Sulfur hasn’t exactly had an easy run as a skincare staple. On its own, the element is known for its signature “rotten egg” scent, and over the years, it’s garnered a reputation for its alter ego as sulfuric acid, which is used in everything from fertilizers to household cleaners. These aren’t exactly the kind of facts that score an ingredient high marks in the beauty world. But sulfur is quickly repairing its public reputation and the general public is becoming aware of what skin care experts for centuries have long known: it is one of the best kept secrets for a clear complexion.
The Deep History of Sulfur
So what is sulfur and what makes it so special? Commonly found in everything from rocks and minerals to plants and, yes, people, sulfur is a natural element — the tenth most plentiful in the universe, as a matter of fact. While we’ve come to associate it with that unmistakable odor, sulfur isn’t to blame for the eggy smell. In fact, pure sulfur is an odorless, yellow material. It’s when sulfur combines with other element to form certain compounds that a scent develops (which can mercifully be neutralized in modern beauty formulations, but we’ll get to that in a bit).
Sulfur wasn’t officially recognized as an element until 1777, but its history dates back centuries. Egyptians used sulfur in religious ceremonies as far back as 4,000 years ago, it was burnt as a fumigant in ancient Greece, and the element was used in China for explosives as far back as 500 BC. The Bible even references sulfur 15 times (inspiring the whole “fire and brimstone” concept, suggesting that sulfur fuels the fires of hell).
Sulfur is often found around volcanoes and hot springs, but it’s literally everywhere. It’s even considered an essential element of life, involved in the makeup of two major amino acids (methionine and cysteine — both of which are specific key proteins found in the skin, hair, and nails) as well as everything from fats to body fluids to bones. Human bodies require sulfur for DNA repair and the element even protects cells from damage that can lead to cancer and other serious diseases. So yes, sulfur matters in a major way — but only real beauty insiders know just how much of a powerful punch it can pack when it comes to skincare.
Beauty’s Use of Sulfur Has Ancient Roots
Even though modern beauty junkies may just be discovering sulfur’s impressive antibacterial, exfoliating, pore-decongesting, and oil-reducing properties, many skincare and makeup enthusiasts throughout history have been hip to the element’s magic.
One of the earliest uses of sulfur for aesthetic purposes may have dated back to the Bronze Age, when Egyptians reportedly crushed red ochre and mixed it with animal fat, galena (a lead sulfide mineral) and sulfur to create kohl, aka old-school eyeliner.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and you’ll find European women attempting to lighten their skin and hair with a slew of products (many of which, we now know were a terrible idea, like white lead paint). As blonde hair rose in popularity (many considered it “angelic”), women allegedly mixed homemade lightening pastes made of sulfur, honey, and alum (a form of potassium aluminum sulfate), which would brighten locks when they were exposed to the sun.
But perhaps sulfur’s biggest opportunity to shine through the centuries has been thanks to its anti-acne properties. Traditional Chinese Medicine has long included sulfur (known as liu huang) as a main ingredient in skin remedies and acne treatments and Ancient Romans apparently mixed sulfur into hot water baths in order to clear pores.
Unlike Some Old Beauty Practices, Sulfur Still Shines
The Ancient Romans may not have had extensive scientific research to back up their use of sulfur, but we do now, and that research has proven why the element has always been such an effective ingredient at fighting acne: it works. Studies have shown that sulfur has serious antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, making it a natural pimple fighter. Sulfur-based cleansers in particular have been shown to be excellent treatment for a whole host of skin problems, including rosacea, chronic eczema (aka seborrheic dermatitis), and of course, acne.