You might know it as the “rotten egg element,” but sulfur is one of the five essential elements to human life, and dermatologists have found that using sulfur for acne can lead to clearer, healthier skin.
Some of the best acne treatment solutions come in unexpected places, but if you know your history, it’s no surprise that sulfur for acne really works. Sulfur has been used in the world of medicine for centuries, and now dermatologists are recommending sulfur for acne as one of the gentlest drying agents available. It’s so gentle, even people with sensitive skin can use sulfur for acne and see positive results. This is because sulfur reduces oil buildup without over-drying the skin, which in turn reduces blackheads, whiteheads, even pimples.
What is Sulfur?
Sulfur is the 16th element on the periodic table, and it is one of the 5 essential elements for human life, along with oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It’s naturally abundant throughout the Earth, and burns very easily, which is why it took until the late 1700s for scientists to discover it as an element. Until that point, sulfur referred to any undetermined material that burned, and was commonly called “brimstone.”
In Ancient Rome and Egypt, sulfur was commonly used for various kinds of medicines. Both civilizations used sulfur smoke to cleanse sick rooms, and some records suggest they used sulfur in creams to treat various skin conditions, from acne to eczema. In Medieval Europe, sulfur was used to balance out the “humours,” the four bodily fluids responsible for much of the body’s functioning. Some alchemists looking to turn metal into gold believed that the only two elements in the world were mercury and sulfur.
Today, rotten eggs are probably the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the world sulfur. It’s true, sulfur is one of the most pungent-smelling elements, but more and more dermatologists are looking past the scent and finding that it is also a useful acne treatment. Because sulfur can dry out excess oil without drying out the skin, it addresses two of the three primary causes of acne.
Sulfur for Sensitive Skin
The reason dermatologists recommend sulfur for acne is because it is a natural drying agent. When applied to the skin, sulfur dries up excess oil and helps prevent acne. Unlike many other drying agents, sulfur is relatively gentle and safe for sensitive skin.
Most people are aware that oily skin can cause acne, but there are two other primary factors in acne formation: inflammation and bacteria. Acne products generally try to treat acne by reducing oil and killing bacteria, but many of them forget about inflammation. This is a problem because irritation is one of the biggest causes of inflammation.
When something irritates the skin, it tries to protect itself by triggering the inflammation response to prevent the irritant from penetrating deeper into the skin, and by producing an extra burst of oil to create a layer of protection between the skin and the irritant. Because these two things happen at the same time, the oil often ends up trapped in the inflamed pores, and blackheads or whiteheads typically result.
Drying out the skin can help prevent oil-related acne, but if the skin gets too dry it is more likely to be irritated by minor things, leading to inflammation, small bursts of oil, and more acne. There is a fine balance between controlling oil and preventing inflammation, and that’s why dermatologists love sulfur for acne. Sulfur dries out oil, but it is very gentle with the skin. Used in low concentrations once or twice a week, sulfur can do wonders for oily skin and sensitive skin.
Sulfur and Bacteria
When discussing acne, it’s important to consider bacteria as well. Although sulfur is most useful for reducing oil in a non-inflammatory way, it also has mild antibacterial properties that can help reduce acne-causing bacteria.
The main bacteria involved in acne are called p. acnes. These bacteria are a normal part of healthy skin, and when left alone, they can even help reduce oil buildup because p. acnes consume oil as their food source. However, if they skin is inflamed, the bacteria can get trapped in a pore with excess oil. Surrounded by their food source, the bacteria grow in number very quickly. This leads to a minor infection known as a pimple.
By drying out oil, sulfur already helps reduce the likelihood of pimples, but it can also kill some bacteria on its own. If you only get a few pimples now and then, sulfur might be enough to hold them at bay. However, if pimples are more of a problem for you, sulfur alone probably won’t do the trick. We recommend using other acne treatment products while using sulfur for acne.
Which Sulfur Acne Product is Right For Your Skin Type?
Sulfur acne products come in nearly every variety, from face washes to treatment gels to face masks. Most contain a concentration of sulfur between 2% and 10%, though there are outliers in both directions. With such a variety of products and concentrations, how are you supposed to know what to use? It all depends on your skin type.
- Sulfur is a gentle drying agent, but it is still a drying agent, so if you have dry skin, we do not recommend using sulfur for acne at all. The best acne treatment for dry skin is a good water-based moisturizer. Many people with acne avoid moisturizer because they worry about clogging pores, but water-based moisturizers help keep the skin hydrated to prevent irritation and inflammation, all without clogging pores.
- If you have particularly oily skin, we recommend using a sulfur face wash at night. The sulfur will dry out the oil created throughout your day and prevent it from clogging pores while you sleep. No matter how oily your skin is, we don’t recommend using a sulfur face wash more than once a day, and we suggest you start with a low concentration. If you start out using a product containing 10% sulfur, your skin will likely not adjust very well to the sudden change and could produce even more oil. In the morning, instead of using the sulfur face wash, rinse the skin with plain water or a try using a hydrating face wash.
- Sulfur treatment gels are often a great choice for those with a combination skin type. Combination skin typically has some areas that are dry and others that are oily, so using different products on the different areas usually produces the best results. A sulfur face wash would dry out and irritate the dry sections of combination skin, so instead, we recommend a sulfur treatment gel for combination skin. It can be applied specifically to the areas with more oil to avoid irritating the dry sections of the skin.
- Regardless of whether sensitive skin is oily, dry, or combination, its defining feature is that it’s easily irritated by skin care products. Unless you have dry sensitive skin, low concentrations of sulfur for acne are typically a safe option for those with sensitive skin. Specifically, we recommend face masks that are only used once or twice a week. Daily exposure to sulfur is likely to irritate sensitive skin, but occasional use of a sulfur mask, like the Clarifying Mask we offer here at Exposed Skin Care, can dry out excess oil without drying out the skin.
Sulfur Side Effects
There are many acne products that would be perfect—if it weren’t for the side effects. When choosing what kind of acne treatment to use, it’s always important to look out for the side effects. Because sulfur is so gentle, it doesn’t come with many, but there are a few things you’ll want to know about.
The biggest issue most people run into with sulfur is the smell. In its pure form, sulfur smells strongly of rotten eggs. Luckily, being diluted down to 2-10% cuts back on the rotten egg scent, but most people report that sulfur products still have an unpleasant odor. There are some products that cover this up with added fragrance, but we do not recommend them. The chemicals that create artificial fragrances almost always irritate the skin, leading to inflammation and acne. If you think sulfur will help your acne, it’s best to tough out the smell as it is.
The only other thing to look out for when using sulfur for acne is over-drying. Even though sulfur is much gentler than other acne products, it still has the potential to dry out skin, especially if your skin is naturally dry or if you’re using sulfur every day. It’s important to avoid over-drying, as it makes the skin more vulnerable to irritation, and the ensuing inflammation and acne.
The best way to avoid this is to use a low concentration of sulfur, around 2% or 3%. If you notice your skin drying out after starting sulfur for acne, cut down the number of days you use the sulfur product. If it’s a face wash, try rinsing your face with plain water every other day, and if it’s a gel or mask, try using it only once or twice a week.
Incorporating Sulfur Into Your Skin Care Routine
Sulfur alone is typically not enough to totally clear acne. The best acne treatment is a gentle, consistent skin care routine that cleanses, treats, and moisturizes the skin. Sulfur is an important step in reducing oil to prevent acne, but to treat current acne, we recommend combining it with other acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid or tea tree oil.
Salicylic acid is an exfoliating agent that pairs perfectly with sulfur. The sulfur dries out excess oil on the surface, then the salicylic acid exfoliates and removes any oil and dead skin cells trapped in the pores. Together, they prevent and treat clogged pores.
Sulfur also works well with tea tree oil, an acne-fighting agent that kills bacteria. Although sulfur has mild antibacterial properties, it can’t kill enough bacteria to really prevent or treat pimples. Tea tree oil is on the other end of the spectrum: it kills 99% of p. acnes bacteria, but it can’t always cut through the excess oil to get to those bacteria. Sulfur can dry the skin slightly so that tea tree oil can be more effective.
Sulfur is typically too drying to be used every day, so it is best to add a sulfur product to a daily acne care routine. At Exposed Skin Care, we offer several different kits for daily acne treatment. Our Basic Kit contains all the necessities, and our Ultimate Kit contains everything you could ever need to keep your skin clear of acne, including our sulfur Clarifying Mask. If you’d rather mix and match your own items, we have a wide variety of options to suit all acne and skin types.
Using Sulfur for Acne Scars
One of the unfortunate effects of acne is acne scars, left behind even after acne has healed. Acne scars can take the form of hyperpigmentation (dark spots), indented pock marks, or even raised scars. Raised and indented scars typically need to be treated by a dermatologist, and although hyperpigmentation scars typically fade on their own, it can take weeks or even months.
Dark spots appear because of the skin’s healing process. Melanin is sent to the skin cells during the healing process, and it deposits extra pigmentation in the cells and creates a dark spot. Some studies show that sulfur has mild exfoliating properties that can reduce these dark spots by getting rid of dead skin cells and making way for non-hyperpigmented cells.
There are all kinds of skin lighteners out there that claim to help reduce hyperpigmentation, but many of them only work on fair skin. When applied to dark skin, some skin lighteners can actually make hyperpigmentation worse, turning the spot a darker, sometimes purple-ish, color. The research on sulfur and hyperpigmentation in skin of color is not comprehensive, but initial studies suggest that sulfur is safe for use on dark skin. Still, before applying sulfur all over the face, it is best to test a small area on the forearm to see how your skin reacts.