What Is Sulfur?

Sulfur is an abundant mineral in the human body. It occurs naturally and has many functions. Proteins, vitamins, and other elements in the body contain sulfur, which plays a vital role in several processes that are essential to life.

Sulfur is found in various foods and is also available as a supplement. Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) are types of sulfur supplements. While these products are widely available, research on the health benefits of sulfur supplements is limited.

Some people believe that taking sulfur supplements (capsules or powders) offers various benefits, such as relief from allergies, osteoarthritis (a common form of arthritis that wears away the protective cartilage at the ends of bones), and muscle soreness. In addition, topical sulfur products are touted as treatments for various skin conditions.

This article explains the possible uses of oral and topical sulfur preparations, their side effects, and what you should know before trying sulfur supplements or skin products.

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Click Play to Learn About the Benefits of Sulfur

This video has been medically reviewed by Meredith Bull, ND.

Dietary supplements are not regulated by the government in the United States, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. Because of this, whenever possible, choose a supplement that has been tested by a trusted third party, such as USP, Consumer Labs, or NSF.

Note, though, that even if supplements are third-party tested, it doesn't mean that they are necessarily safe for all or effective in general. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider about any supplements you plan to take and to check in about any potential interactions with other supplements or medications.

Supplement Facts


  • Active ingredient(s): Sulfur
  • Alternate Name(s): Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO)
  • Suggested Dose: 500 to 3,000 milligrams per day
  • Safety Considerations: Not for children, avoid if pregnant or breastfeeding

Uses of Sulfur

Supplement use is an individual choice that should be vetted by a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, pharmacist, or healthcare provider. No supplement is intended to treat, cure, or prevent a disease.

Sulfur plays an important role in the body. It is necessary for the production of key proteins and the building blocks of those proteins, which are known as amino acids. For example, sulfur is needed for the synthesis, or creation, of the amino acids cysteine and methionine. These amino acids are part of a powerful antioxidant known as glutathione.

Although there is little research available on sulfur, there are few instances in which sulfur supplementation may be beneficial.

What Is an Antioxidant?

Antioxidants are substances in your body that can prevent cell damage, so they defend you against different types of diseases and illnesses.

Joint and Muscle Pain

Sulfur is part of traditional-medicine treatments around the world for a variety of ailments.

Methylsulfonylmethane

MSM, a naturally occurring sulfur compound found in many foods, may help those with osteoarthritis.

It is suggested that MSM supplements work as an anti-inflammatory to protect cartilage. For people with arthritis, the result may be less pain and a better range of motion in the joints. However, research in this area is limited and mixed.

A few studies have shown improvements in pain and physical function when supplementing with MSM. An early randomized pilot trial (a trial performed before a main trial that assigns people randomly to groups) gave 50 people with knee osteoarthritis (OA) either 3 grams of MSM twice daily or a placebo (a ineffective drug) for 12 weeks.

Participants who received the MSM supplement reported improved pain symptoms and physical function. However, the benefit and safety of MSM for this use and its long-term effects can't be confirmed.

An additional study found similar results. In that study, 49 people with knee OA received either a placebo or 1.125 grams of MSM three times daily for 12 weeks. The authors reported that the improvement in pain and physical function in the MSM group was small and the study did not determine if it was a clinically significant change.

Another study evaluated a supplement that contained MSM in combination with several other ingredients (glucosamine sulfate, white will bark extract, ginger root concentrate, Boswellia serrata extract, turmeric root extract, cayenne, and hyaluronic acid).

One hundred people with a history of joint pain were randomized to receive the supplement or placebo for eight weeks. While those who took the supplement reported reduced joint pain, there was no effect on inflammatory markers that detect relevant disease or an improvement on a six-minute walk test.

A separate meta-analysis (statistical analysis of data from independent studies) found that neither DMSO or MSM was effective in reducing pain from OA. It should be noted that this meta-analysis was done in 2009 and did not include two of the studies mentioned earlier.

Further research is still needed to determine the benefits of supplementing with sulfur, what the appropriate dose should be, and whether it is better to take sulfur by itself or in a combination with other ingredients.

Balneotherapy

Balneotherapy is an alternative therapy that's been used for centuries to relieve joint and muscle pain. Balneotherapy involves bathing inflamed or stressed joints and muscles in hot springs (groundwater warmed by geothermal heat) and water that contains sulfur along with other rich minerals.

Research is mixed regarding the effectiveness of balneotherapy. It's been thought to reduce pain and improve the quality of life for those with osteoarthritis. However, a 2015 study review found there wasn't enough evidence to show it helped with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake, mainly affecting your joints.

The bottom line on balneotherapy: It can be used along with other treatments to reduce low-grade inflammation and stress-related pain or tightness. However, it is still recommended that you receive treatment from a healthcare provider to manage symptoms effectively.

Allergies

As an anti-inflammatory, MSM seems to reduce the inflammation triggered by abnormal immune reactions, which affects people who have allergies to food or environmental factors.

In a randomized, double-blind study (one in which neither the participants nor the researcher knows which treatment participants receive until the clinical trial is over), researchers showed that MSM significantly eased allergy symptoms. Taking 3 grams of MSM daily for two weeks helped those with allergies breathe better, and it reduced their nasal congestion. More research is needed.

Dandruff

Dandruff is a condition of the scalp that causes itchy, flaking skin and sometimes redness and inflammation. Sulfur is approved by the FDA for use in over-the-counter (OTC) dandruff products that often include salicylic acid.

Little research has been done since a small 1987 study of people with dandruff. That study indicated that people who used shampoo containing sulfur and salicylic acid reported reduced scaling and dandruff. Further studies would help to evaluate the effectiveness of sulfur for dandruff.

Rosacea

Rosacea is a skin condition that looks like adult acne but is very different. It causes red, swollen areas on the face, red bumps, and an enlargement of the nose.

Combination sulfur formulations containing 10% sodium sulfacetamide and 5% sulfur have been shown to significantly reduce redness and lesions caused by rosacea. These topical formulas (creams or lotions applied to the skin) also seem to have few side effects. However, some people are hypersensitive to sulfur products.

Interstitial Cystitis

Interstitial cystitis (IC) is chronic bladder inflammation. The FDA has approved DMSO for the treatment of IC. It is part of a liquid solution that is inserted into the bladder. This procedure is performed by a healthcare practitioner. Anesthesia is usually needed for the procedure.

Additional Claims

Most other claims about sulfur do not have the research to support them. More research is needed to determine if sulfur helps with menopausal symptoms, strengthening nails, treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or hyperlipidemia (high levels of fat in the blood), or fighting cancer.

Sulfur Deficiency

Very little is known about sulfur deficiency. This is most likely because healthy people typically get enough sulfur in their diets. Sulfur deficiencies are rare.

In some parts of the world, the soil may not contain sufficient amounts of sulfur, which can cause an inadequate intake. This is not a problem in the United States.

Theoretically, anyone who tends to consume less protein could risk inadequate sulfur intake. Because of this, vegetarians may be at a greater risk than people who eat meat. Vegetarians, older adults, and people who were health conscious or dieting all had lower consumptions of sulfur in their diet in one study.

What Are the Side Effects of Sulfur?

Not enough is known about oral sulfur supplements to be sure they're safe. However, there are some reports that MSM and DMSO may cause certain side effects, such as:

Sulfur is possibly safe when used topically. In clinical studies lasting up to four weeks, participants have safely used products containing sulfur in concentrations of up to 10%.

Precautions

The safety of oral sulfur supplementation in pregnant and breastfeeding people has not been studied and is unknown. Therefore, oral supplementation of sulfur is not recommended for this group.

If applied to the skin in pregnant or breastfeeding people, up to a 6% concentration for six days is possibly safe. The same applies to children.

It's important to note that self-treating a condition with sulfur and delaying standard care may have serious consequences. Speak to your healthcare provider if you're considering using a sulfur supplement for a medical condition.

Dosage: How Much Sulfur Should I Take?

There is no recommended daily allowance for sulfur. Most people consume enough sulfur in their diet to meet the body's needs.

There is also no standard dose of sulfur supplements. Not enough is known about oral sulfur supplements to make such a recommendation. Typically doses range from 500 to 3,000 milligrams, with 2,000 milligrams the most common amount.

However, various topical doses have been used effectively and safely in research:

  • Dandruff: Shampoos containing 2% sulfur and 2% salicylic acid have been shown to successfully treat dandruff when used twice a week for five weeks.
  • Scabies: Studies show that ointments of 8% and 10% sulfur used for three successive days and nights worked effectively against scabies.

Recap

Researchers continue to study how sulfur supplements can support good health, but much still isn't known about the safety and proper use of oral and topical treatments. In general, lotions and creams seem safe, but oral supplements may cause digestive upset, dizziness, and headache. There’s no standard recommended dosage for sulfur supplements, so talk to your healthcare provider about what might be appropriate for your needs.

What Happens If I Take Too Much Sulfur?

Doses as high as 5,000 milligrams appear to be safe. There is very little information about sulfur toxicity from sulfur supplementation.

If you do take in too much sulfur, you may experience the side effects of abdominal discomfort, nausea, and diarrhea.

Interactions

There are no known reports of interactions in people using sulfur and prescription medications. As always, it is best to ask ask your healthcare provider before supplementing.

How to Store Sulfur

MSM should be stored at room temperature. It should also be protected from light and moisture.

Since there are many formulations and manufacturers of MSM, it is important to follow the storage instructions on the product label.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What foods contain sulfur?

    Sulfur can be found naturally in foods such as dairy, eggs, beef, poultry, seafood, onions, garlic, turnips, kale, and broccoli.

  • What are some alternatives to sulfur for reducing joint pain?

    Regarding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, practicing yoga or tai chi and/or undergoing acupuncture may help manage and alleviate arthritis pain and enhance functioning in some people.

  • Does sulfur smell bad?

    Pure sulfur has no odor. People often assume that the smell of rotten eggs is attributable to sulfur, but it is actually caused by hydrogen sulfide.

Sources of Sulfur and What to Look For

Sulfur is available in the foods we eat and as dietary supplements. It is also added to creams, lotions, and shampoos.

Food Sources of Sulfur

Sulfur is present in foods that are good sources of protein such as:

  • Eggs
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Legumes
  • Soy, black, and kidney beans

Sulfur is also found in some vegetables including garlic, onions, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and kale.

Sulfur Supplements

See the above dosing recommendations for dosages in topical products and discuss with a healthcare provider if that dose will work for you.

Oral sulfur supplements are available online and sold in many natural-food stores and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

When looking for an oral sulfur supplement, you will see many MSM products. You may see sulfur supplements in capsule form or sold as crystals to be used in the bath. MSM is a naturally occurring organic compound that contains sulfur. It is also sometimes called dimethyl sulfone, methyl sulfone, sulfonylbismethane, or crystalline dimethyl sulfoxide. MSM is also referred to as organic sulfur.

When choosing a supplement, try to look for products that have been certified by Consumer Labs, the USP, or NSF International. These organizations don't guarantee that a product is safe or effective. However, they do assure that the product was manufactured correctly, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants.

When looking for supplements, be sure to read the label. Four questions to ask include:

  • Has it been third-party tested, such as by USP, NSF, or Consumer Labs?
  • Does it provide the correct dose?
  • Does it include other ingredients and are those ingredients safe for me to take?
  • Does my healthcare provider agree that supplementing will be of benefit to me?


Summary

There is a limited number of high-quality clinical trials related to sulfur supplements and topical treatments. In general, it seems safe to use creams and lotions to ease skin problems or joint pain. Dandruff shampoo, which contains sulfur, is also considered safe.

Whether or not DMSO and MSM oral supplements offer benefits is unclear, and they may cause some minor side effects. Discuss the pros and cons with your healthcare provider before you add anything to your regimen or spend money on unproven supplements.

16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Jennifer Lefton, MS, RD/N, CNSC, FAND
Jennifer Lefton, MS, RD/N-AP, CNSC, FAND is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and writer with over 20 years of experience in clinical nutrition. Her experience ranges from counseling cardiac rehabilitation clients to managing the nutrition needs of complex surgical patients.

Originally written by
Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong

Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.

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