Zinc Oxide: What Is It Used For? - Public Goods

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Zinc Oxide: What Is It Used For?

There are various uses for zinc oxide, but if you’ve heard of the ingredient before, you’re probably familiar with it as a sunscreen ingredient.

bottle of suncreen on pebble beach
Photo by Antonio Gabola on Unsplash

It’s a mainstay in physical sunscreens, AKA mineral sunscreens, but it’s also found in many other products.

So, what exactly is zinc oxide, and is it safe to put on our skin?

What Is Zinc Oxide?

Zinc oxide, or ZnO, is derived from a naturally occurring mineral called Zincite, explained Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist who was the 2019 President of the US Society of Cosmetic Chemists.

Dobos said that the zinc oxide included in cosmetics and skincare is synthetically prepared through what is called the “French Process.” In this process, to put it simply, metallic zinc is melted, heated and cooled. The result is a white powder.

Zinc oxide is multifunctional and widely available. Due to its chemical properties, it is used in everything from sunscreens to barrier creams to deodorants and more.

So, what does zinc oxide do exactly? Well, here are just a few applications of the ingredient, according to Dobos:

  • It can reflect UV rays, protecting people from sunburn and sun damage
  • It’s a skin protectant
  • It can inhibit the growth of microorganisms
  • It can serve as a colorant in cosmetics

What Is Zinc Oxide Used For?

Let’s dive a little deeper into zinc oxide uses, including what products you’ll find this ingredient in and how it benefits your health.

Sunscreen and Skin Care

It is no secret that the sun’s UV rays are harmful to our skin and health. They can cause burns, visible signs of sun damage, and even skin cancer. There are UVA rays and UVB rays, both of which can cause damage to your skin.

Dobos said that the application of sunscreen containing zinc oxide has the ability to protect the skin from both of these types of radiation. This protection is one of the main zinc oxide benefits!

Zinc oxide is typically found in physical or mineral sunscreen, as opposed to chemical sunscreen.

“Particles of zinc oxide create a physical barrier on top of the skin to scatter ultraviolet rays and prevent sun damage, but it is imperative that the zinc oxide creams are spread evenly on the skin to ensure adequate sun protection,” Dobos advised.

In mineral sunscreens, zinc oxide is usually combined with titanium oxide, another mineral that can refract UV rays, for maximum UV protection.

putting skin cream on fingers
Photo by Anastasiia Ostapovych on Unsplash

Barrier Cream and Diaper Rash Cream

Zinc oxide is recognized as a skin protectant by the FDA, Dobos said, which is why it is often included in barrier and diaper rash creams. Basically, it has the ability to create a protective barrier on the skin to protect the skin from irritation. It can also help protect cuts and scrapes.

Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, MD FAAD, a Miami-based board-certified dermatologist, is a big proponent of zinc oxide as an ingredient. She said zinc is very soothing to the skin’s surface. As an ingredient in diaper rash cream, it can typically calm a baby’s red bottom after just one application, due to its anti-inflammatory mechanisms.

Dobos added that zinc oxide has mild bacteriostatic properties, which means it can inhibit the growth of microorganisms, making it even more useful as a diaper rash cream or barrier cream.

Colorant in Cosmetics

Similar to titanium dioxide (the ingredient that is commonly combined with zinc oxide in sunscreen), zinc oxide is used as a colorant in cosmetics. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are provide opacity and coverage in makeup, according to Dobos. However, zinc oxide is a little more transparent than titanium dioxide.

“ZnO is more transparent than titanium dioxide, so it takes about three times the amount of ZnO to match the covering power of titanium dioxide, so it is used far less for that purpose,” she said.

Fun fact: Dobos said that when trends were changing and it was becoming less common to wear heavy makeup in the Victorian era, people dusted zinc oxide powder on their skin to help cover blemishes but have a more natural look than other thicker white powders.

According to the Environmental Working Group, today zinc oxide in makeup is most commonly found in these types of products:

  • Foundation
  • Powder
  • Concealer
  • Blush
  • Lipstick and lip gloss

Is Zinc Oxide Safe To Use?

As for zinc oxide safety, both Dobos and Ciraldo agree that zinc oxide is safe to use in general, whether you’re using it in your sunscreen, cosmetics or a cream.

The FDA approves the use of zinc oxide in sunscreen in concentrations up to 25%, and the organization deemed the ingredient as GRASE — which means “generally recognized as safe and effective.”

The controversy kicks in when we speak about zinc oxide nanoparticles. Dobos said the development of nano-sized zinc oxide particles created a revolution, as the technology allowed for new sunscreen and skincare products to be created that could be clear on the skin, instead of leaving behind a very visible white film on the skin. (Think: the stereotypical lifeguard image with the white sunscreen on their nose).

zinc oxide powder on glass plate
Photo by Adam Rędzikowski on Wikimedia Commons

After this development, people in the skincare and science communities were concerned that these nanoparticles could be absorbed into the skin. However, Dobos said various studies have been conducted on this issue and determined that the particles could not penetrate the skin and cause harm. Still, this does remain a topic of debate.

Allergies and adverse effects of zinc oxide are rare. In fact, those who are allergic or sensitive to many chemical sunscreens are often recommended to apply physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide instead. Dobos said zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been shown to be non-allergic, and they are the preferred choice for people with sensitive skin.

Is Zinc Oxide Good For Your Skin?

Aside from the fact that it makes a great sunscreen ingredient, zinc oxide is good for your skin for various reasons that you might not think of at first, Ciraldo claimed.

She said she has patients who use it off label to help treat facial redness because it has anti-inflammatory properties.

“I also have patients who have considerable facial redness that has been unresponsive to other treatments, including prescription ointments, apply 40% zinc oxide to their faces in a thin film at bedtime, and this has proved helpful in dozens of cases.”

Additionally, you can even use it as a pimple spot treatment. If you have a pimple that’s inflamed and tender, Ciraldo said you can dab zinc oxide on it at bedtime to help it calm down. You can do the same for bug bites.

On top of this, zinc oxide is affordable! Ciraldo said she highly recommends it, and she even keeps a tube of it in her own medicine cabinet.

Overall, zinc oxide is a safe and useful ingredient. Whether you are using it in sunscreen, cosmetics, or as a skincare treatment, you can rest assured that you are using a safe product that is unlikely to irritate your skin.

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