Zinc and Acne: Does Zinc Help With Acne?

Zinc and acne

Zinc won’t cure acne – but it can help acne if you’re deficient.

Let’s get right down to it.

While zinc isn’t a magical cure-all for acne, 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.[1]

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.

Watch Sonia explain it all:

 

 

Read “Probiotics, Gut Health, and Acne”

Are you deficient in zinc?

Here are some symptoms of zinc deficiency:

  • White spots on your fingernails
  • Dry skin
  • Hangnails
  • Frequent colds
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Low sex drive
  • Acne

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.[2] 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.[3]

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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, and zinc doesn’t clear up your acne, 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.[4]

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.[5] )

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*.

Update: zinc monomethionine* is another great option, comparable to zinc picolinate in absorbability.

*Note: These are affiliate links, which means we receive compensation if you make purchases using these links. Visit our disclaimer page for more information.

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 10-15mg of zinc per day is ideal.

If you eat plenty of meat, and you don’t eat grains or beans much, then you probably are best not supplementing at all.

Again, with zinc, more is not better – do not exceed these recommendations, because you’ll risk copper deficiency, which can have serious health implications.[6]

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:

  • Oysters
  • Crab
  • Grass-fed beef and lamb
  • Pumpkin seeds

Like most vitamins and minerals, zinc from real food is generally easier to absorb than from supplements.

Avoid copper deficiency

As zinc and copper work together in the body, it is important to make sure that if you’re supplementing zinc, you’re getting some copper in your diet, too – but not too much.

Copper and zinc are balanced in meat and seafood, so those are great foods to eat frequently. Dark chocolate and most nuts and seeds are rich in copper but have relatively less zinc, so eating some of these is fine, but avoid going overboard.

If you’re not eating these copper-containing foods and want to supplement with zinc, choose a zinc supplement that contains copper, like this one (affiliate link – see disclaimer).

Key Takeaways

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 or beans.
  • 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 a meal to avoid nausea.
  • Zinc can be a helpful addition to a holistic diet- and lifestyle-based treatment for acne, but it doesn’t fix the root causes of acne by itself.
  • 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 our 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.

Sources (click to expand)

  1. Hambidge M. Human zinc deficiency. J Nutr. 2000 May;130(5S Suppl): 1344S-9S. Review. ^
  2. 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 ^
  3. http://www.aminoz.com.au/importance-zinc-zinc-deficiency-a-375.html ^
  4. 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. ^
  5. 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. ^
  6. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/minerals/zinc/ ^

{ 16 Comments }

  1. Kris says

    Hi Devin,
    Great research, thank you for linking the sources. I’ve suffered with back acne for years. I eat a mostly plant based diet, so I’d call myself a flexitarian (95% plants, 5% grass fed-organic animal). Before that I did mostly Paleo, therefore lots of fresh plants, but still a lot of organic meat/poultry.
    From recent testing, I have low iron stores (ferritin), normal iron (since I suppliment), and low iodine (I now supplement—-boyfriend has shellfish allergy…). I take vitamine A and Magnesium as well.
    I’m game to try anything thats humane and organic even if its not a plant based suppliment, but I would be interested in the Frankin-rice you mentioned since I try to avoid dairy due to an intolerance (causes me inflammation and IgG testing shows markers). If the colostrum is derived from cows or colostrum is from humans, wouldn’t in theory the human one be closer to what we need? Albeit odd to consider!!
    I’ve also looked for a non-bovine ferritin supplement, but it seems I may need to take the bovine one as the plant ones are just more iron (leading to excess). I just want to be humane in my choices, with no added hormones from the cows, etc. With all that said—I’m open to anything—as my skin and other health issues are the number one priority! Any product tips would be greatly appreciated. I use Pure Encapsulations too. 😊 Thank you!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Kris! Sorry for the epic delay on this, I haven’t checked blog comments in a long time. My fault!

      How low is your ferritin? Did you get liver enzymes checked? It’s quite possible to have low ferritin, but also have an overload of unusable iron stored up in your liver. Taking additional iron supplements on top of that, if that’s the case, isn’t a very good idea. Liver enzymes (and/or GGT) can help point to iron overload in the liver. (See my iron article for more info on tests.)

      What kind of iron are you supplementing with?

      Doubt you’ll find human-sourced colostrum, though it’s an interesting idea! 🙂

      Are you interested in lactoferrin for reducing your iron levels, or for boosting your ferritin? There are definitely other, more effective ways of modulating ferritin, I think (see the iron article linked above for way more info on all the iron stuff, including why I think many people may have an iron overload problem even if ferritin levels don’t show it). I’d target the iron-utilization-boosting nutrients listed in the iron article, personally.

      Also, how much iodine are you taking? What form?

      Finally, have you thought about A2 milk as a skin-safe dairy option, that would give you some lactoferrin in a whole food form?

  2. Donna says

    I actually test low for iron. My Tibc, Total Iron, Iron Saturation, and Ferritin are all low.
    It was recommended for me to take Lactoferrin with an iron supplement to properly increase my iron.
    I’m confused about your article because it makes me second guess my situation. You don’t believe ANYONE is actually low in iron?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Donna! How low are we talking on these numbers?

      I definitely think there are a small number of people who are actually low in iron, but I think it’s probably a lot fewer people than most doctors think. Often, if you have iron dysregulation, excess iron gets stored up in your liver, which doesn’t show up one these blood tests. If you’re lacking in one of the co-factors necessary to use iron properly (vitamin A, molybdenum, vitamin C, copper, ceruloplasmin, vitamin B12, etc.), you can get excess iron deposits in the liver combined with low circulating iron. When you add a plain iron supplement on top of that, without addressing the deficient co-factors, you can worsen the problem. Did you happen to get your liver enzymes and/or GGT tested? That can sometimes indicate excess iron storage in the liver. But keep in mind I have zero clinical experience in all this and just going based on the all the research I’ve read (and my own iron overload problem).

  3. jay,s says

    hi, suffering from acne for 20 years and a rediculolus amount of money spent on “solutions”i tried a newer supplement that’s called acne block that contains lactoferrin,found it on amazon.. it actually was/is one of the only supplements I have tried that actually helped..

    • Devin Mooers says

      Great to hear you got good results from lactoferrin! The science is sound behind why it works, helping to reduce iron overload. Good stuff.

  4. Sara says

    Would eating liver or taking a dessicated liver supplement cause iron overload? I would like to get more vitamin A, but am concerned about the extra iron I would be getting.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sara! Wise to be cautious about this. Do you have reason to suspect you have existing iron overload? Curious about that, I’ve suspected that in myself for a while now, and have been avoiding liver for that reason. I’m taking Pure Encapsulations vitamin A instead.

    • Sarah says

      Suggesting vegans/Vegetarians have a greater risk of iron deficiency is incorrect. There are at least as many meat-eaters as vege people deficient in Iron. Meat is not an efficient source of iron for human beings. Cutting out animal products goes along way in clearing up acne.

      • Devin Mooers says

        Hey Sarah! I actually agree with your first point now, but differ in the second. I think many people, vegeterians and meat-eaters, have an iron overload problem. This is pretty new to me, but the research seems sound. Turns out you can have anemia AND iron overload, due to iron getting deposited in your liver, but a lack of nutrients that are required to put iron into hemoglobin, like vitamin C, vitamin A, molybdenum, and copper. I also think the research strongly points to heme iron from meat being an excellent source of iron – much more absorbable than plant iron – but I now think eating too much meat leads to iron overload, because your body can’t shut off absorption from heme iron like it can from plant iron. If you’re curious to learn more, I just posted a huge article on iron and acne two days ago:

        Iron and Acne

        I think this is really an unusual perspective, and the opposite of what most people will tell you! Curious to hear your thoughts! 🙂 (I’m actually eating mostly vegetarian these days, due to trying to reverse my iron overload problem, and, yes, the environmental impact.)

  5. Taylor says

    So if I maintain a Paleo/Whole 30 diet that includes high quality meats and seafoods and I do not eat any of the iron-fortified foods or foods that inhibit lactoferrin – my body should be creating lactoferrin on it’s own in a healthy manner and I likely do not need to supplement it, correct?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Yep, exactly! Historical iron overload can be an issue, less so for menstruating women due to the continual iron dumping outlet. Bloodletting was effective back in the day for many diseases due to iron removal! Men don’t have such a built-in iron removal system (perhaps explaining why men tend to live shorter lives than women – iron buildup!). I’m not 100% sure how effective lactoferrin supplementation is for addressing built-up iron overload. Morley Robbins (gotmag.org) is the guy to read about on all the iron issues.

  6. Christina says

    I’m confused. I was just about to purchase some FCLO for my teen daughter to help her with her acne and now I stumbled across your reply where you state you no longer recommend FCLO! Why the change?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Christina! Sorry about the confusion here – I wish we could keep the same recommendations forever, but our knowledge (and the science, and reader experience, etc.) forces us to change our recommendations now and then, and it’s hard to change everywhere all at once! We changed this recommendation because FCLO is basically pure PUFA (polyunsaturated fat), which is more susceptible to lipid peroxidation than other fats, and this is a major contributor to acne, we now believe (lipid peroxidation). The vitamin A in FCLO tends to be very beneficial, but you can get that vitamin A from eating liver, taking desiccated liver capsules, or taking a vitamin A supplement such as this one by Pure Encapsulations. We now think it’s best to reduce the total body load of PUFA as much as possible, rather than trying to boost omega-3s, for instance. Does this make sense?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sam! That’s actually a really good idea. We currently do not recommend taking FCLO or cod liver oil – we’ve updated our book but haven’t found the time yet to update our cod liver oil blog post – we’ll do that soon! We recommend taking desiccated liver capsules or eating grass-fed liver regularly, or taking a vitamin A supplement like this one:

      Pure Encapsulations Vitamin A 10,000 IU

      Taking vitamin E is a great PUFA defense strategy when you’re eating out at restaurants or for some reason consume a large amount of PUFA. We’re working on a “PUFA Shield” supplement that incorporates full-spectrum E along with some other lipid peroxidation blockers to make it easier for travelers, folks who eat out a lot, etc. to avoid the worst PUFA effects on acne.

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