© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer-Verlag GmbH, DE part of Springer Nature.In this study, the optical, physical, and gamma-ray shielding abilities of some heavy rare-earth element oxides (HREOs: Dy2O3, Er2O3, and Yb2O3) doped zinc-borate glasses were investigated. Despite a relatively small increase in synthesized glasses’ densities from 3.65995 g cm− 3 to 3.78644 g cm− 3, the effect of HREOs on the glasses’ molar volume values caused the structure to be more stable and uniform. Optical band values (from 3.00 to 3.16 eV) and Urbach energies (from 0.450 to 0.570 eV) were calculated by examining the transmittance and absorbance values for heavy rare-earth element oxides doped zinc-borate glasses which give very different optical properties to the glass structure. Absorbed regions at different wavelengths were determined in Dy2O3-, Er2O3- and Yb2O3-doped glasses. Moreover, radiation shielding parameters such as mass attenuation coefficient, half value layer and effective atomic number of glasses whose physical properties were determined were calculated using XCOM database between the range of 0.01 MeV and 10 MeV. It has been determined that Yb2O3-doped glasses show superior properties compared to other HREOs doped zinc-borate glass samples.