Natural mineral sulfur available in over the counter skincare

Over-the-Counter vs. Prescription Sulfur

Natural sulfur has been a skincare staple since ancient times — and modern science backs up the mineral’s potent capabilities. We’re looking deeper into treating skin conditions (from acne to dandruff) with sulfur: when an over-the-counter product should do the trick, and when to see a dermatologist for a prescription.


2 minute read

Natural sulfur has been a skincare staple since ancient times — and modern science backs up the mineral’s potent capabilities. It’s FDA approved as an over-the-counter treatment to address a range of skin concerns, from acne to dandruff — though it’s also available in prescription formulations.

We’re looking deeper into the specifics of treating skin conditions with sulfur: when an OTC product should do the trick, and when to see a dermatologist for a prescription.


How does sulfur in skincare work?

This non-metallic element is an essential building block of amino acids — which make up all types of proteins in the body. As a skincare ingredient, it’s especially valuable, as sensitivities and side effects are uncommon. Although researchers aren’t exactly sure how sulfur manages its impressive array of skincare talents, most experts attribute its effectiveness to:

  • Antimicrobial properties
  • Oil absorption
  • Keratolytic abilities

What skin conditions does sulfur treat?

Because it has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and keratolytic properties, sulfur is used to manage a variety of skin conditions, including:

  • Acne vulgaris: especially inflammatory acne
  • Chronic inflammatory diseases: psoriasis, rosacea, eczema
  • Dandruff: including seborrheic dermatitis, a waxy, scaly type
  • Infections: various fungal, viral and bacterial microbes
  • Parasites: including scabies and lice

Is sulfur skincare available over the counter?

According to board certified dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee, OTC concentrations of sulfur are used for managing a variety of common skin concerns. Here are the highlights:

  • Acne: typically lotions, spot treatments, and masks, at concentrations of 3% to 10%. 
  • Dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis: shampoo or lotion, at concentrations of 2% to 5%. Frequently combined with salicylic acid. The sulfur-containing compound selenium sulfide 1% is another common OTC treatment.

Though there are no FDA standards established, over-the-counter sulfur may be effective in alleviating symptoms of fungal acne (aka folliculitis) and rosacea in certain patients. As always, check with your dermatologist first for a diagnosis and advice.

Do you need a prescription for sulfur skincare?

The short answer: that depends. If you’ve tried over-the-counter products and haven’t seen results after several months, it’s probably time to call your dermatologist. They may prescribe you a soap, lotion, cream or ointment that contains sulfur, often in conjunction with other prescription drugs to increase its efficacy.

Not surprisingly, it’s fairly easy to find higher concentrations of sulfur for sale online — we found 20% just Googling. But as Dr. Lee always says, more isn’t necessarily better: sulfur can be drying, and may cause irritation when combined with other ingredients, especially strong exfoliants. So stick with over-the-counter products that have a “Drug Facts” panel on the label, follow the instructions carefully, and listen to your skin. If you don’t see the results you’re after, pay a visit to your dermatologist.

Dr. Lee’s last word

Sulfur is one of the ingredients we dermatologists rely on to manage many different skin concerns, especially acne, for those with sensitive skin. It’s a natural alternative to benzoyl peroxide that helps inhibit C. acnes bacteria and it has some exfoliating properties. It’s also used often in combination with other drugs to treat scaly conditions like dandruff.

—Dr. Sandra Lee


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