Many over-the-counter skin-care product lines tout their sulfur-based soaps as natural cures for acne. Unbiased scientific evidence, however, does not always point to sulfur as the best treatment option for acne, though sulfur has certain properties that can help in the skin condition. Sulfur has been used to treat skin conditions, including acne, for centuries. Products with sulfur in them, including soap, continue to be popular.
Both over-the-counter soaps and creams that are formulated to fight acne contain sulfur. Sulfur has been a common ingredient in such products since the 1950s. Products with sulfur are recommended by many dermatologists, according to Adelaide A. Hebert, MD, a professor in the dermatology department at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School. Thanks to its odor, sulfur is often combined with other treatments, such as a retinoid. Wash-off products with sulfur are generally preferred to leave-on products, Herbert notes in the February, 2008 "Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology."
Sulfur-based products, like soap, can help with acne due to two properties in sulfur. The naturally occurring, inorganic element has germicidal action that helps to kill bacteria and also is a keratolytic, meaning it breaks down the skin's outer layer, according to Dermaxime Bio-Cellular Skin Care Products. Acne is caused by dirt, oil and bacteria build-up that clogs pores. Keratolytic action is needed to help to remove dead skin cells that clog pores, according to Joesoef Skin Care.
Sulfur might not be the absolute best treatment option. Few studies stand up to modern scientific requirements, asserts N. Hjorth in his article, "Traditional Topical Treatment of Acne," published in Norway's "Acta Dermato-Venereologica" in 1980. Some studies suggest that traditional treatments using sulfur, soap and light treatment might even prolong acne. Hjorth recommends abandoning traditional treatment in favor of the more effective use of benzoyl peroxide and retinoic acid. Another study published in the January, 2003 "Journal of the National Medical Association" reveals that using Toto ointment, which contains butyrospermum paradoxicum oils and soap, works better than using sulfur ointment.
Over-the-counter soaps and other products formulated to treat acne are big business. Acne is the most common skin disease in the United States, and only a fraction of sufferers use prescription products to treat their condition. Sulfur is not among the most common over-the-counter ingredients. These are benzoyl peroxide for its antibacterial properties, and salicylic acid, which is a mild medication that helps to open clogged pores and provides anti-inflammatory action. Sulfur is among the less common ingredients, along with sodium sulfacetamide, alpha hydroxy acids, vitamin A, zinc and tea tree oil. More study is needed to clarify the benefit of sulfur and the other less common medications, advise W.P. Bowe and A.R. Shalita in their September, 2008 "Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery" journal article, "Effective Over-The-Counter Acne Treatments."
While sulfur, or brimstone, has been referred to since the dawn of time its effects on skin care have not been well described. It's been used to treat skin for some 500 years to combat conditions including acne, fungal infections, psoriasis, scabies and eczema, notes author K.S. Leslie in the April, 2004 "Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology" article, "Sulfur and Skin: From Satan to Saddam." It's also common to find sulfur in cosmetics and skin care products, including soap. "Sulfur was often the active agent in many of the so-called 'patent medicines' that became popular in the mid-19th century. Time has not withered medical practitioners' enthusiasm for sulfur," according to Leslie's article.