Thinking back to my middle school years, when candy bar consumption and breakouts were both at an all-time career high, I remember being informed that all those breakouts were, unsurprisingly, the result of all those candy bars. Specifically chocolate, which was rumored to be a ruthless acne-causing culprit. While certainly a well-circulated, pre-teen myth, did that reason really hold water? I've heard yes and no over the years.
"Chocolate per se will not make you break out," says Dr. Shamban. "In fact, there is little evidence that chocolate or any specific fatty foods will cause acne, but we do know that a high-sugar/high-fat diet can increase sebum production and promote inflammatory responses in the body -- which can lead to acne. Again, although we can’t say that sugary and fatty food directly causes acne, it’s nevertheless true that overindulging in these kinds of food can increase your chances of developing the condition and may displace other nutrients that are critical to the skin’s health. (i.e. filling up on sugary foods may lead to less consumption of fruits and vegetables)."
So if chocolate can't be directly pinned to breakouts but definitely falls into the high-sugar/high-fat category, are certain types (dark, milk, white) better or worse for you?
"Milk and white chocolate overall have more dairy, sugar and other additives than dark chocolate," explains Dr. Shamban. "For some people, dairy and sugary substances can trigger hormonal changes, which in turn may cause inflammation, especially for acne-prone people. It is also well-documented that dark chocolate has many benefits to our health, not just for our cardiovascular system but for our skin as well. The high cocoa content of dark chocolate also means high amounts of two flavonoids, catechin and procyanidin, which are chemicals that act as antioxidants within the body. Antioxidants protect the body's cells against free radicals. Dark chocolate also contains higher concentrations of antioxidant flavonoids than milk chocolate and white chocolate."
If the whole "blame chocolate" thinking was more or less fabricated, where do you think it originated?
"There are many reasons why people give chocolate a bad rap," says Dr. Shamban. "One reason is that some women like to indulge in sweets, particularly chocolate, during the premenstrual part of their cycle (PMS). Acne-prone women may notice breakouts coincide with this time in their cycle. Estrogen levels drop, triggering androgens (hormones produced by the ovaries) to stimulate the sebaceous glands; this pumps up oil production. Therefore it may be your menstrual cycle itself, not the chocolate you crave during it, which causes you to break out. In addition, when people fill up on chocolate and other high-caloric and fatty foods, they leave little room to eat a balanced and well rounded diet, which is needed for healthy skin. So it can be the lack of needed nutrients, rather than the chocolate itself, which supports the proliferation of acne."
Are there any other food offenders that could be potentially breakout-causing?
"I think we need to be careful labeling any food on its own as ‘breakout-causing,’ due to the reasons I’ve cited above," notes Dr. Shamban. "However, if a reaction does occur, it really depends on the individual and other factors including: overall diet, their genetic predisposition to acne and other health factors. Try to limit or avoid the following ingredients that are considered pro-inflammatory: hydrogenated oils, corn syrup, enriched white flour and sweeteners of any kind."
Conclusion: False. Chocolate cannot be directly faulted for breakouts, but high sugar/high-fat foods (which chocolate has in spades) can increase the body's sebum production, which then create inflammatory responses in the body -- sometimes in the form of acne. Additionally, this myth is partly rooted in coincidence: many women's craving and consumption of chocolate coincides with breakouts. To stay on the safe side, load up on fruits and vegetables, and when you need a chocolate fix, try to stick to dark over white or milk varieties.
In Beauty Myths, we've enlisted the help of pros to help debunk and demystify some of the most popular advice out there. Do you have a myth you'd like us to investigate? Let us know in the comments below.