It smells far from subtle, but many swear by its zit-shrinking abilities. We weigh up whether sulphur is a hero skincare ingredient for treating acne and how you should be using it
I grew up in a volcanic country, and used to visit our local hot springs pretty regularly (akin to the local leisure centre for youth gatherings in New Zealand). One thing you never got used to, no matter how many times you dipped a toe in, or even did a casual drive-by, was the intense rotten egg stench of the sulphuric water. It billowed off of the thermal pools in huge, evil-smelling clouds, but we sucked it up because the warm, bubbling water was so soothing, plus we were vaguely promised softer skin, stronger nails and a generally revived mojo. If beauty is pain, it’s also putrid smells. Or at least it where sulphur is concerned.
Sulphur is the latest agent in a squad of acne-fighting ingredients being celebrated in the beauty limelight for its natural bacteria eliminating capacity, its apparent powers of gentle exfoliation and, most appealingly, its dexterity when it comes to drying out angry zits. It’s stepped into the spotlight more recently owing to the ever more sophisticated formulas on offer, and the fact that cosmetic labs are now far more accomplished at neutralising any eggy odours, which previously held brands and manufacturers back from using it in skincare products, on account of customers rejecting it on first sniff. Now utilised in acne-targeted ranges by doctors and natural skincare pioneers alike, from cosmetic chemist Sunday Riley to dermatologist Dr Howard Murad and celebrated facialist Kate Somerville, sulphur has come a long way from it’s primitive, pungent form of old. It’s more accessible and effective than ever, and modern usage is only just exposing it’s pimple-calming potential. Expert facialist Debbie Thomas explains how sulphur (or sulfur) has earned its spot-healing rep:
It’s got ancient wisdom behind it
“Sulphur has been used in skincare for centuries and modern science shows that it’s application is not an old wives' tale. It has been proven to have a double action on the skin: it’s antiseptic, and it acts as an exfoliant. This makes it particularly useful for treating acneic skin, but those with eczema , rosacea and psoriasis can find that it improves the condition of their skin too.”
Sulphur was first used as an acne treatment back in 1949, but preceding this it was used as a natural pesticide for crops and is a key ingredient in matches and gunpowder. Sounds explosive, but just how advisable is it to slather a sulphur-laden cream all over our face?
It’s milder than other spot treatments
You could find it less irritating than other acid-based spot treatments, but rather than go hell for leather by using every sulphur-rich skincare product out there in a bid to banish acne, Debbie advocates easing yourself in gently, being selective with your skincare and doing some ‘skin-whispering’ to monitor how your skin responds:
“As with every active ingredient, we can scientifically show that it’s effective but sulphur may not be equally as powerful for every person - it can be considered a milder spot-treatment option that salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide . Some people get excellent results using sulphur alone, while others need to combine it with additional acne treatments to see skin respond.”
It treats body acne brilliantly
“The best ways to use sulphur in your skincare routine are normally in a localised spot treatment or ointment, a wash or a mask. It’s not necessarily best used as an all over treatment to be applied like a moisturiser- it's ideal in a wash-off treatment or specifically applied to blemishes themselves. If using a sulphur infused mask, apply it once or twice a week at first, but washes and spot creams can be used daily. You can also buy sulphur “soap” bars that can be useful for treating body acne in particular. Hands down the most iconic sulphur spot treatment is Mario Badescu Drying Lotion , £16. It’s got a cult following.”
It no longer pongs
As above, a possible reason behind the sulphuric resurgence and that fact that it’s increasingly cropping up in our skincare is that formulators have gotten better at masking the telltale eggy whiff, and combining sulphur with other beneficial ingredients for a two-prong ac attack.
It helps to unclog pores
Sulphur is unique in terms of action compared to other well-known spot treatments: it’s a keratolytic ingredient, meaning that it it helps pores to shed the keratin lining that often builds up when acne bacteria and sebum stage a sit-in. Once the gunk is gone, the result is more efficient exfoliation of dead skin cells, a decrease in acne causing bacteria on the skin, plus sulphur’s high pH helps to dry out spots and inhibit sebum, in theory reducing oiliness. Said soaring pH is where you could potentially come into problems, however…
It could cause more problems than it solves
Depending on the strength of your sulphuric skincare and how often you’re using it, sulphur could actually throw the skin’s natural moisture balance out of whack, which is bad news for breakouts. Paula’s Choice skincare founder Paula Begoun summarises the sulphuric dilemma:
“Sulphur can be considered as a potent skin sensitizer, as the high pH can encourage the growth of bacteria on the skin. Its use to treat skin concerns should be seen as a last resort if other targeted acne ingredients, such as benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid , and salicylic acid, don't work as well as you had hoped.”
Sulphur’s high pH can make your skin barrier more vulnerable, making moisture loss more likely and increasingly the potential for irritation and spots, as bacteria has a “free pass” to enter. The drying out the skin to shrink spots element also doesn’t always go down well, as skin can go into sebum overdrive to combat the loss of lipids, increasing your risk of breakouts. In can definitely still be effective, but Debbie advocates some strategic skincare mixology to avoid ‘ingredient clash’, plus a plan to keep skin supple and moisturised, rather than arid and inflamed:
“Sulphur is an exfoliant, so you wouldn’t want to overdo it by using lots of other acids or drying products (go easy with benzoyl peroxide in particular). You need to find your skin’s own level of tolerance to the various ingredients in your routine. Some people do need to combine some of the stronger ingredients to get the best results in terms of reducing acne, but subsequently the skin may become dry and irritated. Introduce a calming and hydrating product to balance the skin and reduce the potentially aggressive effects of active ingredients, and choose formulas with added moisturising, anti-inflammatory ingredients. As always when trying any skincare, if you experience red, irritated skin, something’s gone wrong, so desist use of strong active ingredients and treat your skin with milder formulations, ensuring it gets enough moisture.”
In short, sulphur can succeed where other spot treatments have failed, but ensure you monitor skin’s moisture levels to avoid adverse reactions. Consider the following much-lauded sulphur skincare options for saying sayonara to spots.
Murad Rapid Relief Spot Treatment, £17 for 15ml
This fast-acting spot gel wins particular acclaim in our office- it’s strong stuff, but it pulls one of the quickest zit-vanishing acts we’ve witnessed. With sulphur and 2% salicylic acid, it’s not pulling any punches, but applied exactly where needed, it does the business.
Kate Somerville EradiKate Cleanser, £32 for 120ml
A sensation stateside, this blemish-clearing cleanser combines 3% sulphur with soothing oat, honey and rice bran extracts to help to keep skin’s moisture levels in check.
Dr Dennis Gross Clarifying Colloidal Sulphur Mask, £37
A creamy overnight mask with 5% sulphur, this treatment manages the elusive balancing act of reducing sebum (added kaolin clay helps here) without stripping skin. Try applying just to your t-zone or problem areas as a spot and grease specific remedy.
Bioderma Sebium H2O Micellar Water, £10.80 for 250ml
With added sulfur to balance sebum levels, this backstage Bioderma staple makes for a speedy, shine-stopping first cleanse in your nightly skincare routine.
Sunday Riley Saturn Sulfur Acne Treatment Mask, £39.21 for 59.1ml
With the greatest concentration of sulphur in this edit (10%), this potent antibacterial treatment also contains niacinamide for its soothing, anti-inflammatory properties and zinc and bentonite clay to aid oil absorption. Tea tree also ups the antiseptic ante.