Topical Zinc for Acne

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Topical zinc has been used for the treatment of some skin conditions, including acne. Different concentrations and zinc solutions may produce variable results. For treatment of acne, zinc is often combined with another prescription-strength topical medication. In general, topical zinc complexes are considered safe. The development of a comprehensive acne treatment plan, including whether zinc should be a component of the acne regimen, is most effective under the guidance of a doctor.

Zinc Formulations

Topical zinc formulations include zinc oxide, zinc sulfate, zinc pyrrolidone, zinc ascorbate and zinc acetate. The June 2012 issue of the journal "Clinical and Experimental Dermatology" reported a research trial that evaluated the effectiveness of treatment containing 0.1 percent zinc pyrrolidone combined with seaweed-derived oligosaccharide for mild acne. Volunteers who used the complex demonstrated a significant reduction of acne when compared to controls. Topical zinc acetate and zinc ascorbate have shown effectiveness for treatment of acne when combined with prescription-strength antibiotics. Topical 5 percent zinc sulfate alone has not been shown to be effective for acne. Zinc oxide is used for rash, notably diaper rash, but not for acne treatment.

Zinc With Antibiotics

Topical zinc is often combined with prescription-strength antibiotics when used for treatment of acne. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of topical preparations containing zinc when combined with either erythromycin, tetracycline, clindamycin or chloramphenicol. The American Academy of Dermatology cites the superiority of a topical 4 percent erythromycin/1.2 percent zinc acetate formulation in treating acne vulgaris when compared to topical 1 percent clindamycin phosphate.

Mechanism of Action

The mechanism of action of zinc differs from the mechanism of other common topical acne treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide, retinoic acid and sulfa. Different patterns of acne breakouts respond to different treatments, and zinc is most effective for inflammatory acne characterized by bacterial involvement. Zinc ascorbate alone or in combination with clindamycin, erythromycin or chlorampenicol has been shown to work against Propionibacterium acnes, a bacteria that contributes to the development of acne, according to a 2011 study published in "Clinical Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology." Zinc combined with erythromycin, tetracycline or clindamycin inhibits inflammation caused by bacteria and is more effective against inflammatory acne than noninflammatory acne.


Topical zinc solutions for acne are safe and well tolerated in most patients. Topical 1.2 percent zinc acetate combined with 4 percent erythromycin does not produce side effects. Studies demonstrate enhanced antiacne performance of topical antibiotics when they are combined with zinc solutions, without increased adverse reactions.

Method of Application

Topical zinc-containing solutions should be gently applied to areas of acne breakouts once or twice per day after washing the affected area. The solution may remain on the face for several hours until routine cleansing.