Some of the best acne treatment solutions come from unexpected places, but if you know your history, it’s no surprise that sulfur for acne really works.
What Is Sulfur?
Sulfur is the 16th element on the periodic table, and it is one of the five essential elements for human life, along with oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It has served as an acne treatment since the times of Ancient Greece, apparently 📚.
Has It Been Medically Reviewed?
In a word—yes, and quite extensively, too. A fairly recent review of the data barely mentions it, because today it’s a medically accepted fact that sulfur is one of the most trusted acne treatments around. These days, it’s often paired with sodium sulfacetamide and is used even for conditions, such as rosacea and seborrheic dermatitis.
Can I Use Sulfur on Any Skin Type?
Again—yes. Sulfur has been used in the world of medicine for centuries, and now dermatologists 👩⚕️ are recommending it for acne as one of the gentlest drying agents available. This is because sulfur works by reducing sebum (oil) buildup without over-drying the skin. This, in turn, reduces blackheads, whiteheads, and even pimples.
Sulfur for Sensitive Skin
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 this skin type.
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 reduce sebum and kill bacteria, but many of them don’t address inflammation. This is a problem because irritated skin is one of the leading causes of inflammation.
Sulfur has been noted to have anti-inflammatory properties, too, which makes it ideal for treating acne. Used in low concentrations once or twice a week, it can do wonders for most skin types as a spot treatment or as an ingredient in face washes and certain other skin care products 👍.
Sulfur and Bacteria
When discussing acne treatments, it’s important to consider bacteria as well. While 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, P. acnes 🦠.
By drying out extra sebum, sulfur already helps reduce the likelihood of breakouts, but it can also kill some microbes on its own. If you only get a few pimples now and then, sulfur might be enough to keep them at bay. However, if they are more of a problem for you, sulfur alone probably won’t do the trick.
Which Sulfur Acne Product Is Right for Your Skin Type?
Sulfur acne products come in nearly every variety. Most contain a concentration of 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 extremely dry skin, we do not recommend using sulfur for pimples at all. The best acne treatment for this skin type is a good, water-based moisturizer. Many people with acne avoid moisturizer because they are worried 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 a sulfur face wash at night. It will remove the oil created throughout the day and prevent it from clogging pores while you sleep 🌙. No matter how oily your skin is, we don’t recommend using any sulfur product more than once a day, and we also suggest you start with a low concentration. If you start out with a product containing 10% sulfur, your skin will likely not adjust very well to the sudden change and could produce even more sebum. In the morning, rather rinse the skin with plain water 💧 or try a more hydrating product.
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 applying different products on the different areas usually produces the best results. A sulfur face wash 🧼 would be too dehydrating and irritating for the drier 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 dehydrated sections of the skin.
Regardless of whether sensitive skin is oily, dry, or combination, its defining feature is that it’s easily irritated by many products. Unless you have drier, sensitive skin, low concentrations of sulfur are typically a safe option. Specifically, we recommend face masks that are only used once or twice a week. Daily exposure to sulfur products is likely to be too abrasive, but occasional use of a mask, like the Clarifying Mask we offer here at Exposed Skin Care 🏆, can get rid of excess sebum without being too drying.
Sulfur Side Effects
Because sulfur is so gentle, it doesn’t come with many side effects, but there are a few things you’ll want to know about. As already mentioned, it is probably not one of the best acne treatments for extremely dry skin and/or very sensitive skin. Dead skin cells can be removed in other, gentler ways, so best explore those first. Use it carefully with a spot treatment such as benzoyl peroxide, if you have sensitive skin.
Another issue most people run into with sulfur is the smell. In its pure form, sulfur smells strongly of rotten eggs 🥚. A dilution of 2-10% cuts back on the odor, but not entirely. Some acne treatments cover up the smell with added fragrance, but we do not recommend these. The chemicals that create artificial fragrances almost always irritate the skin.
Incorporating Sulfur into Your Skin Care Routine
Sulfur alone is typically not enough to treat acne completely. The best acne treatment is a gentle, consistent skin care routine that cleanses, treats, and moisturizes. Sulfur is an important step in reducing sebum for prevention, but to treat acne, we recommend combining it with other acne-fighting ingredients, like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, 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 sebum and dead skin cells trapped in the pores. Together, they prevent and treat this clogging.
Sulfur also works well with tea tree oil, an acne-fighting agent 💪 that is also anti-microbial. Although sulfur has mild antibacterial properties, it can’t kill enough microbes to really prevent or treat pimples. Tea tree oil is on the other end of the spectrum: it kills 99% of P. acnes 🦠, but it can’t always cut through the excess sebum to reach the culprits. Tea tree oil can be more effective in that it isn’t as dehydrating.
Sulfur is typically too drying to be used on its own 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 usually fade on their own, this 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, where it deposits extra pigmentation 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 purplish, color. The research on sulfur 🔬 and hyperpigmentation in skin of color is not very comprehensive, but there’s no traceable data that suggests it’s harmful to use sulfur on dark skin. Still, it would probably be best to try it on a small area on the forearm first to test for a reaction 👍.