Zinc Oxide Use in Sunscreen, Skin Cream and Calamine Lotion

A poison ivy plant; calamine lotion contains zinc oxide and is used to ease the pain of poison ivy irritation
A poison ivy plant; calamine lotion contains zinc oxide and is used to ease the pain of poison ivy irritation | Source

Zinc Oxide and its Uses

Zinc oxide is a white powder that has been used in medicinal ointments and as a skin decoration since ancient times. It forms a coating on the skin, which acts as a barrier that protects skin problems from further damage. These problems include irritations, abrasions and rashes. Zinc oxide also reduces itching and is mildly antibacterial. In addition, it's an astringent (a substance that shrinks tissues and can help reduce the size of a swelling). It's the main component of calamine lotion.

Zinc oxide has yet another useful ability. It blocks dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun, so it’s useful in sunscreens. Its particles are often reduced to nanoparticle size for sunscreen use in order to reduce the white coating on the skin. The chemical is also used as a food additive and in supplements to provide us with zinc, an important nutrient for our bodies.

An afternoon nap
An afternoon nap | Source

Diaper Rash Treatment

Diaper rash is a common baby ailment. Moisture and chemicals from urine and feces can irritate a baby's delicate skin. A diaper rubbing over the skin can make the irritation worse.

Zinc oxide (ZnO) ointments can be a big help in relieving a baby's discomfort. The ointments are produced in different concentrations and usually contain either 15% or 40% ZnO. They may include petroleum jelly as well as zinc oxide and are available over the counter in pharmacies.

A pharmacist or doctor can help someone choose the best ointment for a particular situation. The ointment is used to both prevent and treat diaper rash. Lower concentrations of ZnO are present in prevention creams and higher concentrations are present in treatment ones.

Zinc oxide allergies are rare, but they do occur. If a zinc oxide cream increases itchiness and makes a rash worse, it shouldn't be used. A doctor or pharmacist should be consulted to find an alternate treatment for the skin problem.

Internal and external hemorrhoids
Internal and external hemorrhoids | Source

Zinc Oxide and Hemorrhoids

Zinc oxide ointment is used to help relieve the discomfort of hemorrhoids. These are areas in the rectum or around the anus where veins are swollen due to increased pressure. Hemorrhoids are painful and itchy and may bleed. They are sometimes known as piles.

Hemorrhoids may be completely internal and invisible when they are in the rectum (the last part of the large intestine where feces is stored before being eliminated from the body), or they may be external and visible. Sometimes internal hemoorrhoids become so large that they protrude through the anus and are said to be prolapsed.

Many people report that zinc oxide reduces the pain and itching of hemorrhoids. The ointment also acts as a protective barrier and can prevent further injury.

Bleeding from the anus must be checked by a doctor to make sure that it's caused by a hemorrhoid and not by something more serious.

Calamine lotion is pink and usually comes in a pink bottle.
Calamine lotion is pink and usually comes in a pink bottle. | Source

Calamine Lotion

Calamine lotion is part of many first aid kits. It's a liquid that's used as a topical (skin) application to ease the pain of stings produced by stinging nettles, poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. In addition, it's classified as an antipruritic (a substance that stops itching) and relieves the itchiness of sunburns and dermatitis.

La Calamine is the French name for a city in Belgium, which is also known as Kelmis. The area contains a former zinc mine, from which an ore named calamine was extracted. We now know that the ore consists of two different minerals: zinc carbonate, which is also known as smithsonite, and zinc silicate, which is also called hemimorphite. The term "calamine" is still used, however, even though it isn't a very specific term and could refer to either zinc mineral.

Calamine lotion contains zinc oxide and iron oxide mixed with water and is pink in color. The brand that I buy contains no artificial color. The lotion is pink because it contains iron oxide, which is red in its pure form. The lotion also contains calamine.

Calamine lotion isn't a solution but is actually a suspension of zinc oxide in water. ZnO doesn't dissolve in water. The liquid has to be shaken before use to suspend the ZnO particles that have settled on the bottom of the container.

How to Identify Poison Ivy

Zinc oxide is a natural chemical that is found in the Earth's crust. It's also produced synthetically.

Zinc Oxide in Sunscreens

Dermatologists say that we must wear sunscreen to prevent sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging. However, although there are several effective sunscreen ingredients, some of them can be absorbed into our bodies through our skin, where they may cause problems.

Zinc oxide seems to be the best sunscreen ingredient because it combines effectiveness with safety. It isn't absorbed through the skin and is considered to be a safe substance. The zinc oxide scatters ultraviolet rays coming from the sun and absorbs and reacts with only a small percentage of them. (Reactions involving radiation can produce dangerous products.)

Zinc oxide is a broad spectrum sunscreen, meaning it blocks both UVA rays and UVB rays. UVA rays have a longer wavelength and penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays, which have a shorter wavelength. Both types of ultraviolet radiation are dangerous.

Unfortunately there is one major disadvantage to a zinc oxide sunscreen which probably dissuades many people from using it: it gives the skin a pasty white appearance and is very visible.

Sunscreen is important when spending time outdoors.
Sunscreen is important when spending time outdoors. | Source

Nanoparticles in Sunscreens

A solution to the problematic skin appearance produced by zinc oxide is to turn the chemical into nanoparticles, which almost eliminates the white color. Nanoparticles are those particles that have a diameter from 1 to 100 nm (nanometers). One nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

Nanoparticles in sunscreens don't appear to penetrate our bodies beyond the outer layer of skin. This layer is called the stratum corneum and is made of dead cells. However, the claim that nanoparticles on the skin never enter the body is somewhat controversial because not all skin is healthy. The skin's barrier function may be damaged in sunburned areas or in areas injured by insect bites and stings, shaving cuts and other wounds. This damage may allow nanoparticles to pass through the skin.

Some people are concerned about nanoparticles entering the body because a chemical's properties and behavior often change when its particles are reduced to a nano size. The chemical's behavior may be safe and predictable when it's in its normal form but unsafe and unpredictable when it's in its nano form. The evidence obtained so far indicates that zinc oxide nanoparticles on the skin are likely safe, however,

Sunburn and blisters
Sunburn and blisters | Source

Zinc Oxide Nanoparticles

At the moment, zinc oxide seems to be the best sunscreen (in my opinion) even when it exists as nanoparticles. The version that I use gives a slightly white tinge to my skin even though it contains zinc oxide in nanoparticle form. I like the other ingredients in the sunscreen and find it to be effective at preventing sunburn, however, so I continue to use it.

Sunscreen manufacturers often coat the zinc oxide nanoparticles to make them less reactive with sunlight, causing fewer potentially dangerous free radicals to form. Free radicals can damage DNA. However, even if these free radicals do form, the evidence so far suggests that they can't penetrate into the living area of healthy skin. Hopefully further research will clarify whether nanoparticles can pass through damaged skin, and if so, what we can do to protect ourselves.

Are you concerned about sunscreen safety?

  • Yes, very much, so I don't use commercial sunscreens. I use other methods to protect myself from the sun, such as special clothing and sun avoidance.
  • Yes, I check sunscreen labels very carefully and only buy certain kinds.
  • No, I don't care what's in a sunscreen, I just want it to work.
  • No, I never protect myself from the sun.
See results without voting

A Versatile Chemical

Zinc oxide is a useful substance that also has a high degree of safety, with the possible exception of zinc oxide nanoparticles. It's been used as a skin treatment for many years and even today is sold in pharmacies to help treat skin problems and maintain health. It's a versatile chemical. A zinc oxide cream or lotion is a very helpful substance to keep in the home.


Medications for hemorrhoids from HealthLinkBC (an initiative of the Government of British Columbia)

Safety of zinc oxide nanoparticles from the European Commision

© 2012 Linda Crampton

More by this Author

Comments 20 comments

kumar24894 4 years ago from Fuck of HUBPAGES

helpful hub !

Thanks for sharing !

theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 4 years ago from Wales

An essential for the first aid box and medicine cabinet!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, kumar24894! I appreciate your visit.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for commenting, theraggededge, Yes, zinc oxide - in the form of calamine lotion - is always in my medicine cabinet!

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

Excellent research, Alicia. Zinc oxide may be the safest sunscreen developed to date but we still need to exercise caution in the amount of time we spend in the sun.

Thanks for the explanation of calamine, a term that is almost as old as me. Almost, that is.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, drbj. I agree - even when wearing a sunscreen we need to be careful when spending time in the sun. I'm sure that the calamine term is a lot older than you!!!

chrissieklinger profile image

chrissieklinger 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Great information here. I have never had a summer where we didn't use calamine lotion!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Chrissie. Calamine lotion is very useful in my family, too!

kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi my friend, enjoyed reading all this great and useful information about zinc oxide within this well written hub !

Vote up and more !!!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Tom. I appreciate the comment as well as the votes!

mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

Thanks for writing such an interesting and informative Hub. I have used Calamine lotion for years. Great stuff.

I voted this UP and will share.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, Mary! I've used calamine lotion for a long time too - it's very helpful for skin irritations.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

This is good to know. I am going to keep this in mind when we go to the beach next month. Thanks for informing us of staying safe in the sun and the uses of Zinc Oxide.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, teaches. Going to the beach is definitely a good occasion to think about safe sunscreens! I hope you enjoy your vacation.

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Really interesting hub about Zinc Oxide. I am sure like everybody else that we have all used it at some time. I agree with you about the nano particles, I think we should just put up with a white skin, as you say who knows whether it does penetrate the skin? really interesting, and voted up, thanks for sharing! nell

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Nell. Yes, sunscreen safety is a big concern for many people. We need to protect ourselves from the sun, but sometimes it's hard to decide on the best way to do this!

Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

I miss the macro-particles of zinc oxide. If I smeared on a baby product (in the USA called Dessitin), I would feel protected by the

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Maren. It is a dilemma - the white paste form of zinc oxide is an effective sunscreen, but most people wouldn't be happy wearing it! Thanks for the visit.

jaojao profile image

jaojao 4 years ago

It is very informative. Thanks for Sharing!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and the comment, jaojao!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article