Let’s get right down to it.
While zinc isn’t a magical cure-all for acne (a comprehensive diet plan is much more effective), it turns out that many acne sufferers are deficient in zinc. And their acne often improves when they start supplementing it!
Zinc is a trace mineral essential to all forms of life because of its fundamental role in gene expression, cell growth and cell replication. And it’s especially important for clear skin.
In fact, taking zinc or eating zinc-rich foods is a simple way to cover your bases for clear skin… and there’s a good chance that you’re deficient! Turns out zinc deficiency is much more common than previously thought.
Here are some symptoms of zinc deficiency:
- White spots on your fingernails
- Dry skin
- Frequent colds
- Hair loss
- Low sex drive
As I just mentioned, there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough zinc in your diet. (In fact, according to the World Health Organization, a whole 31.7% of the world’s population is zinc deficient. That’s over two billion people!)
Do you eat a lot of whole grains and beans? If so, you’re doubly at risk for zinc deficiency, because these foods contain phytates, which bind up minerals (including zinc) and prevent you from absorbing them. So even though whole grains contain more minerals than refined grains, you can’t really absorb them at all unless you ferment / soak your grains first (which neutralizes the phytates, to some extent). Furthermore, vegetarians and vegans are at an even greater risk for zinc deficiency, because the zinc from plant foods is four times more difficult to absorb than zinc from meat.
How do I know if I’m zinc deficient?
Well, unfortunately, zinc blood tests are notoriously unreliable because zinc isn’t found as much in blood – it’s mostly inside the cells.
What can you do about this? First take a look at your diet. Are you vegetarian, vegan, or an infrequent meat-eater? Do you eat whole grains and/or beans with most meals? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then there’s a good chance you’re deficient. And of course, if you experience some of the symptoms of zinc deficiency, that’s a good sign as well.
If you begin taking zinc and your acne doesn’t improve within a few weeks (see below for the recommended daily dosage), does that mean you weren’t deficient? Not necessarily. For some very lucky people, a zinc deficiency is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” when it comes to their acne, and so taking zinc improves their skin right away!
For the vast majority of zinc-deficient people, however, this is just one piece in the greater acne puzzle, which includes a variety of other diet and lifestyle factors. So if you fall into this majority, take heart, and don’t give up! Explore our other recommendations for improving your diet and lifestyle around the blog and in our book.
So… what’s zinc good for anyway? Zinc is crucial for proper immune system function, triggering the birth of white blood cells. Zinc plays a role in over 300 enzymes in the body, and helps form cellular DNA. It also plays a key role in the proper functioning of insulin, and you’ve got to have a healthy, functioning insulin system if you want clear skin.
Why is zinc important for clear skin?
While the exact mechanisms are unknown, zinc most likely promotes healthy skin by carrying vitamin A to your skin and by regulating your body’s hormonal balance.
Also, a recent study found that zinc facilitates apoptosis, or programmed cell death, which is a natural part of your skin renewing itself. If apoptosis is delayed, as in the case of zinc deficiency, skin cells stick together instead of dying and sloughing off like they should, which leads to clogged pores. (Interesting fact: isotretinoin, the active ingredient in Accutane, also uses this mechanism of cell apoptosis to treat acne. )
So, along with other important dietary changes (such as eliminating dairy), also make sure you’re getting enough zinc.
What’s the best type of zinc supplement for acne?
There’s a clear winner: zinc picolinate. Studies suggest that zinc picolinate is the most easily absorbed form – much more so than zinc gluconate or zinc citrate. Anecdotal reports from acne sufferers also confirm this. This is because your body forms zinc picolinate naturally from the zinc in real food – your body combines zinc in the intestines with picolinic acid, which is secreted by the pancreas.
If you can’t find zinc picolinate in your local health food or supplement store, just grab it off Amazon. We suggest this one, since it also includes copper, which needs to be in balance with zinc for optimal health.
Update: zinc monomethionine is another great option, comparable to zinc picolinate in absorbability.
How much zinc for acne?
You want to get between 15 and 30 milligrams of zinc per day in total, so the amount you supplement might depend somewhat on your diet. For most people who need it, supplementing with 10mg of zinc per day is ideal (alternatively, take 50mg per week). Again, with zinc, more is not better – do not exceed these recommendations, because you’ll risk copper deficiency, which can have serious health implications.
As zinc and copper work together in the body, it is important to make sure you’re getting enough copper, too. Copper is abundant in beef and lamb liver, oysters, shiitake mushrooms, dark chocolate, cashews, squid, and lobster. If none of these foods is in your diet, you might consider supplementing with 2mg of copper per day, or finding a combined zinc+copper supplement.
WARNING: do not take zinc on an empty stomach! It could make you throw up. I become very nauseated when I take zinc without eating anything. So take zinc halfway through a meal or right after eating to prevent nausea. Zinc picolinate, in comparison to other forms, is also the easiest on the stomach – another reason to go with this form of zinc as a step toward getting clear skin.
And just in case you’re not too hot on taking supplements, here are some whole foods you can use to boost your zinc intake:
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Grass-fed beef and lamb
- Beef liver
Like most vitamins and minerals, zinc from real food is generally easier to absorb than from supplements.
Plus, except for a lucky few people, no supplement or combination of supplements by themselves are going to cure acne. It’s by choosing to eat nutrient-dense whole foods like these – and knowing which acne-causing foods to avoid – that people are healing their acne every day.
- Increasing zinc intake can improve your acne if you’re deficient.
- You might be deficient if you don’t eat much red meat or seafood, and/or you eat lots of whole grains.
- The best source of zinc is whole foods, but supplements are a good compromise if you can’t or won’t eat zinc-rich foods.
- DO NOT take zinc supplements on an empty stomach! Take with food to avoid nausea.
- Zinc is not a complete treatment for acne, because it doesn’t fix the root causes of acne.
- Zinc can be a helpful addition to a holistic diet- and lifestyle-based treatment for acne.
- You need to fix your diet and lifestyle to really cure the root causes of acne (that’s what our book is all about!).
Also, if you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check out the article on Vitamin D for Acne. Vitamin D is another one of my Top 3 Clear Skin Tips, i.e. one of the most little-known, important, and easy things you can do right now to start clearing up your skin.
If you’re the get-up-and-go type, and you’d like to be walked through a complete diet and lifestyle base program for clearing up your skin fast (and keeping it clear), we (Devin and Sonia) have written an ebook that does just that! It’s called Clear Skin Forever. For this complete guide to taking an all-natural, diet-based approach to getting rid of acne and having clear skin for life (not exaggerating!), grab the e-book here.
- Hambidge M. Human zinc deficiency. J Nutr. 2000 May;130(5S Suppl): 1344S-9S. Review. ^
- Caulfield L, Black, RE. Zinc deficiency. In: Ezzati M, Lopez AD, Rodgers A, Murray CJL, eds. Comparative quantification of health risks: global and regional burden of disease attributable to selected major risk factors. Vol 1. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2004:257–79. http://www.who.int/publications/cra/chapters/volume1/0257-0280.pdf ^
- http://www.aminoz.com.au/importance-zinc-zinc-deficiency-a-375.html ^
- Truong-Tran AQ, Ho LH, Chai F, Zalewski PD. Cellular zinc fluxes and the regulation of apoptosis/gene-directed cell death. J Nutr. 2000 May;130(5S Suppl):1459S-66S. Review. ^
- Nelson AM, Zhao W, Gilliland KL, Zaenglein AL, Liu W, Thiboutot DM. Neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin mediates 13-cis retinoic acid-induced apoptosis of human sebaceous gland cells. J Clin Invest. 2008 Apr;118(4): 1468-78. ^
- http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/minerals/zinc/ ^