TikTok wants you to try this ingredient to get rid of acne
We consulted a dermatologist about the trend.
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We can wax poetic for hours about all the skincare ingredients known to alleviate acne—salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids to name a few—but there are lesser-known options that can provide relief, too. After noticing a trend of people applying zinc to blemishes on TikTok, we consulted Dr. Farah Moustafa, a dermatologist and the director of laser and cosmetics at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, to learn more about the ingredient that supposedly has the potential to get rid of pesky breakouts.
What is zinc?
First and foremost, zinc is a mineral found in several foods. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) cites oysters, boxed cereals, eggs, yogurt, peas, beans, chickpeas, cashews, and almonds as some of the foods in which zinc can be found. Furthermore, “it is a cofactor for many of the enzymes in our body and is important for many cellular functions—[specifically by assisting] other proteins called enzymes in our body do their job,” Moustafa explains. In regards to skincare, she says you can find zinc in sunscreen, anti-dandruff shampoos, and—yes—acne treatments.
How can zinc help get rid of acne?
Acne develops when the skin’s outermost cells that line the hair follicles (i.e., pores) “become abnormally sticky,” and clog the follicle with sebum, the oil that prevents the skin from drying out, Moustafa says. Zinc is linked with decreasing sebum production. A reduction in sebum can lead to a decrease in acne, which includes blackheads and whiteheads.
In addition to curbing the onset of sebum, zinc has been found to diminish “anti-inflammatory mediators like TNF alpha and can inhibit the growth of P. acnes, the bacteria responsible for causing acne,” she says.
But before giving zinc the greenlight for your blemishes, Moustafa points out that some studies indicate otherwise about zinc’s efficacy in treating acne. “There are contradicting studies which show some patients [have lower levels of zinc in their blood] compared to patients without acne,” she says.
Is there a particular form of zinc that is more effective than others?
While some studies support that zinc may help curb the production of factors that can cause acne—like excess sebum production and the bacteria P.acnes—“the studies on treating acne patients with zinc, either in oral or topical form, are generally not supportive for using zinc as a first line acne treatment, especially with other tried and true, safe treatments that work for acne more consistently such as retinoids, salicylic acid, and benzoyl peroxide,” Moustafa says.
Many topical acne treatments tend to have zinc on their ingredient roster, “but it is not thought of as the active ingredient,” says Moustafa. Therefore, she finds that the best way to get your dose of zinc is by maintaining a diet “rich in zinc for overall skin health.” She lists beef, eggs, and shellfish as excellent sources of the mineral. But ultimately, “zinc should [not] be an acne treatment, but rather potentially a [supplement] worth exploring further and something to add to an established acne regime."
Are there better ingredients that can combat acne?
Because zinc isn’t your best bet when treating acne, consider reaching for a treatment that contains one of the active ingredients that Moustafa deems as “tried and true”—i.e., benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoids.
For a breakout-busting treatment that contains benzoyl peroxide, an oily skin-friendly ingredient that kills acne-causing bacteria, try the PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash. It claims to banish acne on the face, back, and chest while preventing new blemishes. Massage the cleanser onto damp skin for one to two minutes. Use once a day for optimal results, but “gradually increase to twice if needed or directed by your dermatologist,” the brand states.
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If you’re looking for a milder acne remedy that won’t irritate dry or sensitive skin, try a treatment that contains salicylic acid, like the Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant from Paula’s Choice. The exfoliator claims to clear away dead skin cells, unclog pores, and smooth the look of wrinkles with salicylic acid while also soothing with green tea extract. Pour the liquid onto a cotton pad or your fingers and apply it once or twice a day after cleansing the skin.
For an option that combats acne and signs of skin aging, try a retinoid-containing product, such as the Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment. The gel reduces acne by “regulating skin cell turnover and reducing inflammation deep in the skin” with exfoliating adapalene 0.1%. Apply a thin layer of the treatment once a day over clean skin to prevent and treat breakouts.
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