Sulfur is present in a number of acne treatments, including face washes, creams, ointments and more. The element has been used historically for its antibacterial and skin cell turnover properties. Because sulfur can cause skin to dry and/or flake, there are side effects associated with the application of sulfur-containing acne treatments. While carefully following the directions listed on your sulfur acne product will help, carefully observe your skin for the following side effects, reducing application as needed.

Skin Irritation

Sulfur's strong chemical properties can cause skin irritation, such as redness, warmth, itching or flaking. This is typically a sign of the sulfur working to encourage cell turnover and release built-up oils in the skin. If the irritation is too severe or uncomfortable, cease using the product or apply it to a lesser degree. This irritation also may occur following a few days of use. Over time, you can typically increase application as the skin becomes more acclimated to the treatment. You also may wish to apply a soothing moisturizer to reduce drying or redness.

Skin Discoloration

Significant proportions of sulfur in acne treatment products has been associated with skin discoloration. Because sulfur can cause facial cell turnover, the areas of turnover may appear white, gray or even black. If the discoloration seems to spread or does not improve over time, cease using the sulfur agent.


Sulfur has a strong smell that can be displeasing to the user. The smell can ultimately lead to headaches. If you experience frequent headaches because of the odor of sulfur, ask your doctor if fragrance can be added to the treatment or if a weaker sulfur solution can be substituted.

Other Concerns

Applying sulfur to the face has been known to cause allergic reactions in some people. While the reaction can range from mild (skin rash) to severe (difficulty breathing, swelling of the airway, facial swelling or hives on the face or body). If any of these symptoms occur, cease usage of sulfur acne treatments as symptoms could potentially worsen with each application. Significant allergic reactions, particularly difficulty breathing, may require medical attention.

Sulfur can react negatively with prescription-strength acne products, including Accutane or Differin. If you are currently using these products, consult your physician before using sulfur as significant irritation may occur.