Sulfur is the stinky skin care ingredient you should be using
I just started using a skin care ingredient that smells like rotten eggs — and I'll keep covering my nose and using it because my skin has never looked better.
I've always had healthy, obedient skin, but in the last few months I started noticing little changes that made me question whether I was developing allergies to my products. My cheeks would turn red, especially right before my period, and small red bumps — not prominent enough to be called pimples, but just big enough to be annoying — would often appear and then vanish a few days later, only to reappear whenever they were bored and needed something to do.
My dermatologist wasn't sure what to make of my mysterious skin ailment, and because the sensitivity would come and go throughout the month, I felt like I was presenting her with phantom symptoms. After what seemed like ages and a lot of back-and-forth photo sharing, she was finally able to diagnose the condition: very mild acne rosacea, which may or may not become aggravated by hormonal fluctuations experienced throughout the month. Knowing very little about rosacea other than that it's an incurable, chronic condition, I assumed I was Screwed with a capital S. And then my doctor prescribed an unusual "S" treatment: a sulfur-based cream that she recommended I use once a day and leave on for up to five minutes before rinsing off.
You probably know sulfur as that bright yellow, stinky element found in nature — a nonmetal often used in fertilizers, cleaners, batteries and even in refined oil — not exactly the first thing you'd think to put on your face. But, believe it or not, sulfur in skin care is one effective natural ingredient that doesn't get the kind of hype a coconut or argan oil enjoys — because it isn't luxurious. Sulfur is all business.
"Sulfur is helpful in acne and rosacea treatment for many reasons," says Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse. "It is keratolytic, so it helps exfoliate skin and possibly unclog pores; it can be irritating, which helps exfoliate skin; it is antibacterial, reducing the [Propionibacterium acnes] load on the skin, which contributes to acne and inflammation; it is anti-parasitic, and kills the Demodex mites on the skin, which have been implicated as the cause of acne rosacea in some people.”
If you suffer from adult acne but still have nightmares about what harsh products did to your skin when you were a teen, Shainhouse says sulfur is a great option because it can be less irritating and drying to adult skin than both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. It can mattify skin by mopping up excess oil and sebum, and when combined with sodium sulfacetamide (the prescription cream I have been using contains 10 percent sodium sulfacetamide and 5 percent sulfur), which Shainhouse says also has antibacterial properties and inhibits pro-inflammatory enzymes. It works even better as an anti-inflammatory anti-acne treatment in acne rosacea and perioral dermatitis.
I've been faithfully using my sulfur cleanser for three months now and have not experienced a single breakout or patch of redness in that entire time. It's far creamier than you might think, works super fast and didn't irritate my skin at all.
But we have to take a minute to talk about the smell. Sulfur is a notoriously gassy-smelling chemical element that isn't pleasant. Many companies will add a fragrance to their products to mask a bit of the rotten egg scent, Shainhouse says, but keep in mind that, if your original problem involves having sensitive skin prone to breakouts, the last thing you probably need is fragrance. I suck it up each day and, honestly, you get used to the odor and it isn't as bad as you might think.
If your skin is especially reactive or you are experiencing a bout of rosacea or acne that you feel is beyond your control, you should visit your dermatologist and see if you're a good candidate for a prescription cream.