Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/22/2020
When it comes to skin conditions, acne won’t win any awards for being pleasant or easy-to-beat. Though it’s one of the most common skin problems around, it’s one that can require some level of trial-and-error to effectively treat.
In your attempts to attain clear skin, you can throw a lot of money at your pimples. Exfoliating, cleansing, treating, moisturizing — all of these efforts can be in vain if you’re choosing the wrong treatment products.
Acne-prone skin can benefit from the help of a certified dermatology practitioner, but if you’re committed to investigating easily-available over-the-counter products, we understand why sulfur may have caught your eye.
Let’s take a closer look at this compound and how it might work to treat acne.
Sulfur is an element with the atomic number 16 on the periodic table. In its pure state, it’s odorless, tasteless and a pale yellow color.
Interestingly, though it seems less than one percent of Earth’s crust is made up of sulfur, meteorites that have come to earth have as much as 12 percent. It’s found in ocean water, and is most concentrated in deposits surrounding volcanic regions.
Sulfur is primarily used in fertilizers, but also in pigments, explosives, batteries, detergents, paper, insecticides, fungicides and numerous other products.
We won’t get into how sulfur works in fertilizers, detergents or anything like that. Because you’re here for acne, or how sulfur might work to remedy your breakouts and blemishes.
According to a paper published in the Journal of Drugs and Dermatology, sulfur has been used to treat many dermatological conditions including acne, rosacea, dermatitis, dandruff, scabies and warts.
The element has antifungal and antibacterial properties, and inhibits the growth of P. acnes, the bacterium responsible for acne lesions. It also has keratolytic effects, which means it can break down excess skin, skin that may otherwise clog your pores.
Sulfur penetrates the skin within two hours of application, and after 24 hours is no longer detectable.
Sulfur-containing acne products are available without a prescription. These over-the-counter formulas typically feature sulfur as sodium sulfacetamide, and may combine it with something known as resorcinol.
Several clinical trials have found sulfur acne products to be effective at reducing inflammatory lesions, comedones (non-inflammatory acne lesions) and reducing oily skin. These benefits were found when used alone and/or in conjunction with other acne treatments such as prescription retinoids and benzoyl peroxide.
Acne products with sulfur are pretty easy to find. Online retailers feature spot treatments, drying lotions, face scrubs and cleansers, soaps and sulfur-containing masks. These products are relatively affordable, generally available for less than $50, with several for under 20 dollars.
As with most acne solutions available over-the-counter, reviews on sulfur products are mixed. It isn’t entirely clear, however, if consumers saying the products are ineffective applied the treatments consistently, and as-directed.
In general, sulfur-containing skin care products may cause mild irritation or have an unpleasant smell. So like any addition to your skin care routine, test a small section of your skin before using often and broadly.
So, what's the word? Although the research into sulfer's affects on skincare are still very limited, the available research does appear to show some promising results.
Because sulfer's side effects profile appears to be pretty mild, it doesn't look like it'll do any real harm to your skin if you decide you'd like to try a skincare product that contains sulfer.
However, and as always, if you have any questions or hesitance about the use of sulfer in your skincare products, the best thing to do is contact your healthcare provider or certified dermatology practitioner.
At the very least, if they're unsure about whether or not sulfer is a good idea for you, they'll likely be able to point you in the direction of something that'll help keep your skin looking, feeling and performing its best.