When a zit takes up residence on our face, we tend to rush towards the best and fastest path to clear it up, open to new products and treatments in the name of restoring a clear complexion. Though, sometimes we'll learn that a trusty method has been sitting right under our noses—and has been for ages.
Enter: calamine lotion. If you’ve ever used the thick pink cream, you likely associate it with remedying mosquito bites and rashes from poison ivy. The anti-inflammatory properties that make it a go-to for itchy bumps has transitioned into it sometimes being recommended for acne, too. But does it actually work? We asked top dermatologists to weigh in on using calamine lotion as a spot treatment.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Anti-itch medication and astringent
MAIN BENEFITS: Heals the itchiness and discomfort that comes with minor skin conditions like bug bites, sunburn, and poison ivy.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Anyone looking to soothe minor skin conditions.
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: Apply to affected areas every 6 to 8 hours as needed.
WORKS WELL WITH: For best results, calamine lotion should be used on its own.
DON'T USE WITH: No drug interactions have been established with calamine and zinc oxide lotion.
What Is Calamine Lotion?
The formula is actually quite simple—and a true skincare O.G. “Calamine lotion is a combination of zinc oxide (the same stuff found in diaper creams and sunscreen) and iron oxide (used to stop itching),” explains New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein. It imparts a cooling sensation as it dries, helping to soothe irritated skin even further.
Does Calamine Lotion Treat Acne?
Dermatologists won't recommend calamine lotion as a first, second, or third line of defense (or reactive treatment) against acne, but they say it likely won’t hurt either. But in today's skincare landscape, there are simply better options. Let’s dive in.
Though calamine lotion is drying—a hallmark of spot treatments—dermatologists are quick to point out that it won’t proactively address any of the underlying causes of acne, which are often “hormonal with a combination of inflammation, [P. acnes] bacteria, and clogging of pores,” Marchbein says.
Past generational use of calamine lotion on acne may have been more so out of convenience than efficacy. Calamine lotion dates back centuries—in fact, according to New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, Morgan Rabach of LM Medical, the "old school salve was one of the earliest creams we had for the skin," she explains. "Back then, we didn’t have all the good creams and medications that we do now, so people used calamine on everything,” Rabach says of the cream’s illustrious history. “It really doesn’t work as well as other over-the-counter medications that are readily available for acne like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinols,” she notes.
Calamine for Inflammation
While calamine lotion might not address the root causes of acne, it could potentially treat the symptoms of a blemish (read: redness and a raised bump).
“There are reports of calamine lotion helping to treat acne," explains New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, Joshua Zeichner. "It may be helpful in treating red, angry pimples because of its astringent properties in drying out the pimple itself." As a more effective measure, though, Zeichner recommends traditional acne treatments that contain ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.
Rabach mirrors these sentiments: “Zinc oxide has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and may be helpful in calamine if applied on active pimples (ones that are inflamed and filled with pus),” she notes, but it’s simply not as scientifically effective as other over-the-counter medications, so it’s best reserved as a last resort (think: your go-to spot treatment just ran out).
Using Calamine Lotion as a Spot Treatment
If you do choose to try calamine lotion for acne, Zeichner recommends using it like a mask to spot-treat. Due to the telltale pink hue, it’s best used at home (but do as you please, of course). In terms of makeup application, though, unlike more modern spot treatments, this isn’t one you can pop your concealer right on top of, so we recommend applying before bedtime.
If the pink, drying consistency of calamine lotion is making you think of popular spot treatments like Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion, you're right in that you'll find it in these bottles—however, these types of products also contain “a ton of other anti-inflammatory ingredients like sulfur, niacinamide, lycine, and vitamin E,” Marchbein says, explaining that it’s all of these ingredients together, not calamine alone, that make it such a beloved product.
Calamine Lotion For Minor Skin Irritations
Still, it’s worth keeping a bottle of the old-school pink potion around. “Calamine can help dry out itchy blistering skin disorders like insect bites, bee stings, jellyfish stings, poison ivy, poison oak and chicken pox,” explains Rabach. So while it might not reduce the lifespan of your pimple, it's a worthwhile mainstay for other skin issues.
Vasile BS, Oprea O, Voicu G, et al. Synthesis and characterization of a novel controlled release zinc oxide/gentamicin–chitosan composite with potential applications in wounds care. International Journal of Pharmaceutics. 2014;463(2):161-169. doi:10.1016/j.ijpharm.2013.11.035
C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. Calamine (topical). Updated July 9, 2014.