What is Zinc Oxide?

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Zinc oxide is a compound that has the chemical formula ZnO in which the Z stands for zinc and the O stands for oxygen. This means that it consists of one atom of zinc and one atom of oxygen, which are bound together. Humans use this substance in many different ways, including in diaper cream, sunblock, paint, rubber goods, and some paper coatings. It is even used in some foods. Despite the fact that it has so many uses, many people are most familiar with it in topical form.

Zinc oxide is often available as a white powder.
Zinc oxide is often available as a white powder.

Zinc oxide may be found in many health care products. It is used, for example, in order to protect the skin from irritation. For this use, it is often found in diaper creams. It’s also used in special lotions that help soothe irritated, itchy skin as well as in preparations that are intended to soothe burns. An individual may also find zinc oxide in sunscreens, which have the job of protecting skin from the sun. Interestingly, this compound may even be included in some preparations that are used to treat the discomfort caused by hemorrhoids.

Zinc oxide is often found in sunscreen and sunblock.
Zinc oxide is often found in sunscreen and sunblock.

The reason zinc oxide is used in so many topical products is because of its unique qualities. For starters it absorbs ultraviolet light, which is why it’s such a popular ingredient in sunscreens. It also has mild astringent properties, which make it useful for drying minor skin irritation. The compound may also help promote immune system health, making it helpful in wound healing. It also helps to absorb moisture from wounds and is sometimes used in special tape designed to help athletes avoid soft tissue injuries.

Some sunblocks are manufactured using both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Some sunblocks are manufactured using both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

This compound is also taken internally. For example, it is included in some multivitamin supplements. It may also be taken as part of treatment for a condition called macular degeneration, which is a progressive type of eye disease. People may also find it in foods that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. For example, some cereals include zinc oxide in order to provide consumers with extra zinc in their diets. This is an important use, as zinc is a mineral that is essential for good health.

Zinc oxide is often found in diaper creams.
Zinc oxide is often found in diaper creams.

In addition to the ways zinc oxide may be helpful in health care, it also has many other uses. For example, it provides a basis for paint pigments, such as Chinese white, and it can be used as a filler for items that are made out of rubber. It may even be used as an additive in making fire retardants and ceramics.

People may take zinc oxide internally as part of treatment for macular degeneration, a progressive type of eye disease.
People may take zinc oxide internally as part of treatment for macular degeneration, a progressive type of eye disease.
Sunblock can be used to prevent severe sunburn.
Sunblock can be used to prevent severe sunburn.
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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Discussion Comments


I always make sure the sunscreen I buy has the active ingredient zinc oxide. This has been used many years as an effective sun block for the skin.

Not only does it work as a sunscreen, but is also good for your skin at the same time. There are many ingredients used that aren't so nourishing for the skin.

I like using something that I know will work and not be harmful at the same time. Zinc oxide is one of those compounds that can be used for many things.

It is hard to go wrong with using something like that when it has been around for years with great results.


I think using zinc oxide as a topical ointment is the best diaper rash cream I have found. My babies didn't get diaper rash very often, but when they did, zinc oxide is the first thing I would use.

This always did the trick and my babies didn't have to suffer very long from diaper rash. I think it is used as a main ingredient in most of the popular diaper rash creams you find on the market today.

I recommended it once to a friend who was having trouble getting the diaper rash to clear up. She had the same good results that I had. Sometimes you have to experiment with different things to find out what works best.

When it came to my babies feeling miserable with diaper rash, I wanted to use something that I knew would work quickly and effectively.


When I was a teenager, I remember applying zinc oxide for acne on my face. This was a thick white substance almost like paste, so I would apply it to pimples at night before I went to bed.

Many times, the pimple was much smaller and less noticeable by morning. The zinc oxide had a drying effect on the acne that helped clear it up.

Today there are products that include zinc oxide in with other ingredients so it is much easier and less noticeable to use.

Using it straight worked for me and it was an inexpensive way to clear up my acne. Some nights my face looked like I had white polka dots all over it. By morning most of it had absorbed into my skin, and my face looked clearer.


There are many people who don't get enough zinc in their diet and don't even realize it. I take a zinc oxide powder in the form of a supplement, and there are many health advantages to this.

Zinc is one of those products you don't hear much about, but it can do a whole lot of good. Just a few of the reasons I take it is for hormone balance and for healthy skin, hair and nails.

I also know as many people age they begin to lose their sense of smell and taste, and many times this is attributed to a lack of zinc in their diet.

If you have trouble driving at night due to poor night vision, you also may be deficient in zinc. To purchase zinc by itself is not very expensive, but I usually take it mixed in with other vitamins and minerals.


@dfoster85 - I like the zinc oxide, too. It used to be that it covered the skin with an opaque film. Remember that fluorescent stuff people used to put on their noses in the 80s?

But now you can get sunscreens with zinc oxide nanoparticles. You still get the protection, but it's ground so finely that you don't see it sitting on the skin. You see that ingredient a lot in sunscreen moisturizers, like Oil of Olay, or in makeup.

Zinc oxide creams are great for some kinds of diaper rash, but I cloth diaper my babies so I can't use it. Coconut oil is an all-natural alternative that is safe for cloth diapers!


I always try to buy zinc oxide-based sunscreens. The thing about zinc oxide is that it is physical blocker of UV rays rather than a chemical absorber. Basically, a physical blocker sunscreen reflects UV rays instead of letting the skin absorb them. (Titanium oxide is the other major physical blocker on the market.)

There are a couple of advantages there. One, there's no chemical action going on, which some people prefer. Two, it provides complete protection against both UVA and UVB rays, while chemical absorbers do this to varying extents.

A lot of common sunscreen ingredients protect better against UVA rays than UVB, but UVB rays cause skin aging and cancer so they are pretty nasty. SPF (Sun Protection Factor) refers only to UVA protection but I think that in the next few years in the US, sunscreens are going to be required to describe their UVB protection as well.

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