.
2. Helps Treat Acne
For the treatment of acne, zinc oxide is usually combined with other anti-inflammatory or antibacterial zinc substances, including antioxidants, zinc gluconate or zinc sulfate, and sometimes antibacterial agents. Together these elements help lower the appearance, severity, duration and pain of cystic/hormonal acne blemishes and breakouts.
A 2013 study printed in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology along with other research regarding zinc for acne show that there are several ways that zinc oxide can help treat and prevent acne:
- Reducing antimicrobial/bacterial properties associated with acne.
- Lowering inflammation that is triggered in response to acne-causing bacteria and clogged pores.
- Reducing the likelihood that acne will reappear once the skin becomes resistant to antibiotic substances (whether applied topically to the skin or taken in pill form).
- Regulating oil/sebum production.
- Acting as an astringent, which helps dry excess oil and shrink, constrict or tighten the appearance of damaged skin and large pores.
Research suggests that zinc used topically on the skin either alone or in combination with other agents is effective mostly due to its anti-inflammatory activity and ability to reduce P. acnes bacteria by inhibition of P. acnes lipases and free fatty acid levels. For cases of severe and persistent acne, sometimes a dermatologist will prescribe antibiotics to help stop bacteria from clogging pores.
However, studies have found that acne-related bacteria can become resistant to treatment after some time, and therefore for some people the pills/lotions stop working. Antibiotic treatments for acne also tend to cause side effects, including redness, increased sensitivity to sunlight, dryness and peeling.
The good news is that zinc oxide treatment can continue to be useful even for those with antibiotic-resistant acne.
3. Treats Rashes and Irritation (Including Diaper Rash)
Plenty of research shows that zinc oxide helps aid in new tissue growth, skin healing, repairing wounds and prevention of inflammation. Zinc oxide can be used to naturally help treat:
- Diaper rash
- Mouth cold sores
- Skin ulcers
- Scrapes or abrasions
- Irritation from chemical products
Zinc oxide is a very common active ingredient in commercial and prescription diaper rash creams. Research shows that ointments containing zinc oxide help keep delicate skin protected by forming a layer of protection against irritants and bacteria. In the case of diaper rash, zinc can be used frequently even for delicate skin to lower inflammation.
Certain studies have found that ointments containing around 5 percent zinc oxide can even be used to lower symptoms of irritation in infants with irritant diaper dermatitis caused by diarrhea. Creams that contain no added fragrance or dyes are best for treating rashes, including mild or severe diaper rash, and preventing worsened symptoms.
4. Helps Prevent Bacterial Infections
With the ability to act like a mild astringent, zinc oxide can help keep harmful bacteria from causing infections of the skin and act as a natural skin-drying agent. Traditional uses of zinc oxide products include treating wounds following surgery and applying salves inside the mouth to treat ulcers or sores.
As an essential mineral, zinc has an important role of regulating enzyme functions that are needed to repair epidermal wounds of the skin and form new collagen/connective tissue.
A 2003 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that zinc oxide likely helps reduce bacterial infections not by killing bacteria, but by inhibiting the adhesion and internalization of bacteria. Zinc oxide also helps decrease permeability, increase tightness of junctions so bacteria can’t make their way through and reduce inflammation through modulating cytokine gene expressions.
Many skin care products containing zinc oxide help reduce redness, swelling, pain and inflammation caused from bacterial buildup. As an added benefit, just like other commercial or beauty astringent products, zinc oxide helps minimize the appearance of large pores and prevents shininess of the skin by regulating oil production.
5. Has Anti-Aging Effects and Improves Healing of Tissue Damage
Not only does zinc oxide help prevent future sun damage, wrinkles and dark spots — it also helps improve synthesis of new skin tissue and collagen, a key substance needed to maintain skin’s youthful appearance. The body requires zinc and other trace minerals for the synthesis of collagen that helps build and repair connective tissue.
Studies have found that treating damaged, dry or wounded skin with zinc oxide products for just 48 hours (including during post-operative treatment) helps skin heal better. It also can help lower inflammation/redness, restore pigment, and better regulate interstitial fluid and sebum (oil).
Zinc can also help increase the amount of other active ingredients that are absorbed into the skin when it’s used in conjunction with other anti-aging products.
How to Use
Zinc oxide comes in several forms and formulas, and the type you want to buy depends on how you’re using it. While using zinc oxide treatments on the skin alone can help improve skin’s health and appearance, you can also combine topical treatments with a vitamin supplement containing zinc for even better protection and results.
- Zinc Oxide Sunscreens: When it comes to purchasing sunscreens, read ingredients carefully, and look for the words zinc oxide. This means the product has broad-spectrum blocking abilities. Other tips for using zinc oxide sunscreen for preventing sunburn include applying the lotion 30 minutes before you head outdoors; being careful not to miss sensitive areas like the tops of the ears, back of the neck, lips, top of the head and feet; being conscious of whether any medications you take might make you more photosensitive; supplementing with vitamin D; and staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. if you’re very sensitive to burns.
- Zinc Oxide Powder: Check the label on the package for exact dosing instructions, since percentages/strengths vary widely. Use about two tablespoons at a time for a homemade cream or lotion that you can store for later use.
- Zinc Oxide Creams or Ointments: Cream is best for treating minor, non-infected scrapes and burns. You can use a bandage on top of zinc oxide cream or leave the cream exposed to air to dry. Always wash your hands and the area you’ll apply zinc oxide cream to before starting the application. Zinc oxide cream is for external/topical use only, so be careful not to swallow any or to get it into your eyes, ears or mouth. Apply zinc oxide cream directly to the affected area, including skin suffering from a diaper rash, redness, chafing, burns, poison ivy or skin irritation.
- Zinc Oxide Diaper Rash: Clean the diaper area, make sure it’s wiped clean and allow the area to dry. Apply cream before putting on a new diaper, prior to bedtime or if you notice signs of a rash when changing a dirty diaper. You can use it as often as needed with each diaper change, especially at bedtime so it has time to absorb into the skin.
You can easily create your own lotions, sunscreens or diaper rash ointments at home using zinc oxide powder. Try these DIY recipes below, which are less likely to trigger irritation and allergies:
- Zinc Homemade Sunscreen Recipe: Conventional sunscreens can be full of harmful chemicals and toxins that are irritating to your skin. Using a gentle homemade sunscreen will still protect your skin from getting burnt but also nourish and hydrate dry skin.
- DIY Zinc Diaper Rash Cream: Most store-bought diaper rash creams are made with chemical-containing emulsifiers that can enter the body through the skin. Additionally, parabens as well as animal-based lanolin are often found in lotions and creams and should be avoided by babies and young children due to the potential for triggering rashes or allergies. This DIY diaper rash cream is simple to make and can provide the highest quality natural skin care ingredients while soothing your baby’s skin.
Risks and Side Effects
Although zinc is considered safe and non-allergenic for majority of people, there is some concern over potential effects of newly developed nanonized zinc particles (ZnO-NP) in sunscreens. It’s still being debated whether or not it might be possible for these tiny particles to be absorbed into the bloodstream, where they could potentially cause toxicity and side effects.
So far studies have found these substances to be safe, but we can expect to see more research emerge in the years to come.
Although zinc oxide is less likely to cause allergic reactions than chemical products, some instances of irritation have been reported. If you notice symptoms, including swelling, itching or tingling, stop using zinc-containing products, and consider visiting a doctor if they persist.
For people with very sensitive skin to burns, be careful about choosing trustworthy products and testing the effects of homemade creams in small doses. It’s possible that zinc creams might not be applied evenly with every application, and this might cause sunburns in people who are very prone to UV damage.
Zinc oxide creams seem to be safe for use on infants or children, but it’s a good idea to get advice your doctor if your child has sensitivities or skin allergies.
- Zinc oxide is a substance created from zinc and oxygen that is usually found in powder form, and it’s added to many lotions, ointments, sunscreens and rash creams.
- Zinc oxide has been found to have natural antiseptic and antibacterial abilities. Other benefits include healing epidermal wounds, burns, rashes, skin oiliness, infections and acne.
- Unlike many chemical sunscreens, zinc oxide protects against UVA and UVB light rays and is often used as a natural, non-toxic sunscreen to prevent burns, signs of photo-aging and irritation.