Treating Acne With Sulfur

Sulfur is one of the oldest known acne treatments. Yes, sulfur. The same stuff the flammable ends of matchsticks are made of is also used as an acne treatment.

Historically known as brimstone, sulfur was used in ancient times to treat a wide range of skin problems, from dermatitis and dandruff to rosacea and warts. It's still used in skin care products today.

Sulfur is a natural element and has an odor that is quite…distinctive. The scent of rotten eggs comes to mind. Luckily, today's sulfur skin care products don't smell that bad.Sulfur is available in prescription medications, as well as over-the-counter acne treatment products.

Acne treatment

How Sulfur Works

When applied topically, sulfur causes the skin to dry and peel. Despite how this sounds, it is actually a good thing for your skin if you have acne. 

First, sulfur helps reduce skin oiliness. Secondly, it helps the skin slough away cells more effectively, so pore blockages (the beginnings of a breakout) don't develop. Sulfur also has antimicrobial properties, so it helps keep the acne-causing Propionibacterium acnes in check.  

Sulfur Is Best for Mild to Moderate Acne

Sulfur works best if you have mild blemishes or moderate acne. It really isn't effective for severe acne or cystic breakouts. But it is good for inflammatory acne as well as comedonal acne. So, if you have red pimples, blackheads, or a combination of the two, sulfur can improve your skin.

Sulfur is found in a wide array of skin care products, including soaps and cleansers, lotions, masks, and spot treatments. It's also a staple acne treatment at many skin spas and salons. 

Quite often, sulfur treatments also contain resorcinol or sodium sulfacetamide. These ingredients give added anti-inflammatory and moisturizing properties and make the treatment more effective.

Sulfur-based acne treatments can be used on their own, or they can be used along with another acne treatment. Doing this can help your acne clear more quickly. 

Try using an over-the-counter sulfur cleanser in the morning and a benzoyl peroxide lotion at night. Or, if you're seeing a dermatologist, he/she might prescribe you a topical retinoid along with a sulfur-based medication. 

Sulfur Is a Great Option for Sensitive Skin

Is your skin allergic to benzoyl peroxide? Does your skin turn bright red at the mere sight of Retin-A? Sulfur might be your new best friend.

This acne-fighting ingredient tends to be gentler on the skin than many other acne treatments. It isn't the most effective acne treatment, and many other products do work better and faster. 

If your skin simply can't take the side effects of most other acne medications, sulfur is a great treatment option.

Side Effects 

Drying, peeling, redness, and mild itching are the most common side effects of sulfur. They tend to be worse when you first begin treatment. If your skin is super sensitive, try starting slowly and building up to the recommended dose.

Some products still have that unique sulfur odor. This is especially true of natural-based products or those made for sensitive skin types because they tend not to add extra fragrance ingredients that mask the sulfur scent. 

If you find the smell particularly noxious, try another brand. The scent can really vary from product to product.

4 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.
  1. Keri J, Shiman M. An update on the management of acne vulgarisClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2009;2:105–110. doi:10.2147/ccid.s3630

  2. Wolf K, Silapunt S. The use of sodium sulfacetamide in dermatology. Cutis.

  3. Del Rosso JQ. The use of sodium sulfacetamide 10%-sulfur 5% emollient foam in the treatment of acne vulgarisJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol.

  4. Bartlett KB, Davis SA, Feldman SR. Tolerability of topical antimicrobials in treatment of acne vulgaris. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology.

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.