Read The Label: All Your Sulfur Questions Answered

Acne-soothing sulfur doesn’t just belong in the elements, it may be an excellent fit for your regimen. Here’s what the experts want you to know.
Written by Vivien Moon
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Read The Label: All Your Sulfur Questions Answered		Photo by Birgith Roosipuu on Unsplash

Feel like you need a dictionary every time you look at the ingredient list of a beauty product? Still unsure of the difference between retinol and retinoids? What about the unique benefits of vitamins B, C, and E? Are alpha and beta hydroxy acids the same thing? The skincare aisle can be overwhelming, but you don’t need a PhD in cosmetic chemistry to navigate it. With expert help, The AEDITION is demystifying and simplifying the beauty industry — one label at a time.

Common sense tells us that if a product smells bad, it’s past its expiration date – right? While it’s often best to err on the side of caution, some ingredients, like sulfur, may come with a funky scent (and lots of skin-boosting benefits). A favorite for addressing acne and sensitive skin concerns, this ingredient is known as gentler benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid which is what makes it a great pick for those with skin that may not tolerate these exfoliants. However, there’s so much more to sulfur than meets the eye and the experts are breaking down exactly what you need to know about adding it to your routine.

What Is Sulfur?

“Sulfur is a naturally occurring element found on the periodic table that can be incorporated into skincare,” explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a board certified dermatologist based in New York. The age-old ingredient has been a favorite not just because it helps address whiteheads by fighting off the acne-causing bacteria that live on the skin, but it can be a preventative tool, as well. “When used at the maximum over-the-counter level, sulfur clears up acne and blackheads and helps prevent new breakouts.,” explains a representative from Peter Thomas Roth. So, how does it really work? Keep reading.

The Benefits of Sulfur

“Sulfur helps the skin as it works to absorb excess oil and also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, it may have some exfoliating benefits as well,” Dr. Garshick adds. To break it down further, ZO Skin Health’s representative adds that “it dries out the surface of your skin to help absorb excess oil that may cause congestion, promoting the shedding of dead skin cells and helping to unclog your pores.” And because of its gentle nature, it can be added to the routines of those with sensitive skin and sensitive skin conditions.

The Best Candidates for Sulfur

We’ve mentioned that sulfur is beneficial for fighting acne but let’s break down the type of acne sulfur can work with, specifically. Because it’s not a harsh exfoliant, its abilities to unclog and reduce oil production are mild and it will primarily help address those pesky whiteheads and blackheads. “As a result of its anti-inflammatory properties, it can also help with conditions like seborrheic dermatitis as well as rosacea,” elaborates Dr. Garshick. And in a time when many exfoliants are deemed harsh for those with sensitive skin, sulfur can come in the clutch to provide some relief. However, it’s not a universal guarantee that the ingredient will fit any user's routine as an allergy is still possible to sulfur Dr. Garshick adds.

How To Find The Right Sulfur Product

Finding a product that works for you can be like dating – if it’s not a match, it’s not your fault. What makes a sulfur-powered product likely to be a fit for anyone is that it’s available in many iterations. ZO Skin Health offers a Complexion Clearing Masque that can be a great nighttime addition and it is “formulated to exfoliate and nourish the skin by minimizing surface oils that can lead to future breakouts while removing debris to help clear out clogged pores to replenish and restore hydration.” However, it’s also been utilized in numerous formulations (spot treatment, soap, masks) to be a fit for any routine.

For those concerned about the obvious, ahem, scent, Dr. Garshick expresses that there is a less than pleasant odor that sulfur is notoriously known for. “Sulfur-containing products may smell and although many companies have developed ways to minimize this scent, it is still good to be aware of.”

Brands like Peter Thomas Roth are aware of the pungent stink and know that it’s not the ingredient itself but what it is formulated with that can cause the odor. “Pure sulfur does not have a scent, however, its compounds do,” the PTR representative explains” That insight allows them to maintain product efficacy sans stink. “With this in mind, PTR formulates to help diminish any unpleasant smell while adding active ingredients that work synergistically with sulfur to clarify and improve the look of acne-prone skin.” Not only are they able to formulate to prevent the rotten odor but to allow the products to have a refreshing quality. “The Therapeutic Sulfur Mask has a low-level fragrance with a citrusy scent for an elevated application experience. It is also enriched with purifying kaolin and bentonite clays for extra oil-absorption and clarifying action, as well as aloe vera to help soothe the look of the skin and reduce the potential for dryness.” the representative adds.

How To Add Sulfur To Your Routine

By now you’re likely aware that with any new ingredients (especially ones that target acne or are developed for sensitive skin), a slow but steady introduction is the best course of action. “Some people may experience irritation, redness, or dryness so as with any new product, it is best to introduce it slowly,” recommends Dr. Garshick. Because the ingredient is drying, it can cause irritation for those with sensitive skin but because it’s gentler than the standard exfoliant, it is manageable to introduce slowly.

If you’re new to chemical exfoliants, sulfur is a great entry-ingredient but is not recommended if your routine is already filled with retinoids, alpha hydroxy acids, or beta hydroxy acids as the over-exfoliation can lead to a weakened skin barrier.

Now for those looking for a commitment and who need a little guidance on where to start, ZO Skin Health has a solution. “The Complexion Clearing Program is a comprehensive regime designed by ZO Skin Health’s team of dermatologists to minimize excess surface oil and fight against acne and clogged pores,” the ZO Skin Health representative explains. Streamlining the process and preventing confusion, it’s a step-by-step process to set you up for success The representative explains that “It includes the Exfoliating Cleanser, Exfoliating Polish, and Complexion Renewal Pads, the perfect combination to fight against unwanted dirt and oil. The masque can be used as a spot treatment or as a weekly ritual to keep excess oils at bay by complimenting your daily routine.”

The Takeaway

Not one to cause irritation (though never say never), sulfur is a great ingredient for those with sensitive or acne-prone skin seeking a gentle exfoliant. Beneficial for reducing oil production, it dries out the skin and helps address whiteheads and blackheads while being mild enough for those with rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. While it may not be the best line of defense for those wanting rapidly clearer skin, it s a safe option – funky smell and all.

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VIVIEN MOONis a senior editor at AEDIT.

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