What exactly is cocoa butter?

Cocoa butter might bring to mind decadent desserts like chocolate bars, fudge layer cake, and chocolate chip ice cream. Yet this tasty ingredient is also a staple in skin creams and other health and beauty products. Unlike the cocoa butter in your dessert, the one in your skin care regimen won’t make you gain weight. But can it improve your appearance?

Cocoa butter is a type of fat that comes from cocoa beans. To harness cocoa butter, the beans are taken out of the larger cacao plant. Then they’re roasted, stripped, and pressed to separate out the fat—the cocoa butter. The remnants are then processed into cocoa powder.

Cocoa has been used in medicine for around 3,000 years. It was a favorite ingredient of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, who even used cocoa for currency. More recently, researchers have discovered that compounds called phytochemicals in cocoa might help keep both your body and skin healthy.

Can cocoa butter really improve your skin’s appearance? Let’s take a look at the science behind the claims about this sweet beauty treat.

What are the benefits of cocoa butter?

Cocoa butter is high in fatty acids, which is why it’s often touted for its ability to hydrate and nourish the skin and improve elasticity. The fat in cocoa butter forms a protective barrier over skin to hold in moisture.

Cocoa butter is also rich in natural plant compounds called phytochemicals. These substances may improve blood flow to the skin and slow skin aging by protecting against damage from the sun’s harmful UV rays.

One common use of cocoa butter is to smooth scars, wrinkles, and other marks on the skin. Many women believe cocoa butter creams and lotions can be used during and after pregnancy to prevent and minimize the appearance of stretch marks. Cocoa butter has also been promoted to heal rashes from conditions like eczema and dermatitis.

What the research says

Cocoa butter might smell good and feel luxurious when you rub it on your body, but there isn’t much proof that it will improve your skin’s appearance. When it comes to treating scars and stretch marks, so far the research isn’t very compelling. Recent research on using cocoa butter for stretch marks suggests that it doesn’t work any better than an inactive or placebo cream.

Some research does suggest that cocoa butter has the potential to prevent and treat skin diseases. It may also protect the skin from damage that can lead to premature aging. These effects still need to be confirmed by future studies.

How does cocoa butter stack up against other moisturizers?

Because of its high fat content, cocoa butter has a richer, denser feel than many other moisturizers. It’s often compared to shea butter, which comes from the seeds of the shea tree found in West and Central Africa.

Shea butter is also high in fatty acids, although it doesn’t smell as sweet as cocoa butter. Unlike cocoa butter, shea butter contains vitamins that are thought to help repair skin damage and speed healing.

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How to use cocoa butter

You’ll often see cocoa butter as an ingredient in body lotions and creams. Because it’s edible, it’s also an additive in some lip balms. Many cocoa butter products have added sunscreen or vitamins. You can rub one of these cocoa butter products on your skin or lips every day as part of your skin care regimen.

Many cocoa butter lotions and other products contain only a small amount of cocoa butter, along with other ingredients and additives. If you’re looking for purity, buy it in stick form, which contains 100 percent cocoa butter. Or, if you’re concerned about additives, get a piece of whole, unrefined cocoa butter and melt it in hot water to make your own products.

Some do-it-yourselfers have gone beyond basic creams and lotions. They’ve created their own home lines of cocoa butter skin care products. Some people combine cocoa butter with various oils—such as coconut or vitamin E oil—and use the mixture as a moisturizing shampoo. Others use it to make their own shaving lotion.

Risks and warnings

Cocoa butter is considered safe to use on your skin. The makers of cocoa butter creams say it’s safe to use during pregnancy. For people who are sensitive to cocoa butter or other ingredients found in cocoa butter products, it may cause a rash or other allergic reaction.

Some have questioned the effects of the ingredients added to cocoa butter products. A 2015 study found that one cocoa butter product had anti-estrogenic effects. This means it reduced or blocked the effects of the female hormone, estrogen, on the body. Being exposed to products with anti-estrogenic effects might have an effect on an adolescent’s development during puberty. Yet this evidence is still new, and cocoa butter hasn’t been proven to affect children’s development.

Learn more: Natural remedies for dry skin during pregnancy »

The bottom line

Many people use cocoa butter because they like how it feels on their skin, or they believe it improves their skin’s appearance. There’s no harm in trying one of these products—unless you’re sensitive to cocoa butter.

You can find cocoa butter formulas in supermarkets, drug stores, online, and at natural food stores. If you’re concerned about additives, buy 100 percent cocoa butter and make your own skin care products.

Remember, these products haven’t been proven to improve skin tone, fade wrinkles, or reduce stretch marks. Most evidence supporting these claims is anecdotal.

If you’re seeking treatment for a specific skin care need, consult your doctor or dermatologist. They can help develop a skin care regimen that best suits your needs.

Keep reading: Can I use coconut oil for skin care? »