Happy Easter! As today is our modern day for gorging on chocolate or cocoa in all its various forms, I wanted to write about the uses of cocoa in natural skincare.
Chocolate as Cash
The cocoa or cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small tree, native to South America but now cultivated all over the world – mainly in West African countries. The seeds, contained within the tree’s large cacao pods, are used to make cocoa powder or chocolate. Cacao pods weigh about half a kilo and contain up to 60 seeds which are used to make the chocolate we love eating so much. Each seed also contain 40-50% cocoa butter, a wonderful botanical plant fat.
We know that cocoa has been cultivated for well over 4,000 years and that it has long had various culinary, medicinal and ceremonial purposes. The Aztecs also ground up cocoa powder to add to their tobacco in order to smoke it. As a certified chocoholic, I can certainly appreciate the fact that cacao beans also formed part of a major currency system in the Aztec Empire (although I’d probably struggle not to eat my cash reserves if this was implemented nowadays).
Cocoa Butter in Natural Skincare
If you like using natural skincare products, you will have undoubtedly seen cocoa butter in some of the products you’ve bought. In its basic form it is sold as a yellowy hard butter which has a delicious chocolate scent. Cocoa butter is solid at room temperature (in our colder climates!) but liquifies around body temperature so it melts when it comes into contact with our skin. This rich plant butter is highly moisturising and hydrating because of this melting point which is why it is perfect for use in soaps, lip balms and body butters.
Cocoa butter is also very high in antioxidants including Vitamin E, which provide fantastic anti-ageing properties that fight the activity of free radicals on your skin and help to keep your skin looking supple and young. The antioxidants provide an added bonus by preventing cocoa butter from going rancid quickly which means it has a lovely long shelf life (2-5 years) when stored in its basic form.
Some proponents of cocoa butter claim that it can prevent or get rid of stretch marks, but a large-scale clinical study was undertaken in 2008 which demonstrated that this is unfortunately not the case (Osman et al., 2008). So whilst cocoa butter will provide great moisturising properties if used during pregnancy, don’t believe everything you read on the internet!
Caffeine for Cellulite
Cocoa butter isn’t the only brilliant product yielded by the cacao pod. Other cocoa solids (such as cocoa powder) are also extracted from the cocoa bean and contain slightly different compounds which in turn provide different skincare benefits. Cocoa powder contains lots of minerals including calcium, potassium and zinc. Most importantly though, cocoa solids contain high levels of caffeine and theobromine which are only present in trace amounts in cocoa butter.
Caffeine and theobromine have similar properties and are brilliant in skincare. These compounds are able to break down fats and can have draining properties on fatty cells which allows them to be used for skin firming. Caffeine and theobromine are often used to to tighten the skin and reduce puffiness. All of these skincare properties mean that cocoa solids can be used to target cellulite when applied to your skin.
Cacao is also fabulous to eat and drink! A study done in 2006 found that women who drank cocoa which was high in flavonoids had thicker, denser and better hydrated skin at the end of the study. Their skin was also more tolerant to UV sunlight exposure (Heinrich et al., 2006). This doesn’t mean you need to eat or drink buckets of chocolate (tempting as that may seem…) given how much sugar is added to confectionery in the shops, but just be safe in the knowledge that one of your favourite foods can have beneficial effects on your skin.
References and Further Reading
Osman, H., Usta, I.M., Rubeiz, N., Abu-Rustum, R. Charara, I., Nassar, A.H. 2008. Cocoa butter lotion for prevention of striae gravidarum: a double-blind, randomised and placebo-controlled trial. BJOG – An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology. 2008 Aug;115(9):1138-42.