The Health Benefits of Sulfur

How Sulfur Supplements Are Used to Reduce Pain

In This Article

Sulfur is the eighth most abundant chemical in the human body. The element is also found in many foods, such as garlic, onions, poultry, beef, and dairy products. Sulfur is necessary for the synthesis of the essential amino acids cysteine and methionine.

Onions, garlic and shallots
Lynne Daley / Getty Images

As a supplement, sulfur is available in capsule or powder form. It is also an ingredient in many topical preparations. Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) are types of sulfur supplements. MSM is sometimes called "organic sulfur."

Sulfur supplements are taken orally to raise sulfur levels in the body. Some believe that this helps to protect against allergies, osteoarthritis, and muscle soreness. Some people may also use it topically to manage conditions ranging from dandruff to rosacea.

So far, however, scientific support for the health benefits of sulfur supplements is limited.

Health Benefits

Sulfur plays an important role in the body and is necessary for the synthesis of certain key proteins. For example, sulfur is needed for the synthesis of glutathione, which acts as a potent antioxidant, protecting your cells from damage.

While sulfur consumed naturally in foods is important for the body, there is scant evidence that taking sulfur supplements is helpful. So far, research has focused on a few key areas of interest.

Dandruff

Sulfur is an FDA-approved ingredient for use in over-the-counter dandruff products. It is often combined with salicylic acid.

A small study was conducted in 1987 on 48 subjects with dandruff. Results indicated that when subjects used a shampoo containing sulfur and salicylic acid, they reported less scaling and dandruff.

Further studies are needed to be certain this treatment is effective.

Osteoarthritis

Sulfur supplements are often used to treat osteoarthritis. MSM may be of some benefit to people with osteoarthritis of the knee, according to a research review published in the journal Osteoarthritis Cartilage in 2008.

Study authors found that "data from the more rigorous MSM trials provide positive but not definitive evidence that MSM is superior to placebo in the treatment of mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee." However, since most of the reviewed studies were of poor quality, the review's authors note that "no definitive conclusion can currently be drawn for either supplement."

There's also some evidence that balneotherapy may benefit people with osteoarthritis. Balneotherapy is an alternative therapy that involves treating health problems by bathing, usually in hot springs and other naturally mineral-rich waters. In many cases, the water used in balneotherapy contains sulfur.

In a 2007 report from the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, for instance, scientists sized up seven trials on the use of balneotherapy in the treatment of osteoarthritis and found that the therapy resulted in significantly greater improvements in pain and quality of life (compared to a placebo).

But a 2015 report from the same journal looked at trials on the use of balneotherapy in treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and found there was not enough evidence to say for sure that the treatment is effective.

The authors of each review cautioned that most of the reviewed studies were poorly designed and noted that more research is needed before balneotherapy can be recommended in the treatment of arthritis.

Allergies

MSM supplements may help alleviate allergy symptoms, according to a small, older study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2002. For the study, 55 patients took either MSM supplements or a placebo every day for 30 days. Looking at data on the 50 participants who completed the study, researchers found that those assigned to the MSM supplements experienced significantly greater improvements in lower respiratory symptoms compared to members of the placebo group.

Rosacea

Topically applied sulfur may help treat rosacea, according to a 2004 report from the journal Cutis. According to the report's authors, sulfur-containing lotions and/or cleansers may help enhance the benefits of other topical and oral therapies for rosacea.

Possible Side Effects

Not enough is known about oral sulfur supplements to be certain they are safe. However, there are some reports that MSM and DMSO may cause certain side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea.

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

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

Dosage and Preparation

There is no recommended daily allowance for sulfur. It is found naturally in foods, including dairy, eggs, beef, poultry, seafood, onions, garlic, turnips, kale, and broccoli. Most people consume enough sulfur in their diet to meet the body's needs. However, at least one study has suggested that sulfur intake may be insufficient in people over the age of 75.

Regarding supplements, there is no standard dose of sulfur. Not enough is known about oral supplements to recommend an appropriate amount to use, though various topical doses have been used in research.

For example, in studies examining sulfur's effects on dandruff, shampoos containing 2% sulfur and 2% salicylic acid were used twice weekly for five weeks.

When research studied sulfur treatments for scabies, treatments containing between 2% and 20% sulfur in jelly were applied every night for three to six nights.

Due to the limited number of high-quality clinical trials, it's too soon to recommend sulfur-containing supplements, topically applied sulfur, or balneotherapy for the treatment of any health condition. 

What to Look For

Sulfur is available for purchase online and sold in many natural-food stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements. You many see sulfur supplements in capsule form or sold as crystals to be used in the bath.

When looking for a sulfur supplement, you are likely to see many MSM products. 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." The word organic is used to describe it because it is a carbon-containing molecule, not because it meets USDA standards for "organic" as it is used in the farming, production, and sale of food.

Keep in mind that supplements are largely unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When choosing a supplement, always check the product label to see if it contains any other ingredients. There have been published reports of supplements containing ingredients not disclosed on the label. In some cases, a product may also deliver doses that differ from the amount specified on the label.

While it is illegal to market a dietary supplement product as a treatment or cure for a disease or to reduce symptoms of a disease, the FDA does not test products for safety or effectiveness. When choosing a supplement, try to look for products that have been certified by ConsumerLabs, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, or NSF International. These organizations also don't guarantee that a product is safe or effective, but they do provide assurance that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants.

Other Questions

What are some alternatives to sulfur for reducing joint pain?

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?

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

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