Sulfur is a chemical element that is naturally present in the human body. Also found in a number of foods (such as garlic and onions), sulfur is necessary for the synthesis of two essential amino acids (cysteine and methionine).
Uses for Sulfur Supplements
As a supplement, sulfur is available in the form of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM).
Although sulfur deficiency is very rare, sulfur-containing supplements are sometimes used to increase sulfur levels and protect against certain health conditions, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- periodontal disease
- premenstrual syndrome
- rheumatoid arthritis
Sulfur and Dermatology
Sulfur and Balneotherapy
Balneotherapy is an alternative therapy that involves treating health problems by bathing, usually in hot springs and other naturally mineral-rich waters. In many cases, the water used in balneotherapy contains sulfur. Proponents claim that soaking in sulfur-rich waters can help treat allergies, respiratory disorders, arthritis, and chronic pain.
Benefits of Sulfur
Here's a look at the science behind the health benefits of sulfur:
1) Sulfur and Arthritis
MSM may be of some benefit to people with osteoarthritis of the knee, according to a research review published in the journal Osteoarthritis Cartilage in 2008. Looking at six studies on the use of MSM or DMSO in treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee, investigators found that "data from the more rigorous MSM trials provide positive but not definitive evidence that MSM is superior to placebo in the treatment of mild to moderate osteoarthritis of the knee." However, since most of the reviewed studies were of poor quality, the review's authors note that "no definitive conclusion can currently be drawn for either supplement."
There's also some evidence that balneotherapy may benefit people with arthritis. In a 2007 report from Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, for instance, scientists sized up seven trials on the use of balneotherapy in treatment of osteoarthritis and found that the therapy resulted in significantly greater improvements in pain and quality of life (compared to placebo). In addition, a 2003 report from the same journal looked at six trials on the use of balneotherapy in treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and found that most studies reported "positive findings."
It's important to note that the authors of each review caution that most of the reviewed studies were poorly designed, and that more research is needed before balneotherapy can be recommended in treatment of arthritis.
2) Sulfur and Allergies
MSM supplements may help alleviate allergy symptoms, according to a small, older study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2002. For the study, 55 patients took either MSM supplements or a placebo every day for 30 days. Looking at data on the 50 participants who completed the study, researchers found that those assigned to the MSM supplements experienced significantly greater improvements in lower respiratory symptoms (compared to members of the placebo group).
3) Sulfur and Rosacea
Topically applied sulfur may help treat rosacea, according to a 2004 report from the journal Cutis. According to the report's authors, sulfur-containing lotions and/or cleansers may help enhance the benefits of other topical and oral therapies for rosacea.
Is Sulfur Safe?
Little is known about the safety of using sulfur-containing supplements in the long term. However, both MSM and DMSO may cause certain side effects, such as headache, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea.
Where to Find Sulfur Supplements
Available for purchase online, sulfur-containing supplements are sold in many natural-food stores and in stores specializing in dietary supplements.
Should You Use Sulfur for Health Purposes?
Due to a lack of scientific support, it's too soon to recommend sulfur-containing supplements, topically applied sulfur, or balneotherapy for treatment of any health condition. If you're considering the use of sulfur in treatment of a chronic condition, make sure to consult your physician. It's important to note that self-treating a chronic condition with sulfur and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.
Barrager E, Veltmann JR Jr, Schauss AG, Schiller RN. "A multicentered, open-label trial on the safety and efficacy of methylsulfonylmethane in the treatment of seasonal allergic rhinitis." J Altern Complement Med. 2002 Apr;8(2):167-73.
Brien S, Prescott P, Bashir N, Lewith H, Lewith G. "Systematic review of the nutritional supplements dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) in the treatment of osteoarthritis." Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2008 Nov;16(11):1277-88.
Del Rosso JQ. "Evaluating the role of topical therapies in the management of rosacea: focus on combination sodium sulfacetamide and sulfur formulations." Cutis. 2004 Jan;73(1 Suppl):29-33.
Gupta AK, Nicol K. "The use of sulfur in dermatology." J Drugs Dermatol. 2004 Jul-Aug;3(4):427-31.
Verhagen AP, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Boers M, Cardoso JR, Lambeck J, de Bie RA, de Vet HC. "Balneotherapy for osteoarthritis." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Oct 17;(4):CD006864.
Verhagen AP, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Cardoso JR, de Bie RA, Boers M, de Vet HC. "Balneotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(4):CD000518.