Chocolate and acne

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Photo by antoine / CC BY 2.0

You would think that everything on our bodies evolved to serve a necessary function. We sprout nose hair to whisk out dust particles, we emanate peculiar odors from our armpits as pheromones to attract potential mates, and we produce oil on our scalp to prevent our hair from drying out. But it’s clear that these bodily functions do not always make our lives easier. Too much nose hair just gets plucked away, too much B.O. is just gross, and too much oil in our hair becomes more of a nuisance than it is natural conditioner. So where do pimples leave us? Why do we have them? And does chocolate really make it worse?

Every adolescent teen’s worst nightmare is feeling the initial bump of an angry red pimple brewing beneath the skin’s surface. Saturday night plans ruined. To understand acne, we have to understand why they grow in the first place. Acne vulgaris is the fancy latin term for pimples. Our skin contains about a milion sebaceous glands, located right next to our hair follicles. They produce sebum, a fatty-oily mixture of triglycerides, wax esters, squalene, and free fatty acids. This fatty concoction sounds a lot more like what whale blubber should be made of than what we should be producing on our faces. Sebum oozes from these glands to help lubricate and waterproof our hair follicles so we don’t dry out in the sun. Our ancestors prepared us for this moment in case we ever had to cross the Sahara desert in nothing but a loin cloth and sandals. However, too much sebum production causes clogged pores. Ever tried dumping a pot of bacon fat residue down the kitchen sink and have it clog the drain? That’s the foundation of le pimple. But that’s not the whole story.

Your hair follicles are lined by cells called keratinocytes. Sometimes, these cells can grow out of control in a process called hyperkeratinization, which further blocks the underlying sebum from reaching the skin’s surface. These dead cells are not shedding normally, and instead are expanding beneath the skin’s surface, forming the beginnings of a pimple. The trapped ball of keratinocytes and sebum becomes a hotspot for bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes to flourish. This is the type of stuff you find at the bottom of your drain, clogging your sink. Ewwwwww.   

So when all of that fatty gunk gets trapped in our pores, the surrounding skin above gets angry and inflamed. Your body sends out SOS signals to help control the proliferating bacteria, and the immune system SWAT team (also called proinflammatory cytokines) gets sent to the frontlines. The battleground gets hot and heavy, which translates into inflammation and redness on our skin. Start whipping out the concealer.

So how does chocolate factor into all of this? Many studies have tried to address this question, but the verdict is still up for debate. This year, Youngstate State University in Ohio looked at the impact of chocolate consumption on acne by conducting a study on about 60 of its college students. I hope for the students’ sake that the study did not fall around the time of major social functions. They fed half the students jelly beans, and the other half Hershey’s milk chocolate bars. After 48 hours, they counted the number of acne spots. They found that students grew more acne lesions after chocolate consumption compared to jelly bean consumption.

Obviously, the study isn’t perfect and it’s still possible that milk chocolate contains other ingredients that may exacerbate inflammation like sweeteners and artificial flavoring, and the study still needs to be repeated on a larger scale with more students. However, a possible theory for why chocolate creates pimples goes back to our story of inflammation. Flavonoids, found in wine, peanuts, and chocolate, affect our cytokine production (remember the immune system SWAT team?), which may lead to more inflammation and angrier pimples.  So maybe we should lay off the chocolate after all.

References:

Delost GR, Delost ME, Lloyd J. The impact of chocolate consumption on acne vulgaris in college students: A randomized crossover study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2016;75(1):220-2.

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