Got Acne? Try Sulfur!

While shopping around for acne products, I found myself at a booth in the local mall, signing up for a two month program. Along with the basic three products, there was a bonus in the box, a mask containing, amongst other things, 6% sulfur. In addition to its use as a ten-minute mask, the directions also encouraged using the mask in small amounts on problem spots as an overnight treatment. After three nights of trial, it was my new favourite product, so I began looking into the uses of sulfur as an acne treatment.

According to many reports, sulfur (also spelled “sulphur”) has been used in acne treatments since the days of Ancient Rome when people used to bathe in hot, sulfurous mineral water. As a chemical element, sulfur is odorless, but when combined with other elements it can have a strong, unpleasant smell. With the emergence of benzoyl peroxide in the 1920s, the focus turned to new chemicals, and sulfur was somewhat eclipsed by several other substances in the campaign against acne. Although slightly less popular, many acne products used today still include sulfur. So why is it so amazing for acne?

Acne is often referred to as a disease of the sebaceous glands, tiny glands that are critical for normal skin functioning. The sebaceous glands secrete sebum, a combination of fats and debris from dead skin cells which lubricates and protects the skin against environmental damage. Sebum travels to the skin’s surface via a hair follicle and pore. Sometimes, however, a pore can become blocked, which means that sebum and natural skin bacteria are prevented from coming to the surface. The bacteria within the clogged pore can be very irritating to the skin, triggering an immune reaction and causing the redness and inflammation often associated with acne.

Acne treatments can take several different types of approaches. Some address the reasons behind the blocked pore, such as excess sebum production or inadequate shedding of dead skin cells. Others work at reducing the symptoms of pain and redness. Treatments include hormone therapy, oral antibiotics, retinoids, and topical creams and ointments, which can be very effective and quite inexpensive. It is in topical treatments that sulfur is generally used.

Sulfur is a keratolytic agent, which means that it encourages shedding of dead skin cells which could block pores if retained. It also has comedolytic effects, helping to heal pre-existing comedones and preventing formation of new ones. For these reasons, sulfur is a frequent ingredient in cleansers and masks like the one that I tried. Even more popular is the combination of sulfur with sodium sulfacetamide, a sulfonamide that has antibacterial properties. Sulfonamides are thought to prevent bacterial growth through limiting key acids needed for their reproduction. Together, sulfur and sodium sulfacetamide are extremely effective in reducing inflammatory lesions and in preventing acne development.

While the mask that I tried was great as a bi-weekly acne product, it was its ability to reduce inflammation overnight that impressed me the most. Some studies suggest that sulfur may calm or soothe acne, but I suspect that it was only when combined with the other ingredients (such as geranium extract and tea tree leaf oil) that it was so effective. Sulfur is definitely useful in acne products, especially for its kerolytic and comedolytic properties, however be sure to check that the product has anti-inflammatory ingredients as well if you’re looking for a nighttime treatment. Also, check with a dermatologist or skin care professional before leaving a product on overnight, unless it expressly recommends it on the directions…I didn’t read the directions properly once, and I will never make that mistake again!!