- Sulfur is a naturally occurring amino-rich mineral that’s found in our hair, skin and nails.
- People with oily and sensitive skin benefit most from using sulfur for acne.
- Some believe sulfur is an effective treatment to lighten acne scars.
- Sulfur is most effective when used in conjunction with other acne treatments .
Sulfur is a naturally occurring mineral understood to be a gentle acne remedy to treat minor blackheads, whiteheads and lighten acne scars.
How Sulfur Works to Treat Acne
Acne flares up when a combination of bacteria, sebum, and dead skin cells become trapped in hair follicles, resulting in inflammation.
Sulfur is a naturally occurring amino-rich mineral that’s found in our hair, skin and nails. It contains both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and is widely believed to reduce Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium acnes) bacteria on the skin while removing excess oil and dead skin cells.
Sulfur is a keratolytic, meaning that when applied to the skin, it causes it to dry and peel, effectively exfoliating the treatment area.
These keratolytic properties also work to clear dead skin cells from the dermis and keep the pores unblocked, allowing for a fresh layer of healthy new skin to grow in their place.
Because sulfur is a bacteriostatic agent, it can further help prevent new pimples from developing. While the topical application of sulfur won’t kill p. acnes bacteria, it is believed to prevent it from multiplying, inhibiting new pimples from forming.
What forms of acne can sulfur treat?
There are different forms of acne, each type differing in appearance, progression and required treatment.
Sulfur is most effective treating mild to moderate acne such as blackheads and whiteheads. While it can also be applied to improve mild comedonal and inflammatory acne, sulfur alone is not a strong enough agent to relieve severe forms such as cystic acne.
Sulfur-based acne products usually contain additional ingredients such as resorcinol or sodium sulfacetamide, which give them added anti-inflammatory properties. While sulfur can be used to treat acne on its own, it’s more effective in combination with other substances, such as salicylic acid.
Sulfur for acne scars
There is currently no scientific evidence to conclude sulfur reduces acne scars. Nevertheless, some contend it’s exfoliating properties even out the skin, reducing the hyperpigmentation of scars by replacing dead skin cells with new, non-hyperpigmented cells that develop in their place.
How to Use Sulfur for Acne
Sulfur is most effective when combined with other acne-fighting ingredients. When applied on its own, it tends to be more effective preventing acne than treating outbreaks which have already developed.
To stop breakouts before they start, begin with a salicylic acid wash, follow with a sulfur-based mask, and once the mask is rinsed off, apply a benzoyl peroxide cream to the area. This process can be safely repeated two or three times a week. Sulfur has intense drying properties, so applying it to the skin daily could lead to complications.
Many people report best results with sulfur leave-on treatments because they give the active ingredients more time to work.
Take a Q-tip and apply a sulfur-based spot treatment product directly to the acne breakout. This may help it to shrink a little faster. For best results, combine sulfur with other acne-fighting agents like salicylic acid or tea tree oil.
Best sulfur products to treat acne
The three most popular options are: sulfur clay masks, foaming sulfur soap, and sulfur spot treatments.
Sulfur clay mask
These work best for people with oily skin because the longer sulfur remains on the dermis, the more oil it removes. When combined with clay, another drying agent, a sulfur clay mask is doubly effective at drying the skin, and for this reason shouldn’t be applied more than once a week. People with sensitive skin should perform a patch test before using a sulfur clay mask.
Prior to application, use either a mild face wash or splash your face with water and pat dry with a face cloth or towel. Spread the clay mask on your face, paying attention not to get any of it in your mouth or eyes. Follow the label instructions to know exactly how long to leave it on, but most facemasks aren’t meant to set for roughly 20 minutes. When you rinse the mask off once the recommended time is up, don’t scrub as that only irritates the skin. Rather, splash some water on your face and proceed to remove the mask as gently as possible.
Foaming sulfur soap
Sulfur-rich soap is another option for people who have oily and/or sensitive skin. If you have oily skin, it’s probably best to apply this product first thing in the morning and then again just before you retire for the evening. This should help curb your skin’s production of acne-causing sebum throughout the entire 24-hour day. Regardless of how oily your skin is, don’t use foaming sulfur soap more than twice daily, as doing so will only irritate your skin and possibly result in more acne.
If you have sensitive skin, don’t follow this routine more than once a day at first. See how well your skin reacts, and if it responds positively, gradually work up to applying foaming sulfur soap to your face twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening prior to bed. If your skin doesn’t react well to the soap then try applying a moisturizing face wash in the morning and only use the foaming sulfur soap later in the evening.
Sulfur spot treatment
As a spot treatment sulfur is really only meant to be used to clear non-inflammatory types of acne, such as blackheads and whiteheads. Apply the sulfur product directly to your blemish in the morning and wash off during your evening skin care routine.
How long does it take to work?
Sulfur for acne is a gentle treatment, so it typically takes longer to show results than more conventional acne remedies. It could take up to three months before you see any results.
Safety and Side Effects
Side effects may occur as the skin grows accustomed to regular sulfur treatments. While relatively mild they’re also quite common, including:
- Dry skin
Sulfur can react poorly in combination with prescription acne medications, resulting in irritation and increased sun sensitivity, so it’s important to consult your dermatologist before you begin a sulfur-based acne regimen.
Using topical sulfur while pregnant
The FDA lists sulfur as a pregnancy Category C drug, which means it’s been shown to have adverse effects on fetuses in animal studies. To date no controlled studies have been conducted on humans, so it’s important to consult your doctor about using sulfur if you’re pregnant.
Benzoyl peroxide is proven to be an effective acne medication; it functions similarly to sulfur in that it also removes dead cells from the surface of the skin while reducing the presence of bacteria
Salicylic acid works similarly to benzoyl peroxide but is gentler on the skin. It removes dead skin cells and penetrates hair follicles to clear out the pores and prevent acne breakouts.
Sulfur can help with acne by reducing bacteria and removing excess oil and dead cells from the skin. Sulfur-based remedies combine the acne-fighting functions of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid into one treatment that may be less effective, but is also gentler on the skin than those conventional medications.
- Liu H, Yu H, Xia J, Liu L, Liu GJ, Sang H. Topical azelaic acid, salicylic acid, nicotinamide, and sulphur for acne. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD011368. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD011368
- Gupta, A.K., & Nicol, K.A. (2004). The use of sulfur in dermatology. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD, 3 4, 427-31. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15303787