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Sulfur Compound Treatment for Acne

Sulfur (spelt sulphur in Europe) is a yellow, non-metallic element. It is considered as one of the building blocks of life. Sulfur is present in most of the proteins, vitamins and hormones, and it is a major component of keratin, which is present in our skin, hair and nails. Sulfur contains antifungal, antibacterial and keratolytic properties, and as such is one of the oldest traditional skin medications. Sulfur is safe to use and most people opt to use sulfur more than other chemicals as acne treatment options.

Mechanism of Acne Treatment with Sulfur

Sulfur is effective in removing dead surface skin cells, and it also controls the production of sebum. The combination of sodium sulfacetamide and salicylic acid sulfur has been found to be very effective in treating acne. Sulfur, when applied to the skin, creates a pentathonic acid that’s deadly to fungi and works as a reactant to cysteine, which in turn produces hydrogen sulfide that breaks down keratin and makes keratolythic activity not possible. It also inhibits propionibacterium acne.

Studies have been made to prove the effectiveness of the sulfur. In one case study they used 10% sulfur cream against systemic tetracycline in the reduction of papules and pustules in acne patients, and the sulfur cream reduced a greater number of inflamed lesions. Compared with other medications such as oral antibiotics, tretinoins, antimicrobials and retinoids, sulfur provides comparable results with significantly milder side effects. It is also better absorbed by the human body that that of other medication. It is said that sulfur takes only twenty-four hours to penetrate completely into the skin.

Earlier studies showed that sulfur was comedogenic when applied on rabbit ears and the human back. This was disproved by further tests, however, leading to the conclusion that there was no correlation between comedone developments and whether or not sulfur was used in the applied formulation.

Sulfur with sodium sulfacetamide

The antibacterial properties of sodium sulfacetamide inhibit the action of paraaminobenzoic acid, which causes bacterial growth. It also suppresses the growth of propionibacterium acne, and the absence of any major side effects makes it an attractive treatment option.

The combination of sulfur and sodium sulfacetamide is an effective therapy for acne lesions without excessive erythema, as shown in clinical trials conducted with sulfur 5% and sodium sulfacetamide 10% formulations. 70-80% of comedones and inflamed lesions were reduced, and side effects (dryness and itching) were uncommon, mild, and short-lived. These formulations are currently available as lotions, topical suspensions, and cleansers.


Sulfur therapy is every bit as effective as other acne treatments, but has an advantage in terms of safety. Its mild side effects should make it the preferred mode of treatment in most cases. Sulfur therapy has suffered a decline in use recently, but is still widely accepted as a good option.