Acne treatment Acne treatment

Sulfur Washes for Acne

Sulfur Washes for Acne Sulfur Washes for Acne


Acne is caused by excessive production of a usually harmless skin bacterium. Sulfur inhibits proliferation of this bacterium and provides other protections against acne while causing few side effects. Consequently, it is commonly used to improve mild to moderate acne.


Acne is a disease affecting hair follicles in the skin. A review of acne treatments by the University of Pennsylvania published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2003 identified the key steps in acne development. Increased testosterone causes excessive oil production by glandular cells and shedding of the skin's outer layers. These factors facilitate the replication of a usually harmless bacterium found on most people's skin, Propionibacterium acnes. In response, the skin becomes inflamed. Inflammatory molecules invade the skin surrounding the bacterium causing typical symptoms of acne such as blackheads, pustules and swellings.


Sulfur is a yellow element, often found near volcanoes, used to treat many skin conditions, including acne. Sulfur removes dead skin cells and provides some protection against fungal and bacterial activity.

The Effect of Sulfur on Acne

A study by the University of Toronto in 2004, published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, examined the use of sulfur to treat acne. Sulfur reacts when applied to the skin to form hydrogen sulfide, which breaks down dead outer skin cells. Sulfur also inactivates key parts of the acne producing bacterium. The study found it took two hours for sulfur to penetrate through the outer layers of skin and remained in skin layers for eight hours after application.

Forms of Sulfur Treatment

Sulfur washes often combine sulfur with sodium sulfacetamide. Sodium sulfacetamide inhibits an acid that is essential for acne-causing bacterial growth. The study in Toronto reports no sensitivity among people using a sulfur wash, meaning it can be used as a long-term treatment. As a lotion, it combats acne but does not result in excessive peeling. The combination is also available as a topical suspension and cleanser. In trials, lotions have been found to reduce inflammation, oil production in the skin and blackhead production. Occasional side effects that were experienced were skin dryness and itching. After an average of three months, 90 acne patients out of 141 benefited from this treatment.

Other Treatments for Acne

Other treatments for acne include retinoids and antimicrobials, which limit the formation of initial acne lesions and destroy bacteria, respectively; however, they can cause skin irritation. An article by James May published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 identifies these treatments as more effective at treating acne than sulfur washes. Severe acne may be treated with oral antibiotics, but they can have a range of side effects, including stomach pain. Trials for oral antibiotics indicate a 50 percent to 60 percent improvement in acne lesions. Ineffectiveness would suggest resistance to the bacterium, another problem with this therapy. Other treatments for severe acne are hormone therapy and oral retinoids.

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