Sulfur is a bright yellow, non-metallic element produced during the process of refining petroleum and natural gas. Sulfur is also naturally found in the human body where's it's a component of the B-vitamins, thiamine and biotin and is involved in a variety of metabolic reactions necessary for life. For example, it forms disulfide bonds that help to keep protein molecules stable and endow them with strength. It's also a vital component of the essential amino acid methionine. Sulfur is well-known for the "rotten egg" smell it gives off when it's burned. Sulfur is also an abundant element geologically. It's made inside stars by the fusion of helium and silicon and is present in meteors, geysers, volcanoes and near hot springs. In addition, sulfur is found in some foods. Good sources are green, leafy vegetables, broccoli, egg whites, nuts, seeds and beans.
Two forms of sulfur used medicinally are dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). MSM is used in supplemental form to treat the symptoms of arthritis, although there are some questions as to its effectiveness. Some studies show it's also effective as a treatment for seasonal allergies and hay fever. DMSO is a by-product of papermaking that's used industrially and medicinally. Medical-grade MSO is used to treat a chronic bladder condition called interstitial cystitis. It also shows promise for treating the painful condition called shingles.
Warm baths containing sulfur and minerals are used to treat some health conditions such as arthritis, back pain, varicose veins and skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. The warm water and absorption of sulfur and minerals through the skin is thought by some to be therapeutic for these conditions, although research is conflicting.
Sulfur is also an ingredient in some acne treatment products including acne facial washes, ointments and acne creams. It's an effective treatment for acne that has been around for many years. Sulfur has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties and is a keratolytic that promotes shedding of the outer layer of dead skin cells. This helps to open up clogged pores and re-generate new skin tissue, thereby improving the signs and symptoms of acne.
Sulfur is also combined with sodium sulfacetamide, a compound that has anti-bacterial activity, to treat acne. The combination of the keratolytic activity of sulfur and the anti-bacterial properties of sodium sulfacetamide is a powerful combination for treating acne. In some acne products, sulfur is combined with other acne-fighting ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Sulfur also has an anti-inflammatory effect that's beneficial for treating acne. In addition, topical sulfur is effective for treating the inflammatory skin disease rosacea.
Because of its anti-fungal properties, sulfur is an effective treatment for seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff and a common fungal infection called pityriasis versicolor. To treat dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, it may be combined with salicylic acid, a keratinolytic ingredient that works with sulfur to reduce scaling, flaking, itching and other signs and symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff.
At one time sulfur was thought to be comedogenic, which would limit its benefits for treating acne. This has since been disproven. Sulfur products can cause mild skin irritation including redness, itching and flaking. At high concentrations, sulfur can cause skin discoloration. Some people are allergic to sulfite, a form of sulfur used as a preservative for food, beverages and some sulfur-based antibiotics called sulfonamides. Even if someone is allergic to sulfites or sulfonamides doesn't mean they're allergic to sulfur in its elemental form. It's best to clarify this issue with a doctor. Sulfur appears to be safe in the quantities allowed in cosmetic and personal care products. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database classifies it as a low-hazard cosmetic ingredient.