Zinc oxide (ZnO) nanoparticles of size 20–90 nm and surface area 9.56 m2/g were synthesized from ZnCl2 and Chitosan and characterized by X-ray diffraction, high resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Natural rubber (NR) vulcanizates containing nano ZnO was prepared by mill mixing and characterized by SEM, energy dispersive X-ray analysis (EDAX), and HRTEM. Cure characteristics, free volume studies, bound rubber, crosslink density, and dynamic mechanical properties were evaluated and compared with that of NR vulcanizate containing conventional micro ZnO. Considering the cure characteristics, it was found that NR vulcanizate with 0.5 phr (parts per 100 g rubber) of nano ZnO showed low values of optimum cure time (t90) and very high cure rate index compared with 5 phr of conventional micro ZnO. The study shows that micro ZnO can be successfully replaced with nano ZnO for accelerated sulfur vulcanization process in NR, and preparation of vulcanizate containing nano ZnO with better properties as that of micro ZnO. The optimum dosage of nano ZnO as a cure activator in NR vulcanization was found to be 0.5 phr compared with conventional grade micro ZnO. This will lead to substantial cost reduction in the manufacture of rubber products and alleviate environmental pollution due to excess ZnO in rubber compounds. POLYM. ENG. SCI., 2013 © 2013 Society of Plastics Engineers