Well, Actually is a column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. She tests health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
Spend enough time exploring and analyzing beauty and skin care products, and you’ll notice that the same basic components—moisturizers, acids, surfactants, etc.—are frequently tweaked and repackaged into more specific formulas that are meant to service even smaller segments of one’s body. There isn’t just body lotion; there’s neck cream. The main ingredient in all-purpose Vaseline becomes the of-the-moment lip balm. Morning face wash must be separate from night face wash. Regular mascara, and extreme mascara. After a few years of reporting on these potions, I’ve realized I crave less specificity and more universality, a world in which we buy large vats of multiuse substances: one for washing, one for lotion-ing, a few for adorning your face with different colors of shiny paint.
Thinking about all of this is perhaps what prompted me to try a beauty secret that has long intrigued me but had always felt just a little too strange to work into my life: Can Monistat anti-chafe cream, meant to be rubbed between your thighs and along your bra line to prevent things from getting red and raw in summer, be used as a makeup primer? It’s unclear how the crossover started—it seems to proliferate on message boards—but those who tried it report fine results. It still feels inherently weird that such a hyperspecific product may be multiuse, though it makes more sense when you consider that both primer and anti-chafe cream are meant to make skin a bit smoother and share the same main ingredients, silicones.
For those not familiar with the intricacies of face spackling, makeup primer goes on after moisturizer but before foundation. Much like paint primer, makeup primer is meant to prep the face into a readier canvas by filling in any nooks and crannies, making it harder for whatever comes next to pool up in pores or crease into wrinkles, and easier for everything to stick. It can (sort of, vaguely) soften unsightly features when worn alone; in today’s marketing parlance, it is said to create a “blur” effect. I like makeup, but the idea that we should be trying to make our faces blurrier causes me genuine pain. Nonetheless, from time to time, I have accepted the extra bit of polish primer offers; the smooth surface it provides makes everything spread a little better and maybe even makes pricey products layered on top go further. Also, doing an extra step just feels extra fancy. Does adding primer make my makeup really last that much longer? I’ve never really known—I just consider it a Pascal’s wager situation.
Primers were initially used by professionals on photo shoots, the New York Times pointed out in 2012 as consumer primers boomed. “They’re the Spanx of cosmetics, and are so prominent today that a lot of women are starting to feel irresponsible if they don’t use them,” Polly Blitzer, a former editor for InStyle and the director of a creative agency told the Times. Within the hyperspecific category of face primer, many variations have evolved: There is primer that is green to balance out red acne or sun exposure, primer that is moisturizing, sunscreen that claims to function as a primer, too.
The canonical primer is perhaps the Smashbox Photo Finish, launched in 2000. Its main ingredient is silicone polymers (silicon, a naturally occurring substance is one ingredient in the human-made silicone). Invented in the 1930s and first used in wartime planes, silicone is found in breast implants, deodorant, shampoo, and at least hundreds of other things. In its solid form, it’s a rubber-y plastic; added to gels, it provides a rubbery-plastic feel; applied to skin, it can create a “plastic wrap effect.”
It feels nearly subversive to use a substance that comes in a toothpaste tube and sounds like it’s meant to treat yeast infections (that would be Monistat antifungal cream, don’t confuse the two) instead of a gel that is more expensive than fine liquor (a dollar per milliliter!). “I can’t even believe I’m putting this on my face,” says one beauty YouTuber, Julia Nell, as she tests out the stuff on camera, noting that it has been “a godsend” for its on-label use, thigh chaffing.
Cosmetic chemists, for their part, note that it is indeed pretty much the same exact stuff. The Beauty Brains blog, run by a pair of cosmetic chemists, calls the anti-chafe cream “very suitable for use as a make up primer.” “That makes a lot of sense,” agrees Victoria Fu, co-founder of Chemist Confessions, examining the ingredients herself. But in practice, does it work as well?
When I open the Monistat, my first impression is that it is much oilier than other primers I’ve used. It goes on fine, though. The main flaw might be that it’s easy to squirt out way too much at once. “Apply lightly and sparingly is my go-to rule for primers,” makeup artist Allan Avendaño told Allure, in an article that also explains you should wait one full minute for the stuff to dry before applying foundation. (I do not have this much patience.) Things work better when I apply sparingly.
I compare it to a fresh tube of Smashbox, which turns out to be not as luxe as I expected. Squirts of oil come out first, having separated from the rest of the stuff, and overall, it, too, is oilier than I expect; it’s only very slightly tackier than the Monistat. When I put tiny bits of the Smashbox and Monistat on my face, on different sides, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two. I added on a bunch of makeup and then went for a run to see how it would last. Each side held up equally well.
A lot of women who have documented their own experiences agree with me: Nell found that “it literally worked better than my $30 primer from Sephora” as she explains in her review video, noting that her makeup looked better than normal after eight hours of wear. YouTuber ArayaLia Mua found that it made her makeup last a touch longer on a hot and sweaty day and, moreover, goes on easier and hides her pores better. “It works a whole lot better than Smashbox,” Mua explains in a video.
Neither is perfect. I can still see many (most?) of my pores, and my makeup still comes off with sweat. Makeup primer is a little bit bullshit. But, if you want to use it anyway, the Monistat hack works extremely well. And it works very well to help prevent chaffing, too.
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