Zinc is an essential mineral named after the German word for "tooth-like" or "pointed" — and has some real bite when it comes to fighting acne-causing fungus and bacteria.
Fun fact: A key ingredient in the U.S. penny and most multivitamins, zinc is also used in zinc pyrithione-based acne treatments with potent antimicrobial (including antifungal) power. Not all topical forms of zinc can effectively treat acne, so be sure to look for zinc pyrithione (or, as it's sometimes referred to, pyrithione zinc or ZPT) and not zinc oxide. Zinc oxide makes an excellent mineral sunscreen, but it does nothing to fight acne!
Your skin is a party of microorganisms. Everyone has a good time until party-crashing microorganisms start multiplying and trashing your pores. Cutibacterium acnes is a common offender, as is Pityrosporum, a fungus fond of oily pores.
When Pityrosporum sets up camp, it can trigger fungal acne, which usually presents as small uniform bumps, often on the jaw, forehead, and hairline. It can be distinguished from acne vulgaris (AV) by its uniformity—AV (regular acne) includes blackheads, whiteheads, and pustules while there’s often no variety with fungal acne (just small uniform bumps). Pityrosporum loves increased humidity and sweat, so if these conditions make your acne worse, fungal acne might be a culprit.
Zinc pyrithione works by blocking the multiplication of unwanted bacteria and fungi like Pityrosporum — going straight to a root cause of acne for many people. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, reducing irritation and redness that can further aggravate acne.¹,²
Zinc pyrithione isn’t only for seborrheic dermatitis (aka dandruff). It’s can also be used as an effective acne treatment, it’s available over the counter, and it has many superpowers, including:
Fighting fungus: The fancy name for fungal acne (which isn’t true acne!) is Malassezia folliculitis or Pityrosporum folliculitis. This type of yeast normally lives on our skin, but certain conditions can cause overgrowth and trigger fungal acne. Zinc’s efficacy in treating dandruff was attributed to its antifungal properties, as it combats Malassezia yeasts.³
Reducing inflammation: The topical application of zinc has been shown to treat mild to moderate acne because of its anti-inflammatory activity and ability to reduce C. acnes on the skin.⁴
Decreasing sebum production: When used topically, zinc may suppress sebum delivery through its anti-androgenic activity.⁵ Decreased oil production may reduce the risk of clogged pores that often lead to breakouts.
Treating eczema and psoriasis: Recent studies show that zinc pyrithione might just be the ticket to treating other skin disorders like atopic dermatitis, eczema, and possibly psoriasis.
Zinc pyrithione is making its way as an active ingredient into mainstream beauty care products for its beneficial effects on the skin (kind of like how turmeric may improve your skin, only with a kick). Some popular products include shampoo, cream, and face wash.
Shampoo: Anti-dandruff shampoos with zinc pyrithione (Head & Shoulders is a common one) have antimicrobial properties, helping relieve itchy, flaky scalps. When using, wet your scalp, work the shampoo into a lather, and then leave it on for a minute to work its magic. Just be sure to rinse thoroughly afterward.
Cream: Zinc pyrithione creams can help combat greasy, scaly patches on the skin like seborrheic dermatitis. The National Eczema Association suggests using a cleanser with 2% zinc pyrithione on the affected area, followed by a moisturizing lotion.
Face wash: The same properties that make zinc pyrithione effective as a dandruff treatment also make it effective in treating fungal acne. Use a face wash with 2% zinc pyrithione to help clear up breakouts. (And whatever you do…don’t pop those pimples!)
Of course, it’s important to use all products as directed. Here’s one cleansing bar we recommend:
Noble Formula 2% Pyrithione Zinc (ZnP) Argan Oil Bar
Curology can prescribe zinc pyrithione as part of our Custom Formula treatment. This antimicrobial ingredient might just be what you need to help control breakouts on your face and neck.
Curology was founded in 2014 by Dr. David Lorschter, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. We’re led by dermatologists on a mission to make quality skincare accessible to all. Because it shouldn’t take months to see an in-person dermatology provider to treat common skin concerns like fungal acne, we brought the whole thing online, and we’ll send a skincare routine right to your door.
There are no common side effects associated with zinc pyrithione (woohoo!). But that doesn’t mean it can’t negatively impact your skin. We’re all different, and there’s never a one-size-fits-all skincare product. Here are a few things to watch out for:
Burning or stinging eyes, mouth, and nose. If products containing zinc pyrithione get into your eyes, mouth, or nose, it may burn or sting.
Irritation (e.g. redness, dryness, etc.) on the skin. Some people have more sensitive skin than others. Using topical products with this ingredient can cause skin irritation with symptoms like dryness or redness at the skin’s surface.
If you experience any of these side effects, speak up! Talk to your Curology dermatology provider or a skincare professional. If any of these side effects do not go away, seek attention from your healthcare provider.
Curious about other acne-fighting ingredients? We’ve got you covered! Curology’s team of dermatology experts can help you understand your skin. Check out our guides on clindamycin, azelaic acid, and tretinoin. Need info on how to deal with body acne? We’ve got you covered there as well.
If you’re struggling with your skin, let Curology do the busy work for you. We can help with common skin concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, or rosacea. And, remember, as a Curology member, you’re paired with one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers every step of the way. They’ll prescribe you a Custom Formula that includes a mix of three active ingredients for your unique skin type.
Designed by dermatologists, we make your skincare routine the easy part of your day by offering products that are non-comedogenic, dye-free, paraben-free, hypoallergenic. Interested? You can get a free month of Curology—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling on your first box. After that, you can cancel at any time or choose the subscription plan that works for you.
Zinc pyrithione works by blocking the multiplication of unwanted bacteria and fungi like Pityrosporum — going straight to a root cause of acne for many people. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, reducing irritation and redness that can further aggravate acne.
There are no common side effects associated with zinc pyrithione. Here are a few things to watch out for:
Burning or stinging eyes, mouth, and nose
. If products containing zinc pyrithione get into your eyes, mouth, or nose, it may burn or sting.
Irritation on the skin
. Using topical products with this ingredient can cause skin irritation with symptoms like dryness or redness.
Gupta, M., et al. Zinc therapy in dermatology: a review. Dermatology research and practice. (2014).
Schwartz J. R. Zinc Pyrithione: A Topical Antimicrobial With Complex Pharmaceutics. Journal of drugs in dermatology. (2016).
Mangion SE, Holmes AM, Roberts MS. Targeted Delivery of Zinc Pyrithione to Skin Epithelia. Int J Mol Sci. (2021, September 8).
Gupta, M., et al. Zinc therapy in dermatology: a review. Ibid.
Gupta, M., et al. Zinc therapy in dermatology: a review. Ibid.
Nicole Hangsterfer is a licensed physician assistant at Curology. She obtained her masters in physician assistant studies at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern in Chicago, IL.
This article was originally published on April 6, 2022, and updated on July 12, 2022.
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Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C