- Acne is a chronic skin disease that is characterized by noninflamed comedones or inflamed lesions
- Sulfur is an chemical element that forms naturally in volcanic areas
- This substance is suitable for all skin types, especially oily and sensitive, but can cause dryness and irritation
- Sulfur is most effective for acne when used in conjunction with established treatments
Sulfur is a naturally occurring element that has been used for centuries to treat a range of skin conditions including fungal infections, scabies, psoriasis, eczema and acne. As a gentle agent, sulfur for acne is most effective against noninflamed comedones and mild inflamed pimples; when combined with conventional acne medications it can also be effective against mild-to-moderate inflammatory acne symptoms.
How Sulfur Works to Treat Acne
Acne first presents as comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads) when sebum and dead skin cells form hard plugs in skin follicles. When Cutibacterium acnes bacteria multiply, inflammatory symptoms of redness, swelling, pus and pain develop.
Sulfur is a gentle substance that works to treat mild acne in several ways. As a drying and antibacterial agent, it removes excess oils and kills bacteria which effectively tamps down inflammation and alleviates uncomfortable symptoms. This also inhibits the formation of new comedones and prevents inflammation from developing.
As a keratolytic agent, it breaks down, softens and sloughs off the outer layer of skin to dissolve dead skin cells which exfoliates, smooths and clears skin. This action also enables better penetration of other skin care products you may apply to your skin, allowing for better results.
What forms of acne can sulfur treat?
There are several types of acne, and these progress in severity from noninflamed comedones to inflamed papules, pustules, cysts and nodules.
Sulfur is most effective treating mild noninflamed blackheads and whiteheads because it targets dead skin cells and excess oils – two primary causes of comedone formation. As an antibacterial it can also help treat mild-to-moderate forms of inflammatory acne when used alongside traditional acne medications.
Sulfur-based acne products usually contain additional ingredients such as sodium sulfacetamide and alpha hydroxy acids which have the same anti-inflammatory, antikeratolytic and exfoliating qualities as sulfur. Combined, they have a synergistic effect.
Sulfur for acne scars
Sulfur is not a treatment for acne scars. There are far more effective options such as topical vitamin C to promote wound healing and lighten postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) or professional treatments such as microdermabrasion and fillers.
That being said, sulfur can provide some improvements to skin through its exfoliating effects to even out the skin, and lighten any dark spots that may remain once an inflamed lesion heals.
How to Use Sulfur for Acne
As sulfur both softens skin and reduces levels of oils, this makes it ideal for both dry and oily skin types. Sensitive skin can also benefit from sulfur due to its gentle effects and because it can soften and hydrate delicate skin.
You can use an over-the-counter (OTC) sulfur skin care product on its own as a preventative and treatment for comedones, and in combination with other agents such benzoyl peroxide; combining the two has been shown to produce greater results.
However, It is not advised to use salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide at the same time, as this could lead to skin irritation and excessively dry skin.
You may notice your skin care product has an odor of rotten eggs; this is entirely normal and is due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide, a natural component of sulfur. Some products mask this odor by adding fragrances while products containing sodium sulfacetamide have been shown to reduce the intensity of the smell.
While methods for applying sulfur for acne will vary depending on the product you choose, there are some general rules you should follow
Best sulfur products to treat acne
You can find sulfur in a wide range of skin care products including lotions and creams, bar soaps, foam and masks.
To begin, use a gentle glycolic acid face wash or cleanser and follow with a toner that suits your skin type. This will clear your face of grime and debris, and enhance the effectiveness of your sulfur treatment.
Creams and lotions
- Spread a thin layer of your sulfur product evenly over your face, avoiding the eye and mouth area
- Leave on for 10 minutes to allow the active ingredients time to work, but no longer
- Rinse thoroughly and pat dry
- Apply a good-quality moisturizer that contain lipids and glycerin to hydrate, restore and stabilize the skin barrier
When first applying any cream or lotion sulfur-based products to your skin, begin gradually to allow your skin time to become accustomed, such as once per day; you can then work up to twice a day.
You can also use a sulfur-based product as an acne spot treatment by dipping a cotton swab into your product and applying it directly to the treatment area.
Sulfur-rich soap is another option for acne and most appropriate for oily skin as the lather is very effective at eliminating excess oiliness.
- Using warm water, work the soap into a rich lather and gently wash your face
- Leave on for 2–3 minutes then rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water; pat dry
- Follow with a good-quality moisturizer
Combination sulfacetamide sodium-sulfur topical foam has been demonstrated to produce results in both mild-to-moderate inflamed and noninflamed blemishes. It’s also been shown to have several other benefits such as being easy to apply, having low odor, rapid penetration and effective moisturization.
- Apply a small amount of foam to wet face and message gently for 30 seconds; avoid the eye area
- Rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water and pat dry
- Follow with a good-quality moisturizer
Sulfur clay masks
Sulfur clay masks are another option, especially for oily skin; sulfur masks should not be used daily but 2 times per week.
- Gently massage onto skin, avoiding the eye area and focus on your T-zone
- Allow to rest for 5–10 minutes or until the clay is completely dry
- Rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water and pat dry.
How long does it take to work?
As with any acne treatment, it can take weeks to months to see results. Results will also vary from person to person and are based on acne severity and if other acne-fighting agents are being used. As sulfur is a gentle treatment, it may also take longer to produce results compared to more conventional acne remedies.
Safety and Side Effects
Some common side effects are associated with sulfur-based products but are typically mild:
Sulfur can react poorly when combined with some 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 has not studied or approved sulfur for use in women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant. If this is your case, for safety reasons, speak to your doctor first before using any sulfur-based products.
Benzoyl peroxide is a proven effective acne medication; it functions similarly to sulfur in that it clears pores, removes dead cells and kills C. acnes; best for inflammatory acne
Salicylic acid works similarly to benzoyl peroxide but is gentler on the skin. It removes dead skin cells and penetrates hair follicles to clear plugs of debris and prevent acne breakouts; best for comedonal acne.
Sulfur acne treatments can slough off dead skin cells and debris, and dry up excess oiliness, making it an effective treatment and preventative of whiteheads and blackheads which represent comedonal acne.
Sulfur can also have some benefits for mild inflammatory acne as it has antibacterial properties to kill acne-causing bacteria, suppress inflammation and reduce swelling, redness, itching and pain. As a gentle agent it can not effectively treat moderate-to-severe forms of acne.
You can find a range of skin care products that contain sulfur as well as other acne-fighting ingredients to help support acne-prone skin. When using sulfur-based products, follow the product label carefully to ensure you don’t overdry and irritate your skin. In addition, avoid using agents such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide at the same time as this combination is too harsh for skin.
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