When shopping for sunscreen, you may come across the term zinc oxide—a bit of a buzzword in skin care—and wonder what exactly this substance is. Zinc oxide, sometimes called by its chemical abbreviation, ZnO, is a common ingredient in skin care products that has a handful of benefits when applied to the skin. Read on to find out what this substance does, and how it can help your skin look and feel its best.

The Many Benefits of Zinc Oxide for Skin

Zinc is a naturally occurring metal element and essential nutrient, which means that although the body needs it to be healthy, it can't make or store the substance on it's own—it must be obtained from your diet or applied topically. Zinc has many important functions for proper metabolism, and zinc deficiency is a well-known cause of skin changes, dermatitis, hair loss, and delayed wound healing.

The Benefits of Zinc Oxide for Skin

Zinc Oxide for Skin Photoprotection

Zinc oxide, a powdery white substance before it's mixed into a cream product, is a common active ingredient in physical sunscreens. This substance, together with titanium dioxide, are the two main mineral sunscreens available that offer great mineral-based protection. Physical sunscreen formulations are especially recommended for expecting mothers, children, and those with sensitive skin, as they are not absorbed into the skin like chemical formulations. Although there is generally no reason to believe chemical sunscreens—when used properly—pose any health threat, individuals may have different reactions. Zinc oxide is a very safe and stable ingredient that has never been shown to impose any direct health hazard to humans or the environment.

Zinc oxide in sunscreen works by sitting on top of the skin to block ultraviolet (UV) radiation from penetrating and damaging the cells beneath—the process that causes skin cancers after cumulative exposure. Think of it as wearing a shield over your exposed skin. While UVB rays burn your skin, UVA radiation is known to cause both skin cancer and photo-aging effects, such as sunspots, discoloration, fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin.

Possible health and safety benefits aside, some prefer physical formulas like those containing mainly zinc oxide for their silky, non-oily feeling on the skin. If you're someone who hates the heavy, greasy feeling of sunscreen, perhaps give a fully mineral-based product a try.

Other Uses for Zinc in Skin Care

Zinc has been used for decades to promote skin healing. For example, the famous "Unna boot" compression stocking employed by Dermatologists is a great treatment for lower leg wounds. Zinc is also found in various diaper cream preparations due to its wound healing and skin protective properties. Furthermore, zinc oxide, as an active ingredient in calamine lotion, has been used to dry out various weeping skin irritations such as bug bites, poison ivy, poison oak, and burns. It also exhibits antiseptic properties and is commonly found over-the-counter in the form of zinc pyrithione, which is a common treatment for dandruff.

If you're in the market for a new sun care product—and you should be if you're not already wearing a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher—consider something containing this proven substance. Between the health benefits and the silky smooth feeling, you may just find your new go-to.


  • Dr. Jenny Liu (@derm.talk)

    Dr. Jenny Liu is a board-certified Dermatologist and an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her blog, DermTalkDocs.com, combines her professional and personal passions—dermatology and medicine, medical education, skin care, fashion, and motherhood.

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