Beauty Q&A, Personal, Skincare

How I FINALLY Cured My Hormonal, Cystic Acne ..with Fire & Brimstone (Sulfur)

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This post has been a very long in the making – over 6 months at this point.

I haven’t written a skin update since last summer when I definitively called it quits on Benzoyl Peroxide because even though derms can’t seem to agree on whether or not it ages skin, my skin was aging very quickly and BP was the only constant in my life.

BP works. Like it really, really works. So don’t think I’m saying it’s ineffective.

I was just tired of bleached towels, bleached sheets, burning skin, occasional–which turned into daily–allergic reactions and most of all–yes, after almost 10 years of daily use, yes, I believe it was prematurely aging my skin. So I tried to go cold turkey and call it quits once and for all on BP.

 

Update: How Did Quitting Benzoyl Peroxide Go?

I will say, first of all, that quitting BP cold turkey was something that my skin did not take kindly to.

Weaning myself off of BP might have been a better decision, but no matter what, quitting cold turkey was really stupid. Even following others’ (and my own) school of thought on using antioxidants to treat the inflammation causing excess keratin production.. yeah that didn’t work either. Not by itself, at least.

I have since found many others online who say they’ve had a hard time quitting BP, and once they quit, all their acne came back, like they were teenagers again. The same happened to me.

Some argue this isn’t possible.

Well, here’s all I know: I quit using benzoyl peroxide and instead began using a high-antioxidant OCM wash (our own product CLARITY). CLARITY did a great job of making my skin incredibly smooth, soft and glowy. I loved washing my face with this decadent herbal infused oil. If I didn’t have severe acne, and just wanted a way to wash my face without stripping it of its natural oils, CLARITY would’ve worked perfectly for me.

However, I do naturally have painful, deep cystic acne along my jawline, so CLARITY wasn’t getting the job done by itself. It simply wasn’t enough. It was high in antioxidants, but they just weren’t the right kind because they weren’t reducing my skin’s inflammation enough to fight off acne.

Although CLARITY remains a part of my daily cleansing ritual and removes the dirt and oil that could cause blackheads, comedones and acne elsewhere on my face, for my deeper jawline acne, it was time to go back to the drawing board..

 

The Question: How Can One Fight Cystic Acne?

My skin was soft, clean and otherwise looked fine.. except along my jawline back to my ears where colonies of comedones had turned into a full-on warzone for inflammation and cystic acne.

Cystic acne is deep and scarring. It’s painful and almost impossible to remove the source of inflammation: the comedone deep inside the hyper-inflamed pimple. The jawline is also especially sensitive, making removing comedones from already painful lesions into one of the worst skin experiences ever.

My skin had long lost the ability to repair itself and fight inflammation naturally.

Everywhere I looked writers said “You have to stay on BP,” or “Try salicylic acid,” “Go back on a daily antibiotic regimen” or worse.. “Try accutane.”

My immune system was already wrecked from 4 years of daily antibiotics. BP was bleaching, drying, irritating and potentially aging. Salicylic acid didn’t do anything for my skin.

I was starting to consider going on T-blockers, as my derm previously suggested. That is not the outcome I wanted, but I felt like I didn’t have any more choices. I was out of ideas.

At this point, I really had given up.

Then I came across a really interesting advertisement on Facebook..

NERD Skincare.

The concept was simple: fight bad bacteria with good bacteria. BP strips your skin of good bacteria (as do many other things). Add the good bacteria back into your system again.

Strangely enough, other startup beauty brands from MIT like Mother Dirt and Native (review coming soon) have been proudly parading this concept for a while, and it made me stop and think that this concept might have some merit.

One problem? The price tag.

Holy moley was this system expensive.

I also didn’t want an entire system, per se. I just wanted something simple to fight my acne. On a whim, I picked up their acne treatment “lotion,” which was $85. They had a 10% off coupon for your first order (firstorder10), so it was $76.50 when it was all said and done.

Sometimes that’s what you gotta pay for the good stuff. We’ll see how good it really is.

Here we go.

By the way, at this point my skincare regimen was:

  • Wash off makeup and dirt using CLARITY. Massage into dry skin for 3-5 minutes.
  • Rinse off CLARITY with Glossier’s Milky Jelly Cleanser
  • Quickly wash face with 9.8% foaming Benzoyl Peroxide wash
  • Apply EpiDuo Forte (0.3% adapalene/2.5% BP) generously to jawline and sparingly to the rest of my face
  • Apply SHINE to entire face

 

The Test: NERD Skincare for Cystic Jawline Acne

Side note: I thought NERD had a great purchase follow-up email, where they explained when and why and how to pop pimples (or not).

A few days later, when I received my NERD skincare package, before I had a chance to say anything, my boyfriend (who manufactures beauty packaging for a living) loudly pronounced, “That’s the ugliest packaging I’ve ever seen!”

I didn’t think it was THAT bad.. I actually thought the nerdiness of it was pretty cute.

The “lotion”–and you’ll see why I keep “doing this”–is clear, scentless, and has the consistency of water, making it decidedly difficult to apply. It has a dropper, so you really can only drop it directly onto your fingers, then apply it to your face. Every time I drop some onto my fingers, it slips through onto the counter. For $85, you would HOPE they would make you at least feel like you’re not losing any of it. My best advice for others would be to put a dollop of another serum onto your hands, then drop this on top, so that you don’t lose any of it.

No smell, no color, just water..

What was this stuff?! I had to look at the ingredients.

Sulfur 3.0% (active ingredient)

Allantonin, Buddleja Davidii Leaf Extract, Butylene Glycol, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Centella Asiatica Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Citric Acid, Cucumis Sativus Fruit Extract, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Glycerin, Glycyrizzha Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, PEG-12, Polygonum Cupsidatum Root Extract, Potassium Sorbate, Propylene Glycol, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Scutelleria Baicalensis Root Extract, Sodium Benzoate, Water (Aqua).

This is technically an OTC drug, the same way that Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide are, so there is drug labeling.

I’m just going to say straight off the bat that I believe the ingredients are out of order for 2 reasons:

  1. The social media rep gave me a different list of ingredients (different order)
  2. The water % in this formulation is definitely not less than the preservative, sodium benzoate

Just saying.

With no detectable smell or color and very low viscosity.. yeah, no. C’mon y’all.

Otherwise, the formulation looked good, except there was no bacteria.. just sulfur and brightening agents, like Licorice (found in SHINE).

I had no idea whether or not it would work, but this is the regimen I followed:

  • Wash dry face with CLARITY
  • Quickly wash with BP foaming wash (9.8%)
  • Apply NERD’s acne lotion to entire face (lightly, with more on the jawline)
  • Apply Herbivore’s Lapis balancing face oil to entire face (review coming soon)

 

The Results: NERD Skincare for Cystic Jawline Acne

Within a week, all but 2 of my pimples were gone. I previously had close to 15.

15 deep, painful, swollen pimples that had been sitting on my jawline for almost 3 months without healing.

That’s a miracle.

Now I’m at the 2 week point and I am 100% acne-free.

My comedones aren’t comedones anymore.. they’ve turned into little dried up black dots which are insanely easy to extract.

SO WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED?!

I mean, skincare isn’t magic. It’s supposed to be science. Also, there was no “good bacteria” in my skincare. Something funky was going on here.

Taking a look at NERD’s site, I find this:

Acne is a bacteria. Traditional acne-fighting ingredients wipe out the acne bacteria on your skin — but they also destroy the natural acne fighters that keep skin clear and healthy. They can also strip your skin of much-needed moisture, making skin appear older than it is, quicker. Side effects suck. That is why we stand by our mission and firmly believe that skincare products should not cause more problems than they solve, and they should not put your health at risk. When NERD helps your body to do what it was meant to do, your skin will show it.

Huh?

So, it’s not “good bacteria” that we are putting on our faces–except the face wash, which does contain yogurt powder–We are giving the good bacteria what they need to fight off the bad bacteria. We are arming good bacteria.

Anyway, the marketing mumbo jumbo tends to make me more confused.

I hit the books instead.

 

Sulfur for Cystic Jawline Acne

Back to the fire and brimstone reference.. sulfur was originally called brimstone. It has been used to treat skin and health ailments for centuries. As for the fire, I use fire to sanitize my lancet, before removing a comedone.

When we’re talking about sulfur for acne, it’s not really break-through science, as NERD’s marketing suggests. Others have been using sulfur for years to reduce inflammation and dry out acne. Sulfur is shown to be most effective on Asian skin, but it worked for my caucasian skin.

Sulfur is in fact an antioxidant and strong anti-inflammatory, so perhaps the theories we visited earlier about antioxidants helping rid skin of acne weren’t completely off-base.

Sources say that it’s not really effective for severe acne, just mild or moderate, but here I am treating really deep cystic acne on my jawline with it, and it’s doing a hell of a job. It’s less drying than Salicylic acid or Benzoyl Peroxide, but the price tag was bugging me.

But wait – Sulfur is totally OTC.

Googled it: You can straight up buy 10% sulfur ointment for $8 on Amazon. Who knew?

Between ointments and balms, sulfur is actually really easy to get for a decent price.

If you’re not down for weird thick ointments or solid bars (like soap), it turns out that luxury skincare brand Kate Somerville has their own sulfur treatment liquid for just $24.

Other stand-out products include Mario Badescu’s (who Allure can’t shut up about) drying mask for $18, Peter Thomas Roth’s Sulfur Cooling Mask and Dr. Dennis Grossman’s Clarifying Colloidal Sulfur Mask.

In retrospect, I remember trying an Alaskan Glacial Mud Mask the last time I went off BP (when I ran out in China) and it did dry out my acne. Others have had the same experience when visiting Iceland. It’s not because of the mud in the mask or the Iceland air–it’s the sulfur.

 

On A Budget, But Still Want to Try Sulfur For Your Acne?

Try onions or garlic. Specifically yellow onions. It’s not as straight forward, but it’s worth a try.

Yes, just like onion juice became the new DIY brow enhancer last year (side note: can you IMAGINE having onion juice that close to your eyes!?) and it seems like this year they could become the new DIY acne medicine.

Fresh, raw garlic has about a 0.35% concentration of sulfur (almost 10x less than NERD’s acne treatment lotion). I can’t find the concentration for onions, but yellow onions have the highest concentration, making them tough to eat raw.

My only caveat on the DIY option is that this is going to be a STINKY experiment and you’ll likely not get the same concentration as with a clinical mud mask or sulfur bar. However, it would be very cheap, likely effective, and you’ll get additional benefits to the skin that a lab-created or isolated molecule wouldn’t offer. It’s all about the ~ecosystem~ y’all.

 

Takeaways: Sulfur for Acne

Skincare continues to be a giant mystery to me, not because there’s so many products on the market, but because we all have completely different skin and microbiomes and skincare is this area where we (we meaning people, humans, scientists) pretend to know a lot, but we really have very limited knowledge. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know at all.

Science helps us take awesome, small strides, but with each test we need to remember that we are whole human beings with entire ecosystems within each of our bodies. In vitro and in vivo aren’t the same, and each person is a little different from the next.

Sulfur was a great, but surprisingly simple, discovery for me and I am truly happy that it worked on my cystic jawline acne. Sulfur has worked so far, but I still need to wean off of BP. I’m down to using it every other day. I’ll keep weaning off it from here.

As for acne?

Ugh.

Acne is such a self-esteem depriver. I was so tired of feeling like I didn’t want to leave the house, because at the end of the day, makeup could only cover up the discoloration due to acne; it couldn’t hide the giant inflamed bumps. I didn’t want to wear makeup because it would further inflame my skin, but I felt way too self-conscious without it.

I was miserable.

It was time to make a change, but I really felt like I was out of options.

I hope that some of my readers who are having the same issue will grab some sulfur (I’d suggest starting where I did, around 3% concentration) and try it out. You never know what will work until you try.

All I know is this: don’t hide, don’t stay in pain longer than you have to, don’t give up. The truth for your skin is out there, somewhere.

 

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15 Comments

  • You’ve come a long way baby.
    I had my first pimple at age 20 and full blown acne by age 25.
    Living in CA, I was prescribed Retin A (1973 or 4) and Tetracycline for 2 years and it finally brought that chapter of my skin revolt to a close.
    You know so much more now and Bravo to you for plodding on.
    Adios Accutane!

    Reply
    • When you got off of Retin A + Tetracylclin your skin stayed acne-free? Ugh! So jealous! My skin is definitely hooked on meds. Here’s to hoping it stays relatively clean and clear ~

      Reply
  • For cystic acne I put Dermalmd acne serum on after shower and before bed and it dramatically reduces the size, swelling, and pain of my moderate to cystic acne. I would totally recommend this serum to anyone struggling with acne.

    Reply
  • Hey Megan,

    I am currently on an Epiduo Forte regimen that seems to be a losing battle to acne. It’s so frustrating! I’m in my 30s with two kids and I should NOT have to be worrying about this. Anyway, this morning my derm recommended Acutane. I’m rather put off by the idea and came across your post. Just curious how it’s going with the sulfur treatments 3 months later… are you still using the Nerd skincare lotion or have you moved onto something cheaper (and preferably with free shipping)? I don’t mind putting down the money for something that will work. Although, I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t have some sort of mutating, treatment resistant acne.

    Reply
    • Well.. I’ve had crazy acne since I was 16 or 17, and have been able to keep it under control, but my skin texture has still never been great and I do have at least 3-5 small pimples somewhere, anywhere, at all times. I’ve been very pushy with my derm, because after being on daily antibiotics for 4 years, I really felt like it messed up my gut and immune system.

      I have stuck with the NERD lotion, 3% sulfur, and it’s been awesome. I’m off of Epiduo Forte now, but I do still use my benzoyl peroxide face wash (4%) about 5 times a week. I always use the sulfur lotion, regardless or whether I use the BP.

      I hate the BP and want off of it, so I asked my doctor for some sulfur products. He gave me a sulfur wash and a sulfur cream, and told me I can wean off of the BP now. He also gave me a 1 month microdose of antiobiotics. He says my acne is mostly due to inflammation (and it’s all there along the mouth and jawline). I’m hoping I’ll see great results by the end of the first month!

      This has been my first chance to get back to the states and do some shopping, but I did pick up the Kate Somerville Eradikate Sulfur wash and sulfur lotion (10% and it’s ~$26 instead of $85). I also picked up some OTC sulfur wash and creams (all 10%) on Amazon Prime for ~$7 a pop. I bought a LOT.

      My sulfur products from my derm were free with my insurance, but if they truly are the same thing as the $7 amazon prime otc-sulfur products, then I don’t think I’ll bother going through the doctor next time.

      I’d say DEFINITELY give sulfur a shot, because it’s way more gentle than BP or Salicylic Acid. It doesn’t burn, sting, stain your sheets/towels/pillows OR have the same side effects of accutane. Accutane is not to be taken lightly!! Definitely try the sulfur route–whether it’s OTC or RX–before switching to Accutane.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for your response. Fingers crossed! So glad you found something that worked for you.

        Reply
        • No problem. Don’t give up! Most don’t prescribe sulfur and want to try other routes first. I think the gentlest route should be attempted before moving onto bigger or riskier ones. Even though the research shows that Sulfur works best for Asian skintypes, it worked perfectly for me. Sulfur targets inflammation first and foremost. It dried out the comedones once it brought the swelling down. My derm never thought to use sulfur–he went with BP, adapalene, salicylic acid, antibiotics and testosterone blockers FIRST–but when I tried it myself and it worked, then he basically had to prescribe it to me. You can self-advocate!

          Reply
  • So retin a wasn’t an option or didn’t work?

    Reply
    • It’s not something that my dermatologist explored with me, and not something I was interested in trying, but I would have given it a shot if it came to it. Even though my cystic acne is along the jawline, it’s still considered in the periorbital area, which made him think it was hormonal or due to inflammation. Sulfur is for reducing inflammation, so that seems to be why it did the trick. Now he has me on a prescription sulfur wash and cream (which are both available OTC, too, but free with my insurance) and things are working pretty well 🙂

      Reply
      • I like the tretinoin for break outs but mostly for antiaging

        Reply
        • Good to know! I’ll have to bring it up to my derm at the next appointment and see if I can get some 😀

          Reply
  • Nice post…..

    Reply
  • So just a followup. I bought a 10% sulfur bar for my chest and back and the nerd skincare acne solution for my face. My skin definitely improved, but that bottle only lasted me two weeks, no joke, at $85… just no. What’s crazy is how my skin tone has improved since stopping the epiduo forte. I have since purchased the Eradikate by Kate Sommerville and my skin just keeps getting better and better. I have one or two large pimples that are healing and some small bumps that are hard to see with makeup on, but today was the first day that I looked in the mirror and decided to pass on the concealer. Thanks Megan for the tip.

    Reply
    • Excuse my language, but HELL fucking YES!! That is what I love to hear!

      Do you mean your skin texture has improved? Like, the way it feels when you touch it? Or the tone? My texture has definitely improved since starting sulfur treatment. I still buy the NERD treatment (mine lasted 1 month), but started using it every other day to save on the expense.

      The Eradikate 10% sulfur spot treatment is actually pretty heavy-duty (totally alcohol-based), but the Eradikate sulfur wash is BOMB. Way better than the 8% sulfur wash my doctor gave me, and pretty reasonably priced, too.

      Again, sooo freakin’ happy for you! It’s great to feel comfortable in your own skin. Keep me updated on your progress and any new/cheaper products you come across!

      Reply
      • Actually, the tone itself has improved. The benzoyl peroxide was making the post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation worse. Which, in theory would go away after a while once the break outs ceased. But since mine never did, I was just getting more and more dark spots on my face. And my skin looked dirty. But yes, it is also softer.

        I am no longer mortified when I have to sit in meetings at work. I just can’t thank you enough. I’m still dumbfounded that never once has anyone said the word “sulfur” to me in 20ish years of fighting acne. Because you know you try a lot of weird crap out of desperation.

        Reply

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