Sulfur has been used since antiquity for the treatment of skin diseases. Sulfur-laden hot springs are widely touted for their healing properties. Sulfur is one of the most commonly prescribed topical acne therapies in Naturopathic medicine.
Sulfur itself has antibacterial and antifungal properties. In addition to Naturopatic medicine, sulfur is commonly used in organic farming operations as a treatment for certain plant diseases. However, laboratory testing has indicated that Sulfur is only mildly toxic to the acne-causing P. acnes bacterium. It remains unclear whether any beneficial effects of topical sulfur treatment on acne symptoms are a result of reduced bacterial growth.
When used topically, sulfur acts as a keratolytic agent, breaking down keratinized cells at the surface of the skin and promoting cellular turnover. The keratolytic action result from the formation of hydrogen sulfide molecules that are formed when sulfur interacts with skin cells. There is some debate about whether topically-applied Sulfur is comedogenic, and research studies have reported conflicting results. Sulfur may also have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce the appearance of acne lesions, but this has not been definitively proven by clinical research.
Only a small fraction of topically-applied is absorbed systemically. Significant side effects from topically applied sulfur are uncommon. The most common side effect of topical sulfur applications is irritation of the skin. In infants, however, some serious adverse events have been reported outcome after extensive applications.
Sulfur is available as a pure product (often in powder form) that can be compounded by the user or Naturopathic practitioner. Several prescription pharmaceutical products that contain sulfur are also available, such as sulfur plus sodium sulfacetamide (Clenia). Overall, the available clinical research is split on the efficacy of sulfur as a treatment for acne, but it appears to be most effective when combined with an additional type of topical treatment.
Sulfur @ Wikipedia
Benzoyl peroxide and sulfur: foundation for acne management. Wilkinson, et al. 1966.
Sulfur revisited. Lin, et al. 1988.
Is Sulphur Helpful or Harmful in Acne Vulgaris? Mills, et al. 1972.
The use of sodium sulfacetamide 10%-sulfur 5% emollient foam in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Keratoacanthoma, et al. 2009.
The use of sulfur in dermatology. Gupta, et al. 2003.
Topical drug treatment in acne. Gollnick, et al. 1998.
The Effects of Sulfur extract on Anti-Inflammation and Anti-Propionibacterium acnes. Lee, et al. 2007.
Role of reduced sulfur compounds in nutrition of Propionibacterium acnes. Nielsen. 1983.
Topical acne drugs. Akhavan, et al. 2003.
A Reexamination of the Potential Comedogenicity of Sulfur. Strauss, et al. 1978.