Why Using Calamine Lotion as a Makeup Primer Is a Bad Idea, Dermatologists Say
Plot twist: Calamine lotion isn’t just for treating bug bites — at least not according to some influencers on TikTok. Real skin-care pros, dermatologists, have a lot to say about that.
Calamine lotion is having a glow-up.
Yes, that humble pink lotion that was once dabbed onto your chickenpox, mosquito bites, or burned skin after too many hours in the sun — ah, fond childhood memories.
Now, it’s trending as the ultimate pre-makeup primer, acne scar treatment, and SPF product, all in one. On TikTok, fans of the hack, like @therealembree, spread a thin layer on their face (using bare hands or a brush), let it dry, then apply foundation for a matte, flawless look that lasts all day. The practice has been around for years, but makeup artist @tiasamudda is credited with taking it viral, as she regularly shows her face slathered in calamine lotion before adding makeup. “My face, my choice,” she tells viewers in one video from July 18 with more than 1.4 million views.
Others have followed suit. “10/10 would recommend,” says @brittanybowmann1, highlighting her still-fresh foundation after a full day of work. “This is gold right here,” comments @official_lady_venom, an initial skeptic. To date, the #calominelotion hashtag has been viewed more than 20 million times.
At only $5 per bottle in your local drugstore, it seems like a small price to pay for a porcelain-like finish. But it’s raising some eyebrows in the medical community. “This is not a long-term daily solution,” dermatologist @drwhitneybowe says on TikTok.
We asked two experts for their thoughts on the TikTok trend, as well as for their makeup-priming product suggestions to consider instead.
What to Know About the TikTok Claims About Calamine
Calamine lotion is a topical treatment to dry out inflamed spots on your skin, like bug bites, shingles, or poison ivy, says Noëlle Sherber, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Washington, DC.
“The main ingredients — calamine, zinc oxide, iron oxide, and phenol — can absorb oil, which is why some are trying it underneath makeup,” she explains.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies calamine lotion as a skin protectant and, to date, it has not been approved for any other purposes. The National Library of Medicine recommends limiting usage of it to seven days, after which point it’s advised that you visit a doctor for any ongoing skin conditions.
Calamine as a Makeup Primer
Dr. Sherber advises caution when trying products in a way that’s different than how they’re intended, including using calamine as a makeup primer. “Overuse of astringents, such as calamine lotion, can dry out the skin,” she says. “Those with extremely oily skin may not develop troublesome dryness, but those with less oily skin types could disrupt their skin barrier by trying this hack.”
Your skin barrier, when intact, helps protect your body against irritants, pollutants, and allergens, says a study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 2018. "When the skin barrier is damaged, skin can be more prone to irritation, inflammation, and dehydration. This can worsen dryness, eczema, acne, rosacea, and other inflammatory skin conditions," she says.
Traditional calamine lotion is also highly fragranced (unless you purchase the unscented kind), so if your skin doesn't do well with fragrant products, you might want to steer clear, adds Sherber.
Calamine as a Treatment for Acne Scars
We’d love to think that the trusty pink stuff can help with acne scars, as reported on TikTok, but experts say that is another no-go. “I don’t see any ingredient in calamine lotion that would help with the repair of acne scarring, except phenol,” says Melanie Palm, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Art of Skin MD in Solana Beach, California. Research supports this view, like a study published in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology in 2022 that notes that phenol is an effective ingredient in chemical peels to reduce scarring.
That said, Dr. Palm does not recommend using phenol every day. “This would not be a good idea for continued use on individuals with sensitive or dry skin. Phenol should not be used for long periods of time, and it is not indicated during pregnancy or breastfeeding,” she says.
If you have an existing skin condition, Palm says to exercise caution with calamine lotion. "Phenol is a strong peeling ingredient," she explains. "It could possibly worsen skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis."
Calamine as an SPF Product
Then there’s that TikTok rumor that calamine lotion can offer SPF protection, as it contains zinc oxide, an active ingredient in most sunscreens, as research notes. “The zinc oxide in calamine may provide some UV protection, although it has not been tested for a particular SPF,” says Palm. “The iron oxides may help guard against high-energy visible light damage, although again, testing has not been completed.”
Skin-Care Products the Experts Recommend Using Instead of Calamine
There’s no denying that calamine lotion is cost-effective. But if you have some flexibility on price, there are many primers that have been specifically tested to reduce oily skin, says Sherber. For starters, look for those that contain dimethicone. “This is often included as a smoothing and blurring ingredient that can prevent oily breakthrough shine,” she says.
OTC Primers and Prescription Antiandrogens for Mattified Skin
Palm recommends OC Eight Mattifying Gel, a primer formulated for oily skin. “A dermatologist can also prescribe a topical or oral antiandrogen, such as clascoterone or spironolactone, to help control sebum production (oil). Sulfur washes also help to control oil,” she says.
Retinoids to Help Get Rid of Acne Scars
With primer covered, let’s talk acne scars. Both Sherber and Palm recommend Differin Gel, the first over-the-counter retonoid treatment. Retonoids are derived from vitamin A, which can help unclog your pores and encourage collagen production, among other possible benefits, as research notes.
“Retinoids have been shown by research to effectively repair acne scars and the staining left behind by acne blemishes,” says Palm. Look for products with 0.3 percent of adapalene and 2.5 percent of benzoyl peroxide, as these are considered the most effective at reducing acne scars, according to a study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology in 2019.
If you need more support, consult your dermatologist. “In office, we have many options for acne scar treatment, including peels, energy-based devices, microneedling, lasers and lights, and even fillers,” says Palm.
For a combo product that can reduce oilness and reduce scars, consider Epiduo Forte, says Sherber. “Topical retinoids are the gold standard for fading acne scars. There is strong clinical data for fading scars with Epiduo, a prescription gel that combines benzoyl peroxide and adapalene and is also known to reduce skin oiliness.” The results of a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology in 2018 found that Epiduo was effective at helping to reduce acne scars within six months of use.
Sunscreen for SPF Protection
Finally, to guard your skin against harmful UVB and UVA rays, it’s best to find something other than calamine lotion, says Sherber. “I’ve seen comments indicating that the zinc oxide will offer UV protection, but this product has not been tested for SPF rating and shouldn’t be relied on for this,” she says.
Sherber recommends picking up some Supergoop! Mineral Mattescreen SPF 40, a product with zinc oxide that has been SPF tested and works as a mattifying primer as well. Voilà! Broad spectrum SPFs of 30 or higher protect against both UVA and UVB rays from the sun, helping to prevent premature aging, wrinkles, and skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
The Bottom Line on Using Calamine for Skin Concerns
Once you start watching the videos, it’s easy to see why TikTokers love calamine lotion — that go-to product for skin ills like bug bites, burned skin, and chickenpox.
It’s true that people with oily skin types may see some benefit, but it can still damage the skin barrier. It’s not recommended for those with sensitive or dry skin, or for those with chronic skin conditions like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis.
If your budget allows for it, a dermatologist can help you find something oil-drying, scar-healing, and oh-so-SPF-protective that can support your skin-care game in the long run. Sorry, calamine lotion, it sounds like you’re better off in the medicine cabinet for now.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Dreno B, Bissonnette R, Gagné-Henley A, et al. Prevention and Reduction of Atrophic Acne Scars With Adapalene 0.3%/Benzoyl Peroxide 2.5% Gel in Subjects With Moderate or Severe Facial Acne: Results of a 6-Month Randomized, Vehicle-Controlled Trial Using Intra-Individual Comparison. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. April 2018.
- Interview with Melanie Palm, MD, in Solana Beach, California. July 2022.
- Interview with Noëlle Sherber, MD, in Washington, DC. July 2022.
- Sadick NS, Cardona A. Laser Treatment for Facial Acne Scars: a Review. Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy. November–December 2018.
- Schneider SL, Lim HW. A Review of Inorganic UV Filters Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Photodermatology, Photoimunology, and Photomedicine. November 2019.
- Szymanski L, Skopek R, Palusińska M, et al. Retinoic Acid and Its Derivatives in Skin. Cells. December 2020.
- Tan J, Tanghetti E, Baldwin H, Stein Gold L, Lain E. The Role of Topical Retinoids in Prevention and Treatment of Atrophic Acne Scarring: Understanding the Importance of Early Effective Treatment. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. March 2019.
- Tam C, Khong J, Tam K, et al. A Comprehensive Review of Non-Energy-Based Treatments for Atrophic Acne Scarring. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology. March 2022.
- Kanwar AJ. Skin Barrier Function. Indian Journal of Medical Research. January 2018.