Sulfur — yes, that smelly, yellow substance — is a chemical element that exists in many forms. Though many don’t realize it, sulfur is a key ingredient in skincare products and can be used to treat a variety of conditions and symptoms.
What is sulfur? A natural, nonmetallic chemical element found near volcanic areas, sulfur was officially discovered as a periodic table element in the early 1800s. It is essential to all living beings: plants and algae pull sulfate from soil or seawater, it’s used to make several amino acids necessary to create proteins, is used in many co-enzymes, and most humans have at least 140 grams of sulfur in their bodies. We consume sulfur regularly in our diet, usually within dairy, eggs, meats, fish, garlic, onions and beans.
Though they smell terrible, sulfur and sulfate are nontoxic. Sulfur dioxide, carbon disulfide, and hydrogen sulfide, however, are all toxic, particularly the latter, which can cause death. In various forms, sulfur is used as an additive to gas, as a food preservative, as a paper bleach, and to produce black rubber, black gunpowder, phosphates, fertilizers, silver polish, pesticides, and herbicides.
What makes it such a powerful skincare ingredient? Sulfur’s presence kills bacteria on the skin’s surface and can help exfoliate and shed dead skin without dehydrating or irritating skin.
Who benefits most from the inclusion of sulfur in their products? Sulfur is best for treating acne, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, rosacea, psoriasis, warts, pityriasis versicolor (skin discoloration), hair-follicle infections, and shingles. Balneotherapy — soaking in a mineral-infused mud bath that contains sulfur — can be soothing for those suffering from eczema or psoriasis.
If you’re using other acne-focused treatments, make sure to check with your dermatologist before adding a sulfur-based product to your routine. Topical sulfur may not be safe during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, so always check with your doctor.
What forms is sulfur available in? Usually found in topical skincare creams, gels, cleansers, and ointments, sulfur is sold under a myriad of brand names, including Acnotex, Fostril, Rezamid, and Sulforcin. Another form of the substance, sulfacetamide, is used topically within Clarifoam, Plexion, Rosanil, Rosula, and Sulfacet-R.