Cocoa butter, also known as oil of theobroma, is widely acknowledged as one of best natural moisturisers around. Many chocolate loving societies like the Aztecs and Mayans used cocoa butter for improving skin tone as far back as 1000BC.
Apparently beauty obsessed celebrities in Ghana are recommending cocoa butter left, right and centre and hence the whole country is using it. In the real world, many women believe that rubbing cocoa butter in can help post pregnancy stretch marks to fade away. Cocoa butter is extensively used by the pharmaceutical industry as an ingredient in creams, topical lotions, cosmetics, and especially soaps.
Cocoa butter was widely used as a massage butter in massage parlours from 1828 onwards when a scientist called Coenraad Van Houten invented the “cocoa press” that allowed him to extract the butter from cocoa beans more economically. Dr Van Houten was actually responsible for the boom in cocoa butter usage across the entire pharmaceutical industry too.
Today women everywhere are tempted by the mildly chocolatey fragrance and pleasant yellow colour and rubbing cocoa butter into their skin everywhere, whether to get smoother skin or to even out its tone.
Cocoa butter clearly contains some hidden powers (although a healthy diet is the real secret to great skin), but is it safe if you’re on a mission to clear your acne?
The most comedogenic substance on earth?
The answer is probably no, and I’ll explain why right now. Cocoa butter has a strong tendency to block your skin pores compared to similar natural topical treatments.
Over many years, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology has performed tons of studies on different natural oils, analysing tons of different physical qualities whether it be their effects on inflammation and acne, how they affect skin antioxidant supplies, and whether they hydrate the skin or dry it.
The Journal has assembled a massive list of the comedogenic properties of all oils. Comedogenicity is a measure of a substance’s ability to block skin pores…
…and the Journal has invented 6 ratings. 0 = will not clog your pores. 1 = low chance of clogging your pores. 2= moderately low chance, 3 = moderate chance, 4 = fairly high chance of pores being blocked, and 5 = a very high chance.
Cocoa butter too has been analysed and it receives a rating of 4. Many professional skincare sites warn against using cocoa butter if you’re prone to acne.
It may moisturise your skin, but analysis of all the studies that the Academy has access to reveals that it can block your skin pores badly.
It ranks equally to coconut oil, which receives a rating of 4 and as we discussed in this article, is effective at killing acne bacteria and lowering acne inflammation but notorious for blocking your pores.
What is cocoa butter?
Cocoa butter is the natural fat sourced from cacao beans. The extracted fat is light yellow in colour and is edible, with a mild chocolatey flavour and scent. Cocoa butter is the fat portion of most chocolate bars you eat, although cocoa butter prices have skyrocketed thanks to disease plaguing South American cocoa pods. Cocoa companies are searching across the world for cheap fat alternatives whether it be palm oil, argan oil, or camel hump fat.
One area where it’s still abundant though is the pharmaceutical industry. Cocoa butter works well in soaps and cosmetics because its fat profile is mostly saturated; 57-64% saturated, 29-43% monounsaturated, and 0-5% polyunsaturated fat. This gives the oil very high stability and a high melting point, so it’s perfect for solid fats in soaps.
Furthermore, its shelf life is immense, between 2 and 5 years. Because cocoa oil contains plenty of natural antioxidants like vitamin E and cocoa mass polyphenols, assuming it’s extracted at a fairly cold temperature, cocoa oil takes forever to go rancid. I myself have cocoa butter in my cupboard that’s well over a year old and its fragrance is just as fantastic as ever.
The next question is whether its moisturising powers do exist, and the answer is yes.
As we mentioned, Mayans and Aztecs were the original chocolate loving societies (the Mayans even had a chocolate god known as Ek Chuah) but they always made room for nourishing their skin with the butter. There aren’t any studies specifically on cocoa butter’s ability to smooth and hydrate the skin, but 24-37% of cocoa butter’s total fat content is stearic acid (a saturated fat) and a further 24-30% % is palmitic acid (also saturated).
This study compared two oil containing chemical concoctions called PN and NNSC, to a mixture of oils (PNSC) found naturally in stratum corneum skin cells including ceramides, cholesterol, and palmitic acid. They found that the mixture containing palmitic acid “was significantly more effective in increasing skin hydration and elasticity” compared to PN and NNSC.
Could palmitic acid be the reason for cocoa butter’s hidden powers? There’s not enough evidence to say, but the same study also commented that compounds called ceramides were hydrating and cocoa butter may contain those too.
Ceramides are waxy lipids, or fat molecules, that are found in both your hair and many layers of your skin. They’re important for proper protein structuring in the skin and help to retain moisture. In fact, ceramides might even help your skin to hold onto its moisture for longer periods when present.
Furthermore, decent concentrations of ceramides can protect your cells against UV light damage from the sun and thus keep your skin in an irritation and burn-free protective bubble. Building an armour against free radicals from sunlight is vital for clearing acne, because you need some sun exposure to get vitamin D. Sensitive, dry and irritated skin has been shown to lack ceramides.
If cocoa butter did contain ceramides it wouldn’t be surprising that it made your skin resilient and smooth. According to unverified sources on the internet, cocoa butter contains these waxy lipids at concentrations of 3%.
There’s also antioxidants, vitamin E, and whatever unidentified plant compounds are in there that produce such an intoxicating aroma. Dark chocolate is noted for its outstanding benefits, like improved blood flow to the brain, lowered LDL cholesterol and its antioxidants. The majority of those benefits come from the cocoa powder, but cocoa butter still contains enough that applying it to your skin directly might work wonders for tone and hydration.
Elsewhere, there are simply too many positive stories on the acne-sphere to ignore. I can’t speak for the smoothness but I can testify that pictures show a general improvement in skin tone from mildly blotchy and grey to golden and bright.
How it all goes wrong
It’s unfortunate then, that these powers should NOT tempt you if you are prone to acne. The high comedogenicity rating of 4 is borne out in the real world by user comments:
- “MAN did it break me out with acne! Stay away from cocoa butter!”
- “Definitely clogged up my pores”.
- One patient’s acne “got worse after one week” and her skin got “very oily”.
- Finally, one acne patient claimed that they can’t even touch cocoa butter with their hands without unconsciously touching their face and noticing a big acne breakout later in the day. That sounds like a classic overactive imagination to me, but you never know.
The stories are hardly in nightmare territory, but its acne nevertheless. Clearly the American Academy of Dermatology is absolutely correct, in this instance at least…
…but with that said there are also many people claiming that cocoa butter improved their acne, in spite of it being comedogenic. Some acne patients claim they use it for weeks and notice nothing; you’d expert pores to be thoroughly clogged by then. How can this be? There are two compounds which could explain it…
Antioxidants – most of the antioxidants in chocolate come from cocoa powder but cocoa butter contains one called cocoa mass polyphenol, which in one study was linked to lower production of an inflammatory chemical called immune-globin IgE. Chronic inflammation is the number one cause of acne. Additionally, cocoa mass polyphenol is known to work wonders in patients with dermatosis and rashes, which are both caused by inflammation.
Vitamin E – the single most important vitamin for acne, since it is your body’s master fat soluble antioxidant that prevents the oil on your face from reacting with free radicals and producing a deadly comedogenic compound called squalene peroxide. Vitamin E can also directly inhibit acne inflammation in your skin cells.
Furthermore, it’s possible that many of the acne patients already had oily skin, and hence, adding a little cocoa butter made no difference to their already thoroughly blocked pores. They might have enjoyed the extra vitamin E and acne antioxidants with no effects. It’s also possible that their pores did get blocked, but that they were especially deficient in vitamin E and this was sufficient to counter the improved environment for p.acnes bacteria to breed.
Everybody’s circumstances and genetics are different, so cocoa butter will never cause acne in everybody…
…but it is still able to clog pores in the majority of people with acne.
Is cocoa butter an acne-friendly moisturiser?
Cocoa butter is a potent moisturiser and skin hydrator; it’s well accepted in the pharmaceutical industry where they have the eyesight of a hawk for the most effective ingredients. Even though cocoa butter prices shot up by 65% from March 2013 to March 2014, companies are still putting it in their soaps; it’s that effective.
Cocoa butter is good for many aspects of skin health, but it’s definitely not good for clearing acne. Your skin might survive but you don’t want to be deliberately clogging your pores, not when half of your diet is tailored for lowering sebum production.
Your efforts to lower carbohydrates will be made pointless. Your efforts to eat more vitamin A, which is the greatest nutrient for oily skin ever, will also be made pointless. Cocoa butter is terrific if you’re not an acne patient but a serious villain if you are.
Additionally, there’s a chance that cold processed (raw) cocoa butter might be healthier. Heating cocoa butter can warp the acne-friendly vitamin E and obliterate the delicate antioxidants and there’s also evidence in scientific literature elsewhere that when you heat any oil, it becomes far more potent at blocking pores.
There’s no indication on the Journal of the Academy of American Dermatology as to whether it was raw or heated cocoa butter they tested. What does that mean? The truth is currently shrouded in mystery, but it means that the raw version could be a lot safer for your acne.
If you want to find out then you could try comparing the two for acne, perhaps on different areas of your skin simultaneously. Note that the vast majority of cocoa butter sold in the shops and the vast majority found in chocolate (which is actually an excellent food for acne) is heated.
Shea butter – a vastly superior moisturiser for acne
Shea butter is used for very similar purposes as cocoa butter – for hydration, for improved skin tone, and for dealing with acne scars. It has a similarly storied history; Egyptian historical records from as far back as Cleopatra’s era speak of caravans arriving, packed with clay jars of shea butter for cosmetic usage. Its fat profile is similar enough to cocoa butter that the chocolate industry occasionally uses it as a substitute…
…but there’s one significant difference: shea butter is far less likely to block your pores and hence create acne. While cocoa butter scores a high 4 on the comedogenic scale, shea butter scores 0 (which indicates a very low chance of it blocking pores). Likewise, there are fewer user reports on the internet about clogged pores and acne.
I would never use shea butter myself except in specific circumstances like after swimming in a pool, as I’ve found other ways to keep my skin smooth and strong (see below), but if you do want a topical moisturiser that’s natural and free of chemical contaminants then shea butter is an excellent acne friendly option.
A natural and non-fraudulent (that’s often a problem with shea butter) product is this Unrefined Shea Butter by Better Shea Butter.
I also strongly recommend that you avoid hot showers. Many acne patients like to inundate their bodies with hot water to scrub all the oil off, and theoretically unblock their pores.
However, this strategy backfires badly for acne. Because sebum is necessary for health purposes like keeping your defensive acid-mantle intact and delivering nutrients, your sebaceous glands respond to the lack of it by becoming hyperactive. They begin churning out far more oil than they would otherwise.
Hot water actually increases your sebum production, and at the same time, it irritates your acne and dries your skin out badly. Simply stop using hot water and you’ll notice a massive reduction in the flakiness on your skin (and in acne).
As you can read in this article, I achieved a miraculous reduction in acne across my entire body just by taking two cold showers per day. My skin tone also became glowing and radiant. It’s a dead easy trick to use for almost all acne patients.
My personal secret for making moisturisers unnecessary
There’s a little known secret which is that you don’t need moisturisers at all if you’ve got the nutritional knowledge. I used to use pharmaceutical moisturisers with standard ingredients every morning. I used to believe that if I didn’t, I’d get a leathery and weathered-looking face like a guy who’d been living high in the mountains for 50 years.
The problem was that moisturisers broke me out with acne worse than anything. Every single time I rubbed in a moisturiser my existing acne grew monstrously red and inflamed.
In retrospect it was clearly due to harsh chemicals like dioxane and propylene glycol. Moisturisers and other cosmetics like perfume and make-up are full of acne-causing chemicals.
I stopped using moisturisers for many years but over the last 12 months, I’ve begun taking this Camu Camu Powder.
I’ve effectively been megadosing vitamin C because the Camu Camu berry (hailing from Peru) is the most concentrated source in the world. I originally took it to heal a nagging foot injury and it did that well. But I also noticed effects on my skin: 1) my acne started healing a lot faster, and 2) my face became as smooth as a baby’s. It wasn’t even something I was aiming for but nevertheless, Camu Camu powder eliminated all roughness and flakiness full-stop.
The vitamin C was responsible but why? Vitamin C is a cofactor required for the production of collagen. That’s your skin’s most important structural protein. It helps old pimples to heal and makes your skin generally stronger, tighter, and more hydrated. Collagen levels slowly drop after age 25 and that’s one of the biggest causes of aging.
If you want smoother skin without wasting time on cocoa butter or creams or oils every morning, then taking this Navitas Naturals Raw Camu Camu Powder is a seriously smart idea.
It’s a good strategy to conduct experiments in all areas of acne to determine how your unique body reacts, so you can try cocoa butter if you want to. However, cocoa butter’s propensity to clog pores is just too high to recommend it for acne patients.
If you want to get hydrated and smooth skin then first begin by following my strategies above, or use shea butter if you want faster results. Grapeseed oil and jojoba oil are also effective moisturisers. If you want a unique and natural acne cleanser then try raw honey, tea tree oil, or royal jelly.
If I had a large stockpile of cocoa butter then what I’d do instead is melt it all down and make some homemade dark chocolate with it. If you don’t have a sensitivity, then high cocoa dark chocolate is a fantastic food for acne; it can lower acne inflammation, improve your skin’s resistance to acne from sunlight and give you lots of magnesium. That can all wind up helping your skin without blocking your pores like topical cocoa butter.
Note that one power cocoa butter does have is removing old acne scars. Removal of old acne marks within weeks and making the surrounding skin glowing and healthy is perhaps the most common internet testimonial I’ve seen on acne forums. It’s almost effective against acne scars as aloe vera gel.
If you’ve already followed the acne-clearing advice on this website and unclogged your pores, or if you ever succeed in the future, then cocoa butter might help your skin to become truly clear much faster.
Thanks for reading!