Our skin is among the body’s organs that contains the most zinc, and the trace element is of vital importance to the formation and protection of skin cells. A zinc deficiency can therefore contribute to poor wound healing, sensitive skin, acne, eczema and other skin disorders, and hair loss, according to a new study that is published in the scientific journal Nutrients. Although clinical zinc deficiencies are rare in our part of the world, sub-clinical deficiencies are rather common. For instance, vegetarians, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and older people are particularly vulnerable. A large intake of sugar, calcium, and alcohol, the use of birth control pills and several types of medicine, plus certain diseases and other factors can also increase your risk of becoming zinc-deficient.
An adult normally contains around 2-4 grams of zinc, and we only take up 10-30 percent of the zinc that we get from our diet. Zinc is a cofactor in over 1,000 different enzyme processes, and it is bound to approximately 10 percent of our protein. Zinc has a role in several transport ions (ZIPs) in the cell membranes, and it is needed for more than 2,000 different transcription factors – which are proteins that are overall responsible for ensuring that the right cellular genes are expressed at the right time. That is why zinc is so important for numerous cellular processes that control our growth, reproduction, metabolism, nervous system, immune system, and a host of other functions. In this article, we will take a closer look at zinc’s role in skin health.
Our skin is the body’s largest organ and is comprised of the following three layers:
All skin layers need zinc
The skin consists of the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutis, and the three layers have different cell types and different functions. The epidermis contains more zinc than the dermis.
Zinc is a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect your skin against free radicals caused by stress, poisoning, tobacco smoke, radiation and other sources of free radicals.
Around 95 percent of your epidermis consists of keratinocytes. Studies have shown that they depend on different zinc-containing enzymes in order to make keratin. The dermis harbors different white blood cells (dendrite cells, macrophages, and monocytes) that protect the rest of the body against bacteria and other types of harmful foreign matter. Zinc-containing enzymes then help the white blood cells break down germs and initiate favorable defense reactions without causing chronic inflammation.
Zinc is also important for your thymus that instructs the white blood cells called T cells on how to carry out their functions. All skin cells dispatch different zinc transporters (ZIPs) that have different roles in forming new cells, producing inflammatory cytokines etc.
The different skin layers have the following functions:
Poor wound healing and skin problems may be caused by a zinc deficiency
It has been known for ages that zinc has an important role in the formation of new skin cells and protecting the skin, but the countless mechanisms have not yet been mapped out properly. Nonetheless, mouse studies have shown that zinc deficiencies may result in mutations in the zinc-containing transporters (ZIPs) and cause clinical symptoms such as poor wound healing, diffused redness of the skin (erythema), acne, eczema, and hair loss.
Zinc deficiencies may also cause dysfunctions of the liver and metabolic disturbances that can be the indirect cause of skin problems, simply because the skin is not properly supplied with nutrients or burdened by an overload of waste products. Lack of zinc can also negatively affect the thymus and the T cells, increasing the risk of inflammatory conditions in the skin and in other tissues.
Eczema, psoriasis, pellagra, and other inflammatory skin diseases
Different types of eczema (dermatitis) account for around half of all skin diseases, and the common thread is lymphocytic inflammation in the dermis and the subcutis. Zinc is believed to be a contributing factor to pellagra, a condition that is caused by a vitamin B3 deficiency. Pellagra is characterized by eczema, diarrhea and dementia. The disease is especially common in countries where the population consumes a diet that is low in protein and not properly balanced. That is why a vitamin B3 deficiency is often seen together with a lack of zinc with this type of diet.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes the white blood cells to migrate to the skin. Here, they cause rapid formation of skin cells that result in redness and scaling.
It is commonly known that stress, infections, alcohol, and certain types of medicine can trigger psoriasis. But research also shows that lack of zinc, vitamin D, omega-3, and selenium are important for for the skin’s regulation of inflammatory processes.
Hair loss and pattern baldness
Hair is produced in the hair follicles. Therefore, the condition of your skin is of vital importance to the health of your hair. Lack of zinc can lead to hair loss and certain types of pattern baldness (alopecia). Alopecia Areata is an autoimmune disease caused by overactive T lymphocytes. Scientists have observed low levels of zinc in patients with this condition and therefore recommend zinc supplements as add-on therapy.
Pregnancy and stretch marks
Zinc is of vital importance to child growth and development, for which reason pregnant women should make sure to get enough zinc from their diets (or from supplements). Studies show that lack of zinc and vitamin C increases the risk of stretch marks.
The zinc concentration in breast milk is higher than it is in serum. Therefore, breastfeeding women need more zinc to make sure that there is enough for themselves and the baby.
|Irritated skin, diaper rash, and herpes infections can be treated locally with zinc salve.|
Some of the best zinc sources are oysters, meat, shellfish, dairy products, nuts, kernels, and beans. Animal sources of zinc are absorbed better than plant sources of the nutrient. Even if you get plenty of zinc from your diet, it is no guarantee that you get enough (because of the difference in absorbability)
|An estimated 25% of the world’s population is zinc deficient. Deficiencies are categorized as light, moderate, and severe.|
Zinc deficiencies are common for many reasons
Lack of zinc is usually caused by poor dietary habits and lack of animal protein, which is normally a good source of zinc. Another contributing factor is large intakes of iron, calcium and alcohol. Heavy sweating, ageing processes, celiac disease, diarrhea, poorly managed diabetes, and other diseases may also result in a zinc deficiency. The same is the case with e.g. diuretics, ACE inhibitors, antacids, corticosteroids, antibiotics, and birth control pills. If you suspect that you are zinc deficient you should include more of the good zinc sources in your diet and possibly take a zinc supplement.
|A zinc deficiency is detectable by means of a blood test. If your physician has found that you are deficient, you can try taking a large quantity of zinc but only for a limited period of time.|
Choose organic zinc supplements that the body can absorb and utilize
Many supplements contain inorganic zinc types such as zinc sulfate or zinc oxide, which it is difficult for the body to absorb. On the other hand, the body can easily absorb and utilize organic forms such as zinc gluconate and zinc acetate. Always make sure to study the label to find out what type of zinc the supplement contains.
Additional information for skin and hair maintenance
Youichi Ogawa et al. Zinc and Skin Disorders. Nutrients 2018
Daniel Brugger and Wilhelm M. Windisch: Short-Term Subclinical Zink Deficiency in Weaned
Piglets Affects Cardiac Redox Metabolism and Zinc Concentration. Journal of Nutrition 2017
Ananda S Prasad. Zink in Human Health: Effect of Zink on Immune Cells. Molecular Medicine 2008
Lothar Rink. Zink and the immune system. Cambridge Core. Published on line 2000
Ladan Afifi et al. Dietary Behaviors in Psoriasis: Patient- Reported Outcomes from a U.S. National Survey. Dermatology and Therapy 2017
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