Zinc is a mineral and an essential part of how our bodies function. It can be found in everything from the foods you eat to cold-fighting supplements you take to sunscreens you put on for SPF protection. But can you be allergic to zinc? It's rare, but it can happen.
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Zinc Allergy: What You Need to Know
"Zinc allergy is rare and not something individuals usually have to worry about," says Monica Salinas, RD, CDN, registered dietitian at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
But if you suspect zinc may be the culprit for an allergic reaction like dermatitis (skin irritation), Salinas says there are symptoms that can occur after ingesting zinc or exposure to zinc that may give you a clue that a zinc allergy is present.
"The types or severity of symptoms will vary from individual to individual," she says, but "some of the possible symptoms include:
- Skin rashes
- Swollen, red or itchy skin
- Trouble breathing
- Chest tightness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Swelling of the lips, tongue or throat
And, "if an allergy to zinc is suspected, make sure to contact your doctor and seek medical attention if you are experiencing symptoms," Salinas says.
Foods High in Zinc
There are steps you can take to prevent a reaction to zinc if you suspect (or confirm) you are allergic.
In the rare event that a zinc allergy is present, Salinas says that it's best to avoid zinc products entirely.
- Oysters (richest source)
- Red meats
- Shrimp, crab and other shellfish
- Some cheeses (ricotta, Swiss, Gouda)
Other good, albeit less easily absorbed zinc foods include:
- Legumes (especially lima beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, soybeans, peanuts)
- Whole grains
- Brewer's yeast
- Cooked greens
- Green beans
- Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
According to the Mayo Clinic, zinc is also available in supplement form (like as lozenges, syrups, pills and sprays) and marketed to help with such ailments as:
- Skin ulcers
- Macular degeneration
Stomach upset is possible with zinc supplements. Take it with a meal if it bothers your stomach and let your doctor know as well, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Zinc in Sunscreen
Sunscreen is another place where zinc could be on the ingredient list. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), zinc is a common ingredient in many sunscreens.
However, if you suspect your sunscreen has caused an allergic reaction, the ACAAI notes that it might be other ingredients in the sunscreen you're using mixing with the sun's UVA and UVB rays that leads to a reaction — not necessarily zinc.
For example, the most common UVA-blocking agent, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), as well as other benzophenones, cinnamates and dibenzoylmethanes used in sunscreen, are all known to cause photoallergic reactions, per the ACAAI.
On the other hand, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, sunscreens made with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide are good choices if you have sensitive skin.
The ACAAI notes that zinc oxide is an inorganic filter that can provide broad-spectrum UV protection with minimal irritation, skin penetration or sensitization, so before you jump the gun and think you're allergic to zinc, talk with your doctor about other potential reasons for a reaction beyond zinc.
Read more: 5 Benefits of Zinc Oxide for the Skin and Face
Confirming an Allergic Reaction
If you have experienced any of the symptoms Salinas cites after being exposed to zinc, it's worth a visit with an allergist.
"If someone is concerned of having a zinc allergy, they should avoid all foods and products containing zinc, and they should contact a medical professional to rule out or confirm an allergy," she says.
According to the Mayo Clinic, your doctor can apply the suspected allergen, including metals, to a patch and place it on your arm or back for 48 hours to see if a reaction occurs (called patch testing).
Outside of the possibility of a false negative, a negative skin test means you likely are not allergic to the substance, per the Mayo Clinic. But, if you are, barring a false positive, your doctor will help you come up with a treatment plan.
- Monica Salinas, MS, RD, CDN, CNSC, registered dietitian, Montefiore Medical Center, New York, New York
- Mount Sinai: “Zinc”
- Mayo Clinic: “Zinc”
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Red Itchy Bumps From Wearing Sunscreen Outside?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Zinc Supplement (Oral Route, Parenteral Route)”
- Mayo Clinic: “Allergy Skin Tests”
- American Academy of Dermatology Association: “Is Sunscreen Safe?”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.