Sulfur is rarely the first thing I would recommend for acne, and perhaps that is unfair. After all, sulfur has been around for centuries and was particularly favored by the ancient Romans who bathed in it.
Recently, I had the pleasure of soaking in a sulfur bath in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and I can attest to the fact that my skin felt lovely afterwards, and I haven’t experienced any new breakouts since – unfortunately, a single soak is not enough for skin miracles.
Now, don’t let the rotten egg scent scare you away! Sulfur, which can also be spelled sulphur and was referred to as brimstone in the Bible, is certainly worth a try, especially if you haven’t had much luck with other acne treatments, or if you think your acne might be fungal. You’ll be happy to know that these days most sulfur-infused skin care products actually smell pleasant (or at least not awful), thanks to clever formulators and the addition of natural fragrances.
Read on to find out what some of the best sulfur masks and other skin care products are, as well as to really learn what sulfur is and how it works on the skin. I list all of the sulfur uses and benefits, as well as the few potential side effects from it.
I’ll also help you figure out what kind of sulfur product will be best for you based on your skin type. I’ll break down how to use sulfur most effectively in your skin care routine, so you can get the most out of sulfur to kiss your acne goodbye!
Sulfur Skin Care Guide: Contents
• 13 Best Sulfur Masks and Other Skin Products for Acne
• What Is Sulfur and How Does It Work?
• Sulfur Benefits for Skin
• Are There Any Side Effects to Using Sulfur in Skin Care?
• Choosing Sulfur Products for Every Skin Type
• How to Use Sulfur in Skin Care to Treat Acne
From masks to spot treatments, these 13 are the best sulfur skin product for getting rid of acne fast!
1. Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Mask Acne Treatment Mask
This white clay mask goes on the skin smoothly to help clarify the skin. It absorbs excess oils, helps to deep clean the pores, and targets acne with a whopping amount of 10% sulfur. It is a great choice for those with oily and combination skin, and is available for purchase at Sephora.
2. Sunday Riley Saturn Sulfur Acne Treatment Mask
It’s hard to write about Sunday Riley without acknowledging their recent review scandal, but that being said, their products are still quite good, this sulfur mask included. In addition to fungal acne-busting sulfur, it also includes mattifying niacinamide and acne-fighting tea tree oil and turmeric extract. It is heavy-duty, but works well for most skin types except the very sensitive. You can buy it at Sephora.
3. DDF Sulfur Therapeutic Mask
This mask combines bentonite clay with 10% sulfur for acne, fungal acne, and excessive oiliness. It leaves the skin feeling deeply cleansed and totally matte, and with weekly use over time it can help prevent the recurrence of breakouts. You can order it online from Ulta Beauty.
4. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clarifying Colloidal Sulfur Mask
If you’re not a fan of typical 15-minute masking (I’m not – I always forget), then this overnight sulfur mask might be exactly for you. It is definitely a hard-core option, since it combines resurfacing retinol with acne fighters like colloidal sulfur and bentonite clay. A touch of licorice root extract helps to brighten up post-acne marks. It is available for sale at Sephora.
5. Dermadoctor Ain’t Misbehavin’ Intensive 10% Sulfur Acne Mask & Emergency Spot Treatment
This white mask purifies and exfoliates the skin to absorb excess oil and prevent acne with sulfur at 10% as well as kaolin clay and willow bark extract. It can be used as a spot treatment overnight to treat stubborn pimples. It’s a great choice for those with oily and combination skin. Find it at Sephora!
6. Vivant Skin Care Sulfur Clay Mask
This sulfur for acne product is yet another bentonite clay mask that deep cleanses and mattifies. It does have some additional soothing ingredients to reduce acne-related inflammation, like zinc sulfate. It’s a lovely choice for those with oily and combination skin. You can order it online from Dermstore.
7. Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment
Now we’re getting into anti-acne sulfure spot treatments, which are some of my favorite ways of treating breakouts! This two-phase product has a bottom layer of sulfur and zinc and a top layer of alcohol and salicylic acid. You dip a Q-tip in the bottle, and apply as a spot treatment. It’s a great acne treatment for all skin types, and can be picked up at Sephora.
8. Tarte Knockout Tingling Treatment
This product shows one of the more unique sulfur uses, since you normally wouldn’t see this ingredient in a toner. This exfoliating toner contains both lactic and salicylic acids, as well as mattifying niacinamide, and a collection of skin-repairing extracts. It treats texture and acne issues, while also preventing premature aging. You can buy a bottle at Sephora.
9. Mario Badescu Drying Lotion
This is another two-phase sulfur acne treatment. In addition to sulfur, it also contains resurfacing and pore-clearing salicylic acid and soothing calamine to quickly reduce the redness and inflammation of painful pimples. It is applied as a spot treatment, with a cotton bud. It is available for purchase at Nordstrom.
10. PCA Skin Blemish Control Bar
This unique product is essentially an anti-acne soap in a jar. It contains a large collection of potent acne fighters, including sulfur, salicylic acid, and azelaic acid. It cleanses the skin, promotes exfoliation, and reduces the acne bacteria. Just remember that pH-adjusting toner is required afterwards! It is sold online via Dermstore.
11. Origins Out of Trouble 10 Minute Mask to Rescue Problem Skin
If your skin gets oily but you’re sick of those clay-based masks, this anti-acne sulfur mask should definitely be on your radar. It is formulated with soothing camphor and zinc oxide to rapidly reduce redness and inflammation, and prevent breakouts in the long term with sulfur and salicylic acid. You can pick up a bottle at Sephora.
12. Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant
This weekly chemical exfoliant will help slough away all of your dead skin while also targeting those pesky breakouts. It contains both enzymes and lactic and salicylic acids to exfoliate, sulfur to treat acne, and diatomaceous earth to mattify. Order it online from Ulta Beauty!
13. Indie Lee Clearing Mask
Indie Lee is a lovely natural brand that makes excellent skin care, including this acne-clearing sulfur mask. It includes both glycolic and salicylic acids to exfoliate both inside and outside the pore, as well as soothing zinc oxide and hydrating hyaluronic acid to prevent irritation. It keeps the skin soft and clear, and works for most skin types. You can find it at Sephora.
It is shocking that we don’t talk about sulfur more frequently, considering it is the fifth most common chemical element on planet Earth. Elemental sulfur is more frequently found near hot springs and volcanic regions. It is an essential element for life, and it occurs naturally in all flora and fauna, though usually as organosulfur compounds rather than in its pure elemental form. Both biotin and thiamine (vitamins B1 and B7) are organosulfur compounds, for example.
In skin care, however, we want to focus on elemental sulfur, which is usually produced as a byproduct of the petroleum and gas purification process. Elemental sulfur is a great acne treatment, especially for those who suffer from fungal acne. It also has other important uses, including as a fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide, and for the preparation of matches.
When elemental sulfur is applied topically to the skin, it acts as a mild antibacterial agent to kill P. acnes, the acne-causing bacteria, and as a kertaolytic agent to promote the exfoliation of dead skin cells that might be clogging the pores. It also acts as fungicide, meaning that it kills fungus.
This is especially important for those who have Malassezia (pityrosporum) folliculitis, which is colloquially referred to as “fungal acne” even though it technically has nothing to do with the acne bacteria. It is difficult to tell the difference between real acne and Malassezia folliculitis, but if your breakouts have not responded to traditional anti-bacterial treatments but they do respond to sulfur, it is possible that yeast was the real issue.
• Much like glycolic and salicylic acids, sulfur is a keratolytic agent, which means that it promotes the shedding of dead skin cells, thereby exfoliating the skin. One of the causes of acne is the build-up of dead skin cells in the pores, but sulfur helps to dislodge these dead skin cells and therefore clear up the breakouts.
• The keratolyic effect of sulfur also makes it an acne preventative, since in the long term it’ll prevent the dead skin cell build-up that leads to acne.
• As sulfur oxidizes on the skin, it becomes sulfurous acid, which is a mild antibacterial agent capable of reducing the acne bacteria and therefore of preventing acne infections.
• Lastly, sulfur is one of the best treatments for fungal acne because it is a very effective fungicide, which is able to kill the yeast responsible for acne-like lesions that many people experience.
• Sulfur’s fungicidal properties mean that it can also treat other skin conditions caused by yeast, like dandruff and sebohrreic dermatitis.
• Sulfur is considered quite gentle, so it can be an excellent acne remedy for those who find that salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide irritate their skin.
• While it is not conclusively proven, some people do mention that sulfur is anti-inflammatory, and that it helps reduce the redness and irritation from breakouts. Whether it does or doesn’t, it certainly won’t hurt to try.
For some people, skin care products with sulfur may cause dryness, itchiness, swelling, or irritation. This is especially likely if you do not moisturize your skin after using a sulfur mask or before using a sulfur for acne spot treatment.
If you experience itchiness or irritation even after using some sort of moisturizing product, then you should probably discontinue your use of sulfur-based skin care products, and turn your attention to other acne treatments instead.
Sulfur has a fairly high pH, so in some instances it can actually make acne worse. However, high pH is also an issue with benzoyl peroxide, another popular and effective acne treatment. The only way to find out how your skin responds is to give sulfur a try, and to mitigate its high pH by prefacing it or following it up with pH-adjusting toner.
As with any keratolyic agent you also run the risk of over-exfoliating your skin when using sulfur masks or other sulfur-based products. Be careful combining sulfur with other exfoliants, and pay close attention to signs of over-exfoliation in your skin like redness, irritation, peeling or rawness.
If you do notice signs of over-exfoliation then stop exfoliating altogether until your skin heals, and once it does, reintroduce chemical exfoliants like sulfur back into your routine very slowly and moderately.
If you are currently pregnant, you should consult your doctor about whether you should use sulfur to treat any hormonal breakouts you might be experiencing.
If you have acne-prone skin, especially if you suspect it is fungal, then you definitely want to give sulfur a try. However, these types of skin issues are not reserved for those with severely oily skin.
Those with dry and normal skin can also experience breakouts, including ones caused by yeast. However, the kinds of sulfur products you should choose will change depending on your skin type!
Sulfur for Oily Skin
Those with larger pores and heavy oil production are much likelier to experience both normal breakouts and breakouts caused by the Malassezia yeast. Because of that, most sulfur-infused products are actually made for oily skin types.
Masks with both sulfur and kaolin and bentonite clay will help treat your pimples while also deep cleansing your pores and mattifying your skin, so they are a great option. However, chances are you could use any sulfur products, including spot treatments, toners, and cleansers.
Sulfur for Normal Skin and Combination Skin
Normal skin is easy to recognize, since the pores are medium or small sized, and oil production is normal. Combination skin can be a little more confusing, since some parts of the face will product more oil than others, and the pores might be larger in the T-zone and smaller everywhere else.
If you have a normal or combination skin type, you want to think more carefully about the kind of sulfur products you should use. Sulfur masks are a decent option, and you might find yourself preferring ones without skin-drying clays.
If you are hoping to mitigate some T-zone oiliness, however, you might want to only use clay and sulfur masks on the localized areas where you are breaking out and getting greasy, rather than all over the face. Using spot treatments or toners with sulfur will also be a great way of enjoying the sulfur benefits without drying out your skin.
Sulfur for Dry Skin
Even those whose skin produces little to no oil might still find themselves experiencing breakouts once in a while, or they might be dealing with other skin issues that sulfur can mitigate, like seborrheic dermatitis. However, if you have dry skin you want to be careful about the kind of sulfur masks and skin care products you use.
Sulfur masks with clay are best avoided, since they can seriously dry out and dehydrate your skin. Spot treatments are a better choice for treating the occasional pimple, while a gentle toner with sulfur can give you that all-over treatment without drying you out.
Here is how you should add sulfur to your skin care routine based on the type of product you choose:
Using Sulfur Masks
Sulfur masks are one of the most popular ways of using sulfur for acne treatment. Sulfur masks are great because they can be used as often as necessary based on your skin condition, and they can include other ingredients to treat the skin like various clays for oiliness or zinc for sensitivity.
Sulfur masks are best used around 3 times a week, although if you are suffering from a particularly nasty breakout, you can even try using them every day until it clears. Using sulfur masks correctly is important to get the full benefits of sulfur without any of the drawbacks.
• First, begin by cleansing your skin with a gentle, low-pH cleanser that will remove all impurities from your skin without drying it out. You might want to do a double cleanse, especially if you’ve been wearing a full face of makeup. Massage your skin with the cleanser in upward circular motions, and then rinse it away with water or use damp facial sponges or a facial cloth to really ensure everything is gone.
• Next apply your sulfur mask. Dispense about a nickel or dime-sized amount, since you do not need a lot to fully cover the face. You can use your fingers, and gently massage it into the skin in upward motions. You don’t need to rub it in or use any pressure – just apply an even yet thin layer to your skin. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, use a mask brush to apply the sulfur mask instead.
• Let the sulfur mask sit on your skin for 10-15 minutes. Any longer and you risk irritating your skin.
• Once it’s time, go ahead and remove the sulfur mask! The easiest way to do it, especially if the mask also contains clay, is to hop in the shower and let the steam from the water break down the mask and then let the stream from the shower head rinse it away. If a shower is not an option, you can simply rinse your face at the tap, and then make sure all traces of it are gone with the help of some facial sponges, a face cloth, or damp cotton pads.
• (Optional) Sulfur masks often leave the skin feeling a little tight and dry, so now is the perfect time to use a skin-soothing and hydrating mask to replenish the skin. Much like with the sulfur mask, apply a generous amount of a nourishing mask to your skin, allow it to sit for 10-20 minutes, and then rinse it away.
• Since sulfur products often have a slightly higher pH than is ideal for the skin, it is very important to use a cotton pad to wipe on a pH-adjusting toner like Paula’s Choice Resist Advanced Replenishing Toner from Nordstrom.
• Now you can finish off your skin care routine with the normal products you would use to nourish and moisturize your skin. Since sulfur masks can be somewhat drying to the skin, we recommend using at least a hydrating essence or serum, followed up by a moisturizer. Make sure to use a product with at least a 30 SPF in the daytime.
• Sulfur masks can also double as spot treatments, so read the next section to see how you should use them in that way!
Using Sulfur Acne Spot Treatments
Another really popular way of using sulfur for acne is as a spot treatment. Spot treatments are applied only to the area of the skin affected by acne, and they can be a great choice for people whose skin is too sensitive to tolerate a sulfur product all over the face.
Spot treatments with sulfur usually have a pink or white color, so they are best used in the evening when you won’t be walking out and about. Additionally, many sulfur masks can actually double as spot treatments, so you can use your sulfur mask exactly as I outline here!
• Much in the same way as I outlined previously, you want to start off with clean skin. Avoid harsh cleansers and opt for something gentle with a low pH. Massage the cleanser into your skin, rinse it away, and then make sure it’s all gone (along with the gunk) by wiping your face with a damp facial cloth or face sponge.
• If you are a fan of toners, wipe your face with a cotton pad saturated with your toner of choice. Avoid using an exfoliating glycolic or lactic acid-infused toner on the same day that you will be using a sulfate spot treatment, as too much exfoliation can irritate the skin.
• Moisturize your skin with a lighter product that doesn’t contain too many occlusive oils, silicones, or waxes. Moisturizing with a hydrating essence, serum or gel will work better than a heavy cream. The reason you want to avoid heavy cream moisturizers is that the ingredients in the spot treatment will not penetrate into your skin past the heavy creams.
• For spot treating the odd pimple, saturate a cotton bud with the sulfur spot treatment or mask of your choice. Tap the cotton bud against the inflamed skin, making sure to cover the whole pimple in a thin layer.
• For spot treating larger areas, apply the sulfur spot treatment or sulfur mask with your finger to the affected area in a thin layer. Make sure your hands are clean, first!
• Be careful not to touch your skin while the sulfur product is still moist. Once it dries down, you can go to bed or continue with your evening without worrying about it rubbing off onto anything!
Using Other Sulfur Products
While sulfur usually shows up in masks and spot treatments, sometimes suflur products also come in the form of cleansers, toners, serums or moisturizers. In those circumstances you want to use the product as directed on the packaging.
It is possible to overdo sulfur in your skin care routine, so make sure that your routine only includes one product that contains sulfur at all times.
Photos via @skin.minimalist, @thebeautyhobbyist, @neighha