Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is an ingredient that I once wrote a dismissive article about. I concluded that although great claims were made for what it could do, they were largely unproven. MSM wasn’t a miracle cure-all and could even be a cosmetic "Emperor’s New Clothes". Recently, however, anti-aging brands that I really like and respect, such as Sevani, BRAD and Sciote, proudly tout MSM, and it finally struck me that it was high time to get to the truth about MSM.
What is MSM?
Though the name sounds intimidating, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is basically sulfur and it is in our bodies, as well as in some plants. To add a bit more color, it is composed of sulfur, oxygen and methyl. In the presence of ozone and ultraviolet light, MSM (along with dimethyl sulfoxide) is formed from dimethyl sulfide, taken up into atmosphere, returned to the earth in rainfall, and taken into the root systems of plants. As such, MSM can be found in small quantities in a variety of foods.
Sulfur represents about 0.25 percent of our total body weight, similar to potassium.
How did MSM get to be touted as a miracle cure?
It all started with a book called The Miracle of MSM: The Natural Solution for Pain. This is where the "Emperor’s New Clothes" comes in. A bandwagon emerged and tons of companies clambered aboard, touting life-changing supplements. WebMD lists a multitude of ailments that MSM is said to aid, from snoring to AIDs, and then puts the kibosh on all these claims by saying there is no evidence, or scant research. No wonder I had been a skeptic. Wikipedia isn’t much more reassuring, noting that placebos fared just as well in treating osteoporosis.
Contrary to what the sellers of MSM supplements contend, there is no recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for MSM or sulfur. Sulfur deficiency has not been described in medical literature.
Are there any claims that do stand up to scrutiny?
What can MSM do for skin?
MSM is sometimes described as “nature's beauty mineral”. OK, but would this description have any more credence than the promise to cure arthritis? The idea is that MSM has the ability to enhance collagen bundles and keratin, the important stuff in our skin, hair and nails.
Now if you connect some dots, there is something to this. Keratin, present in the skin, hair, and nails, is particularly high in the amino acid cystine, which is found in sulfur. Apparently, it is the sulfur bond in keratin that gives it greater strength. Sulfur is also present in two B vitamins, thiamine and biotin. Interestingly, thiamine is important to skin and biotin to hair. Sulfur is important to cellular respiration, as it is needed in the oxidation-reduction reactions that help the cells utilize oxygen.
And, yes, you’ll be relieved to know there is some research. According the University of Maryland, MSM helps form connective tissue in skin.
By the way, even WebMD concedes that MSM might help rosacea, noting that a cream containing MSM and silymarin seems to improve skin color and other symptoms of rosacea. Indeed, sulfur is widely used to treat acne and other skin disorders.
Sulfur also acts as a skin whitener, at least certain sulfur containing amino acids do (source). It is claimed (mostly in patent applications) that MSM may increase the production of pheomelanin, the melanin that is found in fair-skinned people, relative to eumelanin. MSM is a naturally occurring form of sulfur and its application is supposed to increase intracellular sulfur levels, which causes dopaquinone to be diverted towards pheomelanin production.
MSM may help other active ingredients penetrate the skin. It is said that because MSM makes the cells more permeable, it thus enhances the absorption of nutrients
MSM and hair
I was especially excited to find that there is a credible connection between MSM and hair growth. One study looked at the effect of Methylsulfonylmethane on hair growth. The researchers combined MAP (a form of vitamin C) at 7.5% and MSM at 10% and concluded that results were “comparable to or better than the result in the group treated with minoxidil 5%”.
Where you can find MSM
Sciote has incorporated MSM into its Sciote Skin Vitamin-C Face Lotion ($65) and Sciote Super Moist Hyaluronic Serum ($75 in the shop).
Another brand that likes MSM enough to feature it prominently amongst its typically long ingredients lists is Sweetsation Q*Lumiere Organic Day Creme ($29) and Lumi*Essence Body Organic Advanced Brightening Repair Treatment ($48 in the shop).
BRAD gives MSM a lot of love and you’ll find it in many products in the line, such as BRAD Biophotonic Hydrating Hyaluronic Infusion Serum ($95) and BRAD Biophotonic Sublime Youth Creator Gel-Cream ($245).