"Sulfur is keratolytic, which means it works by softening and thinning the epidermis to prevent clogged pores," explains Arielle Kauvar, MD, of New York Laser & Skincare. "It also reduces the growth of the Propionibacterium acnes bacteria and the blockage of pores." Translation: Oily and acne-prone skin types, take note because sulfur might be the zit-fighting and oil-zapping ingredient you’ve been searching for.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Arielle Kauvar is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of New York Laser & Skin Care. Her focus on minimally invasive procedures has earned her awards such as the Beauty Genius Award by Elle for laser surgery innovation.
While Kauvar explains that sulfur alone is less effective than more common ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, it’s typically combined with impressive co-hosts (like resorcinol and sodium sulfacetamide) that pack products with a powerful punch.
But if even glancing at the word sulfur has you already sensing the smell of rotten eggs, don't worry—most sulfur acne treatments are loaded with masking odors that overbear the scent. Still, Kauvar does suggest incorporating sulfur treatments into your evening skin care routine, in order to minimize any lingering scents.
Ahead, we rounded up eight sulfur acne treatments to try immediately, including heavy-duty masks, spot treatments, cleansers, and more.
Sunday Riley’s acne mask is chock-full of wonder-working ingredients: 10% sulfur clears and treats zits, while niacinamide brightens and zinc PCA minimizes excess oil. The mask (which should be left on clean skin for 20 to 30 minutes) is topped off with soothing tea tree and manuka oils, which leave skin smooth and soft.
Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, helps restore cellular energy, repair damaged DNA, and reduce the immunosuppressive effects of sun-induced UV rays. The ingredient has been proven to prevent the transfer of pigment within the skin, which can help reduce brown spots.
After cleansing and toning, smooth two pumps of Clearogen’s Sulfur Acne Lotion across the face to fight breakouts and minimize redness (thanks to a cocktail of salicylic acid, rosemary extract, and aloe).
“The clay absorbs oil and impurities while the salicylic acid unclogs pores," explains Kauvar, noting that the formula is also infused with licorice, which helps combat dark spots.
This foaming cleanser is loaded with 3% sulfur to help clear and prevent breakouts. Kate Somerville also included honey, rice bran, and oat extracts to calm, soothe, and reduce excess sebum.
Honey is a natural antibacterial ingredient, and is also a humectant, which works to lock in moisture on the skin.
Colloidal sulfur and kaolin pack Dr. Dennis Gross’s mask with an acne-fighting, skin-smoothing punch. Smear the product across your face for a 10-minute mask, or spot-treat pores and zits that need extra attention.
The 10% sulfur gives Dermadoctor’s mask and spot treatment heavy-duty cleansing powers. Combined with witch hazel (which cleanses skin) and soothing-botanicals, Dermadoctor’s mask can sit on skin for 15 minutes up to three times per week.
While Indie Lee’s colloidal sulfur zaps excess oil, salicylic acid works to minimize pores. Mineral clay (which gives this overnight spot treatment its Millennial Pink color), strips skin of impurities, so even the most persistent of zits won’t stick around.
The best part about Peter Thomas Roth’s sulfur mask is that it’s not limited to your face—the highly concentrated product can treat breakouts on your chest and back, too. “[This mask] contains kaolin, which absorbs oil,” explains Kauvar. The formula, she notes, smells like clay, rather than sulfur.
Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter acne treatments: a review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(5): 32-40.
Levin J, Momin SB. How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients?. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010;3(2): 22-41.
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