Is There a Link Between Zinc and Acne?
Zinc supplements can be extraordinarily useful in fighting acne—by making the immune system weaker. If that seems a little strange, please read on. The way zinc works for clearing up your skin is an example of how many other products work to fight acne.
- Acne bacteria do not damage the skin. The immune system’s reaction to acne bacteria damages the skin.
- Zinc reduces the immune system’s release of inflammatory chemicals at the very earliest stages of acne, especially when the skin is stressed.
- Zinc is more useful for preventing whiteheads and blackheads than for treating pimples.
- Zinc oxide in sunscreen is a great way to get zinc exactly where it is needed in the skin, but these products can leave brown or black skin tinged white.
- The best way to take zinc is as a nutritional supplement, formulated with additional copper.
Acne Bacteria and Acne
Acne is associated with excessive growth of the “acne bacteria” Propionibacterium acnes. Like most bacteria that live in or on the human body, these bacteria are actually beneficial in small numbers. The skin makes an oil known as sebum to keep itself lubricated. Sebum keeps the skin from wrinkling and cracking when we talk, eat, smile, or frown.
Propionibacterium acnes consumes fatty acids in this sebum that make it sticky. This leaves essential fatty acids that nourish the skin, and keeps too much oil from building up on the skin. The relationship between the skin and acne bacteria is mutually beneficial until they get trapped in a pore.
The problem is not that bacteria grow to massive numbers and destroy the skin with a pimple. The problem is that bacteria are programmed to survive, too, and they need to keep moving to other pores to reproduce and flourish. Acne bacteria do not attack the skin directly. Instead, they release some chemicals that attract white blood cells to clogged pores, and other chemicals that sensitize the skin around the clogged pore to inflammatory chemicals made by these protective immune cells.
The inflammation that causes a pimple to pop up does one of two things. It eventually opens a path for the bacteria to escape, or it destroys so much tissue the bacteria go deeper into the body, protected inside a cyst or nodule covered by healthy, although pink and scarred, above them.
How Zinc Interrupts the Process of Inflammation
The human body uses zinc to make over 300 different enzymes. These enzymes can speed up chemical reactions, or they can slow them down. Zinc is an important ingredient in enzymes, and in enzymes that regulate other enzymes all over the body. In the skin, zinc regulates the production of corticotrophin releasing hormone, or CRH.
CRH is better known as the hormone that the brain sends to the adrenal glands as a signal to release the “stress hormone” cortisol. It turns out, scientists have found, that the skin has a similar system. When the skin experiences something stressful, such as sunburn, chemical irritation, or the sensation of a clogged pore, nerves in the skin send messages to specialized skin cells called keratinocytes to release CRH.
There aren’t any adrenal glands in the skin. This CRH does not make cortisol. Instead, it activates mast cells. These are cells that release histamine, which dissolves contaminated tissues. (Histamine also causes the symptoms of allergic reactions.)
CRH also increases a process called differentiation, which builds up the lining of pores. When the pore is clogged with sebum and acne bacteria, however, increasing the production of new skin cells is not a good thing. This only makes the pore tighter and the bacteria even more trapped.
And CRH increases sebum production. Oily sebum, after all, protects the skin. In this case, however, the additional sebum only adds to the stress on the pore, which is growing tighter because of the stimulation of skin cell growth.
Zinc interrupts the release of CRH. It stops the release of histamine. It stops the growth signals that tighten the pore. It stops the production of extra sebum.
All of these actions occur early in the process of acne, before the bacteria start sending out signals of their own. Zinc helps stop the formation of whiteheads and blackheads before they become pimples. It also helps prevent the skin from growing over a pimple and creating a cyst. Zinc won’t take the red out of a pimple or stop inflammation triggered by acne bacteria, but it will stop the earliest stages of redness and irritation caused by mast cells.
How to Take Zinc
All of this means that zinc is better for prevention than for cure. It is better to take a zinc supplement than it is to try to use a zinc ointment for treating pimples. However, if you simply want to get your zinc directly where it is needed on your skin, a zinc oxide sunblock will serve a dual purpose, nourishing the skin in ways that reduce its reactions to stress, and also protecting the skin from the sun.
The kind of zinc scientists know will reduce acne inflammation is zinc gluconate. Probably zinc carbonate, zinc sulfate, and zinc picolinate would also work, but that has not been proven in the lab as yet. Zinc gluconate is a little more expensive than zinc sulfate, but it is also better absorbed through the digestive tract.
It is important not to overdose zinc, that is, not to take more than 50 mg a day on a regular basis. The reason to avoid taking too much zinc is that it competes with copper for absorption into the body. Some people who have taken extremely high doses of zinc for several weeks, for example, 750 mg of zinc every day for a month, have developed serious copper deficiencies that cause muscle fatigue and weakness along with psychological symptoms. One sure way to prevent copper deficiency is to take a product that contains both zinc and copper, at least 1 mg of copper every day.
What About Zinc in Gels and Lotions for Acne?
Zinc oxide in sunscreen is helpful for just about anyone who has acne, but if you have brown or black skin, it will probably leave a noticeable white tint on your skin everywhere you apply it. Since zinc is best used to prevent acne, it is better to take a zinc supplement on a regular basis than to try to find a lotion or gel that has zinc in it. However, there are lotions and gels containing zinc that are good for oily, allergy-prone, easily wrinkled, and spotted skin—a specialized skin type for which acne is usually the least of problems.