What Is Sulfur?

Possibly helpful for arthritis, allergies, dandruff, and other concerns

Sulfur is an abundant chemical in the human body. Proteins, vitamins, and other elements in the body contain sulfur, which plays an important role in a number of processes that are essential to life.

Some people believe that taking sulfur supplements (capsules or powders) offers various benefits such as protection against allergies, osteoarthritis, and muscle soreness. In addition, topical sulfur products are touted as treatments for a range of skin conditions.

This article explains possible benefits of oral and topical sulfur preparations, how they might be used, side effects, and what you should know before trying sulfur supplements or skin products.

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

What Is Sulfur Used For?

Sulfur plays an important role in the body and 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.

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


Sulfur is found in a variety of 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. So far, research has focused on a few key areas of interest.

Joint and Muscle Pain

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

Methylsulfonylmethane

MSM, a naturally occurring sulfur compound found in many foods, may help those who have different types of osteoarthritis.

Studies have shown that MSM may work as an anti-inflammatory and could possibly protect cartilage. For those with arthritis, the result is less pain and better range of motion in the joints.

Balneotherapy

Balneotherapy is an alternative therapy that's been used for centuries to relieve joint and muscle pain in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In balneotherapy, inflamed or stressed joints and muscles are bathed in hot springs and water that contains sulfur along with other rich minerals.

Research is mixed regarding the effectiveness balneotherapy. It's been shown to significantly reduce pain and improve the quality of life for those with osteoarthritis. However, a 2015 study found there wasn't enough evidence to show it helped with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

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, doctors don't clearly understand how or why these sulfur-containing treatments help, so they can't fully endorse them.

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, researchers showed that MSM significantly eased allergy symptoms. Taking 3 grams of MSM daily for two weeks helped those with allergies breathe better and reduced their nasal congestion.

A great benefit of MSM is that it produces fewer side effects than prescription medications such as antihistamines. However, as of now, there isn't enough evidence to show that MSM would be an adequate substitute for prescription allergy medication.

Dandruff

Dandruff is actually related to a skin condition that causes itching, flaking skin, and possible redness and inflammation. Sulfur is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in over-the-counter 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 when people 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.

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.

Sulfur formulations have been shown to significantly reduce redness and lesions caused by rosacea. These topical formulas, meaning creams or lotions applied to the skin, also seem to have few side effects. However, some people are hypersensitive to sulfur products.

Recap

Sulfur is a mineral essential to good health. In addition to supporting body function, it plays a role as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Research shows that it can help with skin irritation related to dandruff and rosacea. It may also reduce inflammation from arthritis and allergies. More research is needed to understand how sulfur works and how it can best support good health.

Possible Side Effects

Not enough is known about oral sulfur supplements to be certain 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%.

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 doctor if you're considering using a sulfur supplement to treat a medical condition.

Dosage and Preparation

There is no recommended daily allowance for sulfur. 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.

There is no standard dose of sulfur supplements. Not enough is known about oral supplements to make such a recommendation. However, various topical doses have been used effectively and safely in research.

For example:

  • 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 three successive 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 doctor about what might be appropriate for your needs.

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 using the term in regards to 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.

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 don't guarantee that a product is safe or effective. However, 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.

Summary

There are 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. Before you add anything to your regimen or spend money on unproven supplements, discuss the pros and cons with your doctor.

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?

    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 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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9 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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