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Zinc Oxide Uses: Medicinal Creams, Calamine Lotion, and Sunscreen

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She is very interested in plant chemicals and their actions and benefits in the human body.

Calamine lotion contains zinc oxide. It's used to ease the pain of poison ivy irritation and help some other conditions..

Calamine lotion contains zinc oxide. It's used to ease the pain of poison ivy irritation and help some other conditions..

Zinc Oxide and Its Uses

Zinc oxide is a white powder that has been used in medicinal creams 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.

The substance has yet another helpful 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. The substance is generally considered to be safe, provided it's used at a suitable concentration and in the correct formulation.

Diaper Rash Treatment

Diaper rash is a common baby ailment. As its name suggests, it can develop anywhere on a baby's body that is covered by a diaper. Friction caused by a wet diaper rubbing over the skin can cause the problem. Chemicals from urine, feces, and detergents can irritate a baby's delicate skin and produce a rash. It's also possible for a baby to develop a rash due to an allergic reaction to something that touches the skin.

Zinc oxide creams or ointments can often be helpful in relieving a baby's discomfort. A cream and an ointment are very similar. An ointment contains a larger proportion of oil than a cream, however. The products 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 cream or ointment for a particular situation. Both products are used to prevent and treat diaper rash. Lower concentrations of ZnO are present in prevention products 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 problem.

Infections Require a Different Treatment

Although friction and irritation cause most cases of diaper rash, some cases are caused by a yeast or bacterial infection. A doctor must prescribe a treatment for these infections. It's generally recommended that a baby should see a doctor if a diaper rash doesn't disappear within four days, if it appears to be getting worse, or if it's accompanied by other symptoms such as oozing, bleeding, or a fever.

Hemorrhoids

Zinc oxide creams and ointments are also 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're 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 hemorrhoids become so large that they protrude through the anus and are said to be prolapsed.

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

Calamine lotion is a pink liquid and often comes in a pink bottle.

Calamine lotion is a pink liquid and often comes in a pink bottle.

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. The lotion mustn't be taken internally.

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 various zinc minerals.

Today's calamine lotion usually 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. Some lotions also list calamine as an ingredient.

Calamine lotion isn't a solution but is actually a suspension of zinc oxide in water. The chemical 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.

If your condition gets worse or if it does not improve within 7 days, or if rash or irritation develops, stop using calamine and check with your doctor.

— Mayo Clinic

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 should wear sunscreen in order to prevent sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging. 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 chemical 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.

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, especially when the skin is undamaged.

Sunlight is essential for life on Earth, but it can also be harmful.

Sunlight is essential for life on Earth, but it can also be harmful.

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. It's thought that ones formed in sunscreen don't reach the living area of the skin. Hopefully further research will confirm that this is true and determine whether nanoparticles can pass through damaged skin.

Health experts recommend that we wear sunscreen, despite some questions about their ingredients. Unprotected exposure to the sun is a risk factor for skin cancer. Some form of skin protection is vital.

A Versatile Chemical

Zinc oxide is a useful substance that also has a high degree of safety, with the possible exception of the nanoparticle form under certain conditions. ZnO 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. As is true for all home remedies, however, if the product doesn't help a particular problem, a health professional should be consulted.

References

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: How does zinc oxide, both nano and non-nano forms, work in sunscreen?

Answer: In its usual form, zinc oxide scatters ultraviolet and visible light. Scattering is a process in which a particle absorbs electromagnetic radiation, including light, and then emits it without undergoing a chemical reaction. Scattering is not the same as reflection. In reflection, light bounces off an object without being absorbed. Zinc oxide does reflect light in addition to scattering it, however.

Zinc oxide acts as a barrier to dangerous UV radiation because it sends it back into the atmosphere by scattering and reflection instead of allowing it to enter the skin. It’s considered to be a physical sunblock instead of one that reacts chemically after light exposure.

Since zinc oxide reflects light so well, it often produces a white appearance on the skin. Reducing the ZnO particles to nanoparticle size reduces the reflection but doesn’t stop the scattering of UV light, so the substance continues to act as a sunscreen. Additional processes may occur due to the unusually small size of the particles, however. They may be photoreactive, which means that they may participate in chemical reactions after light exposure. Manufacturers generally coat the nanoparticles in sunscreen to reduce this possibility.

Research into the effects of zinc oxide nanoparticles is continuing. They are generally considered to be safe, but some questions have been raised about their safety in particular situations.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 13, 2016:

Hi, Kristian. Calamine lotion isn't formulated as a sunscreen, so it wouldn't be advisable to use it without more information. I haven't found any information about whether it's been tested as a sunscreen or about its SPF (sun protection factor). Sun protection is so important that I wouldn't want to use calamine lotion without evidence that it works.

Kristian on November 12, 2016:

So is it safe to use calamine lotion as a sunblock? How do I apply it?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 19, 2012:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, jaojao!

jaojao on July 19, 2012:

It is very informative. Thanks for Sharing!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 18, 2012:

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.

Maren Elizabeth Morgan from Pennsylvania on July 18, 2012:

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 WHITE..lol

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 17, 2012:

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!

Nell Rose from England on July 17, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 17, 2012:

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

Dianna Mendez on July 17, 2012:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2012:

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.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 16, 2012:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2012:

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

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on July 16, 2012:

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

Vote up and more !!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2012:

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

chrissieklinger from Pennsylvania on July 16, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2012:

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!!!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on July 16, 2012:

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.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2012:

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

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 16, 2012:

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

Bev G from Wales, UK on July 16, 2012:

An essential for the first aid box and medicine cabinet!

kumar24894 from Fuck of HUBPAGES on July 16, 2012:

helpful hub !

Thanks for sharing !