Let’s be honest. Zinc isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about getting beautiful skin. In fact, you’ve probably never even thought about it before. But this “trace mineral” (so-called because you need only a very small amount each day) is found in every single cell in your body, and more than 100 different enzymes need it to function. Skin cells are particularly dependent on zinc’s powerful properties—in fact, the top layer of your skin is concentrated with up to six times more of the mineral than is found in the lower layers.
Here’s how zinc keeps skin healthy and glowing from the inside:
It works as an antioxidant. Though not technically an antioxidant (like vitamins C and E, for example), zinc is a key part of your skin’s dietary defense squad. The mineral lessens the formation of damaging free radicals and protects skin’s lipids (fats) and fibroblasts—the cells that make collagen, your skin’s support structure—when skin is exposed to UV light, pollution and other skin-agers.
It helps heal and rejuvenate skin. When you cut yourself, zinc goes to work. First, the amount of the mineral in the skin surrounding the cut increases as enzymes and proteins ramp up to protect against infection, control inflammation and produce new cells and transport them to close up the broken skin. But even healthy, intact skin relies on zinc for new cell production and the function of cell membranes.
It may ward off acne flare-ups. Pimples develop when a buildup of oil, bacteria and skin cells block pores, causing the skin around the pore to turn red, swollen and tender. Zinc, which boosts immune function, may help control that inflammatory response. What’s more, because zinc regulates cell production and turnover, and can help reduce the amount of natural oil your skin produces, it may prevent pores from clogging in the first place.
How Much Should You Get?
You don’t need much. Men should aim for at least 11 mg per day, while women only need 8 mg. Oysters, crab and lobster are a few top sources of zinc, but chicken, lean beef, beans, chickpeas and fortified cereals can also help you meet your daily goal. A balanced diet can often provide the zinc you need, but if you’re considering a zinc supplement—or wondering if you might benefit from one—talk to your doctor.
Don’t forget about zinc’s topical power too. Here’s how your skin benefits when you apply it to your outside:
It’s an effective sunscreen. Unlike chemical sunscreen ingredients, which absorb into the top layers of your skin to filter out the damaging part of the sun’s rays, zinc oxide (a zinc-containing compound) acts as a physical block, stopping UV light from penetrating your skin altogether. Although the zinc acts as a shield, the particles are micronized, so lotions containing it rub in like any other product and look invisible (you don’t need to fear the tourist’s swipe of white zinc oxide across the nose anymore). Even better, because zinc doesn’t absorb deeply, it’s less likely to irritate skin like other ingredients might—which is why it’s often found in sunscreens for sensitive skin and products for kids and babies. Look for “zinc oxide” listed under active ingredients on the label.
It clears up dandruff and relieves an itchy scalp. Zinc pyrithione can be used to treat psoriasis, eczema and other skin conditions, but it’s best known for diminishing dandruff. (You’ll see it listed as the active ingredient on anti-dandruff shampoo and conditioner bottles.) Dandruff occurs when a common fungus that lives on the scalp grows out of control. The resulting irritation and inflammation causes skin cells to flake off and the scalp to become irritated and itchy. Zinc pyrithione not only helps control the growing bacteria, but also reduces the amount of oil that it feeds on, while its anti-inflammatory properties calm irritation and relieve itchiness. Even if you don’t technically have dandruff, this form of zinc will still relieve a dry, itchy scalp. When using a zinc pyrithione product, massage it into your scalp and let it sit for a few minutes before rinsing.
It helps heal rashes and other sores. A common ingredient in hemorrhoid treatments and diaper rash creams, zinc oxide helps heal skin in many of the same ways dietary zinc does: It reduces inflammation, regulates immunity and may stimulate the production of new cells. It’s also an anti-microbial, which can soothe and treat skin quickly; research suggests it may shorten the duration and reduce the severity of a cold sore, for example. Scan the ingredient list for zinc oxide when looking for topical treatments to help a rash or sore.