Of Smithsonite and Calamine Lotion

So the other night I was watching the Boonies on National Geographic. I’ve been watching a lot of the off-the-grid series for inspiration since my novels predominately take place in that setting.

But what caught my attention on the last episode was that one of the fellows on the show, who lives in Arkansas caves, was looking for a mineral called smithsonite. I’m rather geologically obsessed, so I was super excited to hear about a mineral I wasn’t familiar with (it’s the little things, okay?).

I thought smithsonite was an odd enough name, but then he went on to say that it was a globular mineral that locally is also called something like turkey fat. Double odd.

Sure enough, though, smithsonite can look rather like a pile of fat:


A particularly pretty pile of fat, anyway. This piece of cadmium smithsonite was mined in China (photo by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0), not Arkansas, but it certainly fits the description.

It turns out that smithsonite is a highly variable mineral, that can actually be composed of several other minerals, and comes in a wide variety of colors. For those who want all the dirty details, you can read all about it at mindat.org where you’ll find that smithsonite received its current name in 1832. It was named for James Smithson. You might have heard of him. He also has a little museum in Washington, DC named after him.

The original name? Calamine. Which got my family wondering if that name had any connection to calamine lotion. You now, more like this color:


This piece of smithsonite was mined in Mexico (photo also by Rob Lavinsky), and isn’t necessarily why calamine lotion is pink, but you get the idea.

It turns out that it’s not that the mineral calamine and calamine lotion were named after the same thing, but that they are the same thing. The primary ingredient in calamine lotion is zinc oxide or zinc carbonate. If you read the mindat data or are just exceedingly awesome, you know the latter can be a primary component of smithsonite…or calamine.

So there’s the answer to a question you didn’t even know you had.


Author: Amanda Ann Larson

I'm an editor, artist, writer, and farmer with a passion for the written word, nature, and the preservation of biodiversity. And dinosaurs, but who doesn't love them?

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