Can Sulfur Help You Heal?

Health Benefits, Uses, Side Effects, and More

Onions, garlic and shallots
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A chemical element that is naturally present in the human body, sulfur is also found in a number of foods (such as garlic, onions, eggs, and protein-rich foods) and is necessary for the synthesis of the essential amino acids cysteine and methionine. 

Why People Use It

Sulfur-containing foods and supplements are sometimes used to raise sulfur levels and protect against certain health conditions, such as:

As a supplement, sulfur is available in the form of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM).

Health Benefits

So far, scientific support for the health benefits of sulfur supplements is limited. Here's a look at some of the research on the health benefits of sulfur:


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. Looking at six studies that examined the use of MSM or DMSO in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee, investigators 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 (mineral baths that include sulfur) may benefit people with osteoarthritis. In a 2007 report from 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). In addition, a 2003 report from the same journal looked at six trials on the use of balneotherapy in treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and found that most studies reported "positive findings."

It's important to note that the authors of each review caution that most of the reviewed studies were poorly designed and that more research is needed before balneotherapy can be recommended in the treatment of arthritis.


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).


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.

Uses in Baths and Skin Care

Sulfur is also used as an ingredient in some skin-care and hair-care products. When applied topically, sulfur is thought to treat conditions like acne, rosacea, warts, and dandruff.

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. Proponents claim that soaking in sulfur-rich waters can help treat allergies, respiratory disorders, arthritis, and chronic pain.

Possible Side Effects

Little is known about the safety of using sulfur-containing supplements. However, both MSM and DMSO may cause certain side effects, such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea.

It's important to note that self-treating a condition with sulfur and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Where to Find Them

Available for purchase online, sulfur-containing supplements are sold in many natural-food stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label. Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. Get tips on using supplements and always speak with your physician first.

The Takeaway

Due to the limited 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. If you're still considering using sulfur, make sure to consult your healthcare provider to discuss whether it's appropriate for you. 

For more help managing arthritis pain, practicing yoga, taking tai chi, and/or undergoing acupuncture may help alleviate arthritis pain and enhance functioning in some.

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Article Sources

  • Barrager E, Veltmann JR Jr, Schauss AG, Schiller RN. A multicentered, open-label trial on the safety and efficacy of methylsulfonylmethane in the treatment of seasonal allergic rhinitis. J Altern Complement Med. 2002 Apr;8(2):167-73.
  • Brien S, Prescott P, Bashir N, Lewith H, Lewith G. Systematic review of the nutritional supplements dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) in the treatment of osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2008 Nov;16(11):1277-88.
  • Del Rosso JQ. Evaluating the role of topical therapies in the management of rosacea: focus on combination sodium sulfacetamide and sulfur formulations. Cutis. 2004 Jan;73(1 Suppl):29-33.
  • Verhagen AP, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Boers M, et al. Balneotherapy for osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Oct 17;(4):CD006864.
  • Verhagen AP, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Cardoso JR, et al. Balneotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(4):CD000518.