There are a handful of over-the-counter ingredients that dermatologists have relied upon for decades to effectively manage breakouts. Sulfur is one that excels at minimising inflammatory blemishes: the deep, red, often painful breakouts that can be challenging to get rid of.
But the benefits of sulfur extend beyond blemish control — here are the highlights.
3 minute read
- What is sulfur?
- What skin conditions does sulfur treat?
- How does sulfur work for blemishes?
- What are the side effects of sulfur?
- Who should use sulfur?
- Dr. Lee’s last word
- Shop the article
What is sulfur?
A naturally occurring, non-metallic element, sulfur (aka brimstone!) has been used for millennia to treat various skin conditions. It’s essential for many functions, and is a common building block of amino acids.
Ancient civilizations around the world knew the benefits of soaking in soothing sulfur baths, said to alleviate a variety of skin ailments. Modern research has demonstrated the element’s many qualities, including:
- Antimicrobial: inhibits blemish-causing bacteria and other microbes
- Reduces sebum
- Keratolytic: softens keratin and weakens the bond that holds skin cells together
- Antioxidant: helps protect cells from free radical damage
- Anti-inflammatory: calms the body’s immune response to clogged and infected pores
What skin conditions does sulfur treat?
It’s been used for centuries, and modern research has shown that sulfur (both on its own and when combined into various compounds) has many applications for treating skin conditions, including:
- Acne vulgaris
- Seborrhoeic dermatitis (scaly, waxy patches)
- Tinea versicolor (fungal infection)
- Scabies (mite infestation)
How does sulfur work for blemishes?
Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly what makes sulfur work so well for blemish-prone skin, but studies point to several of its characteristics:
- Exfoliation: removing old, dead skin cells helps keep pores clear, preventing comedones from forming
- Inhibiting bacteria: disrupting the ability of P. acnes and other microbes to reproduce
- Controlling sebum: reducing oil can minimise clogged pores, the building blocks of active blemishes
What are the side effects of sulfur?
One of the reasons sulfur is so commonly used is that it is nearly universally tolerated, with very few side effects when used as directed. Rarely — and most often associated with overuse — topical sulfur can cause:
- Erythema (redness)
Who should use sulfur?
Because it is so gentle, sulfur is an ideal choice for anyone with blemish-prone and sensitive skin. The mineral is typically effective for managing cases of mild to moderate blemishes, including inflammatory breakouts. It’s also useful in treatment masks, as it helps smooth and control oil without overdrying. SLMD Sulfur Lotion is formulated with blemish-prone skin in mind. It’s also Step 2 in the Blemish-Prone Skin System.
Research indicates that sulfur has a very low absorption rate when applied topically. Most experts agree that it’s safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, but always consult your doctor first.
It’s virtually impossible to be allergic to elemental sulfur, as it’s essential for human life. However, different compounds containing sulfur, as well as ingredients found in sulfur-based formulas, may cause irritation or allergic reactions in some people.
Dr. Lee’s last word
Dermatologists have been using sulfur for hundreds of years to inhibit the growth of bacteria, exfoliate, and help calm red, irritated skin. It’s very well tolerated by most patients, including those with sensitive skin. Together with retinol and moisturiser, it’s one of the building blocks of my SLMD Blemish-Prone Skin System.
—Dr. Sandra Lee