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What Is Sulfur Powder?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Sulfur powder is a refined and processed form of sulfur, a naturally occurring element that is bright yellow in color and is often known for the strong odor it gives off when burned. Many people compare the smell to rotten eggs. Powdered forms usually have a bit of this smell, but it isn't normally very intense. The powder is commonly used as a dietary supplement, usually to improve joint health and muscular function, and it is widely believed to have clarifying properties for the skin. It has a number of more industrial uses, too, particularly as an additive to fertilizers and insecticides, and some cultures believe it has mystical or magical properties, particularly when burned.

Where it Comes From

Getting sulfur powder is typically at least a two-step process that starts with elemental, or mineral, sulfur; once this has been identified, it must be refined and ground down into a fine dust. Sulfur can be found in nature, and has traditionally been mined from volcanoes and salt domes. In modern times the element is more readily collected as a residue or by-product of petroleum mining and oil refining, though. The latter is sometimes strictly considered “natural” while the former called “synthetic,” but either will make a powder when processed.

Sulfur occurs in various forms in most organic life as well. It is present in most human cells, at least in trace amounts, and amino acids require it for many enzyme functions. Garlic contains ample amounts of the element, as do Brussels sprouts, onions, cabbage, and turnips. Wheat germ and some beans, including soybeans, also contain it. Actually extracting the mineral from these sources can be difficult, though. As a result, they aren’t typically good sources of sulfur powder, even if they are good sources of sulfur generally when eaten.

As a Dietary Supplement

One of the more popular uses for the powder is as a dietary supplement, particularly for people who don’t feel like they’re getting enough of it in their diet or who think that they may have a deficiency. Many health food stores and holistic, natural healing clinics sell it in capsules, pressed crystals, or as a loose powder that can be added to food or drink. Sulfur is widely regarded as essential to life, and is a critical component of most plant and animal’s growth and metabolic function. Some experts say that augmenting the body’s stores with supplements can help boost overall health and can especially help strengthen muscles and joints.

It can stimulate the production of bile and boost the immune system by protecting the body from pollution and radiation exposure. The powder has also made up the base for sulfa drugs used as a primary antibiotic for decades. Historically, it was used as a laxative and diuretic and to treat gout, scurvy, spasms, and rheumatism, and it was also used to treat viral infections and parasites. While the powder can still be useful against these ailments today, most experts recommend different treatments that can get better, faster results.

Cosmetic and Topical Uses

The powder can be purchased in its pure form and mixed with cream or bought as a ready-to-use ointment to put directly on the skin, usually for the treatment of acne, dry skin, or eczema. Traditional Chinese medicine has incorporated the powder into a number of topical skin treatments for centuries, including use as a mask believed to pull impurities out of the skin on the face, particularly the sensitive area around the eyes. The powder is also an ingredient in many over-the-counter acne solutions and facial scrubs.

Industrial Applications

The powder has wide use in industry as well. It is a very popular additive to fertilizers and planting soils in part because of how well the mineral helps plant roots develop. It is sometimes sold in gardening supply stores as a way to prevent mold and mildew on plants as well; sprinkling small amounts of the powder on leaves and fruits is a non-toxic way to prevent moisture accumulation and mildew. This is often very important in moist, tropical climates.

Most small insects will die if they eat large quantities of sulfur, which makes the powder an important part of many insecticides, too, particularly those that focus more on natural ingredients and deterrents than chemically derived compounds. Many common matchsticks also contain sulfur powder on their tips, usually in combination with other compounds. The powder is also a popular additive to commercial-grade detergents and cleansers, and is often included in gunpowder.

Folklore and Magic

Several different cultures and groups attach mystical properties to the powder, particularly when it is burned. It is considered an element of fire used in exorcism and magic, and it has been used in magic rituals around the world to remove hexes or spells and to protect people from harm.

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Discussion Comments
By anon346430 — On Aug 28, 2013

Will it help prevent fleas if I sprinkle it on my yard?

By kylee07drg — On Nov 30, 2012

My cousin uses this organic powder to treat her acne. It is working, though the smell is a bit strong, and it reminds me of the air near this lake that I have been to multiple times.

I have smelled the intense odor of sulfur in the air around the lake, because there is a paper mill located nearby. Every time I go there, I am a bit overwhelmed by the scent of sulfur in the air.

I've read that sulfur is used to bleach paper, so I guess this is why the mill is using it. It really does stink up the town, and even though it is organic, I think it's bad for the environment because of the odor pollution! Who wants to go camping at a lake that smells like sulfur?

By Oceana — On Nov 30, 2012

My cousin lives in Australia, and they spell it like “sulphur” instead of “sulfer” over there. We both tried to correct each other before realizing that its a cultural difference.

I had been writing to tell her that I had been having problems with mildew growing on my pumpkins in the garden. She suggested that I use powdered sulphur.

The really fine powder can prevent mildew. You just dust it on the plants.

There is a courser sulphur powder that you can use to increase the soil's acidity, if you have plants that need acidic soil. I had never heard of using either type of powdered sulphur for gardening before, and I was happy to hear that I could use something organic instead of buying a bottle of chemicals.

By giddion — On Nov 29, 2012

@shell4life – If you cut or crush onions or garlic, there is a chemical reaction. Something in them breaks down into sulphide compounds, and this is why they smell so pungent.

I've heard that people who eat onions and garlic regularly decrease their risk of getting cancer. I would imagine that eating natural sources instead of buying sulphur powder in supplement form would give you the most benefit, though.

By shell4life — On Nov 28, 2012

I had no idea that garlic, onions, and cabbage contained sulfur! I eat these regularly, so I guess my body is getting enough of it.

Is the sulfur what gives these foods their potent and sometimes offensive aroma? I did notice that they are all very pungent.

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