Treating Acne with Sulfur

Sulfur is one of the oldest known acne treatments. Yes, sulfur. The same stuff match sticks are made of.

Historically known as brimstone, sulfur was used in ancient times to treat a wide range of skin problems, from dermatitis and dandruff, to rosacea and warts.  It's still used in skin care products today.

Sulfur is a natural element and has an odor that is quite… distinctive. The scent of rotten eggs comes to mind.

Luckily, today's sulfur skin care products don't smell that bad.

Sulfur is available in prescription medications, as well as over-the-counter acne treatment products.

Here's How it Works

When applied topically, sulfur causes the skin to dry and peel. Despite how this sounds, it is actually a good thing for your skin if you have acne. 

First, sulfur helps reduce skin oiliness.  Secondly, it helps the skin slough away cells more effectively, so pore blockages (AKA the beginnings of a breakout) don't develop.  

Sulfur also has antimicrobial properties, so it helps keep the acne-causing propionibacterium acnes in check. 

Sulfur Is Best for Mild to Moderate Acne

Sulfur works best if you have mild blemishes to moderate acne.  It really isn't effective for severe acne or cystic breakouts. 

But it is good for both inflammatory and comedonal acne.  So, if you have red pimples, or blackheads, or a combination of the two, sulfur can improve your skin.

Sulfur is found in a wide array of skin care products, including soaps and cleansers, lotions, masks, and spot treatments.  It's also a staple acne treatment at many skin spas and salons. 

Quite often, sulfur treatments also contain resorcinol or sodium sulfacetamide.  These ingredients give added anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties and makes the treatment more effective.

Sulfur-based acne treatments can be used on their own, or they can be used along with another acne treatment.  Doing this can help your acne clear more quickly. 

Try using an over-the-counter sulfur cleanser in the morning and a benzoyl peroxide lotion at night.  Or, if you're seeing a dermatologist, he/she might prescribe you a topical retinoid along with a sulfur-based medication.  

Sulfur Is a Great Option for Sensitive Skin

Can't handle benzoyl peroxide?  Does your skin turn bright red at the mere sight of Retin-A?  Sulfur might be your new best friend.

This acne-fighting ingredient tends to be gentler on the skin than many other acne treatments.  It isn't the most effective acne treatment, and many other products do work better and faster. 

But if your skin simply can't take the side effects of most other acne medications, sulfur is a great treatment option.

Possible Side Effects

Drying, peeling, redness, and mild itching are the most common side effects of sulfur. They tend to be worse when you first begin treatment.

  If your skin is super sensitive, try starting slowly and building up to the recommended dose.

Some products still have that unique sulfur odor.  This is especially true of natural-based products or those made for sensitive skin types because they tend not to add extra fragrance ingredients that mask the sulfur scent. 

If you find the smell particularly noxious, try another brand. The scent can really vary from product to product.

Next Steps:

How To Choose an OTC Acne Treatment Product

Treating Acne When You Have Sensitive Skin

Source:

Bartlett KB, Davis SA, Feldman SR. "Tolerability of Topical Antimicrobials in Treatment of Acne Vulgaris." J Drugs Dermatol. 2014 Jun;13(6):658-62.

Keri J, Shiman M.  "An Update on the Management of Acne Vulgaris."  Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol.  2009 Jun; 2:105-10.

Del Rosso JQ.  "The use of sodium sulfacetamide 10%-Sulfur 5% Emollient Foam in the Treatment of Acne Vulgaris."  J Clin Aesthet Dermatol.  2009 Aug; 2(8):26-29.

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