The first thing that comes to mind when I think of sulfur is the awful smell that accompanies it. Rotten eggs, sewage … nothing about the word “sulfur” seems innately healthy, soothing or like something I’d like to put on my face. However, it turns out that sulfur just has a bad reputation and is actually quite useful in the battle against acne.

Sulfur is an essential natural element dating back to the days of the Bible, according to Wikipedia, when it was referred to as “brimstone”. The idea that sinners would suffer for eternity in the fires of hell, surrounded by the stench of burning brimstone conjures up an odiferous fate indeed. However, it WOULD take the fires of hell to ensure that sulfur was good and smelly. Naturally, sulfur is actually odorless. So fear not that sulfur will make for a smelly application.

First used in China in 6th century BC, sulfur has antifungal, antibacterial, and keratolytic properties, which make it ideal for the treatment of acne and other skin problems. Keratolytic agents encourage the shedding of dead skin cells that could block pores and cause pimples and other blemishes and excess sebum production.

Acne often occurs when sebum, secreted by the sebaceous glands, becomes blocked on its way to the skin’s surface via its pathway through a hair follicle or pore. The bacteria within the clogged pore can be irritating to the skin and trigger an immune reaction, causing the redness and inflammation often associated with acne. Sulfur’s antibacterial properties (in addition to its preventative keratolytic agents) whisk away harmful bacteria and prevent acne from forming on the skin’s surface. Sulfur is also popular in combination with other compounds, especially sodium sulfacetamide, thanks to its additional antibacterial properties. Collectively, sulfur and sodium sulfacetamide can reduce inflammation and acne development.

Sulfur is also an important natural component in many amino acids, including: taurine (an amino acid that stabilizes cell membranes), methionine (an amino acid that detoxifies cells and is involved in pain relief) and carnitine (an amino acid that transports long chain fatty acids preventing accumulations of lipoproteins).

Some researchers, according, believe sulfur can actually make acne worse by promoting blackhead and whiteheads through increased cell adhesion and can be a little drying to the skin. However, a double-blind study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, done over six weeks on acne-free volunteers, found that after applying a 5% sulfur patch three times a week “there was no trend or correlation between the presence or absence of sulfur in the formulation and appearance of comedones.”

I’ve always been a fan of natural hot springs, which promote the healing properties of sulfur for the body and soul. Now it looks like sulfur may be a solution to problem skin as well!