Does Chocolate Really Cause Acne?

Dr. Janet Zand

November 8, 2019

One of the oldest debates in the skincare world is whether your diet causes acne. More specifically, you’ve probably read more than one opinion about whether chocolate makes you break out. People can be surprisingly dogmatic about this issue. While this isn’t a place for dogma, we can settle the debate once and for all. And the answer is … it depends.

Stay with me. I know that might not be the answer you were hoping for. But this is actually good news. If you have stubborn acne, the great chocolate debate might help you eliminate it. This is true even if you aren’t a chocolate eater! And if you’re convinced chocolate makes you break out, well, you’re probably right. But there’s a way you can have your chocolate and clear skin too.

We’ve talked quite a bit about the benefits of a healthy diet for your skin and the pitfalls of an unhealthy one. It’s true that chocolate can contain sugar and dairy. These can be inflammatory. But the real problem with chocolate might actually be the combination of sugar with fat.

Researchers have proposed that excess fat consumption may be the key driver of acne, particularly in teens. But it’s more likely to be fat and sugar consumption. Eating fat isn’t usually a problem until you add sugar to it. Here’s why.

You probably know that your body needs to produce a certain level of hormones, especially androgens, in order for you to function properly. This is especially true for teenagers. The body makes hormones from a variety of building blocks, including a molecule called acetyl-CoA. One particularly important component of this molecule is coenzyme-A.

Coenzyme-A is necessary for the production of sex hormones. But it’s important to a number of other processes too, including fat metabolism. And fat metabolism is important to clear skin. However, sugar mucks up your body’s ability to process fat cleanly.

It’s pretty common for multiple processes in the body to rely on the same coenzymes. This helps improve efficiency. But coenzyme-A might be the most in-demand of all. So it’s important to understand what happens if there isn’t enough to go around – and how to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Our bodies are remarkably good about setting and maintaining priorities. Survival – of the species, not just the individual – comes first. So in the teen years, when the body is developing the reproductive organs, producing sex hormones is more important than metabolizing fat efficiently. That’s where the coenzyme-A will go first.

If there isn’t enough coenzyme-A left over to metabolize fat, the fat can start to accumulate. Add sugar to the mix and it gets even worse. And particularly low on the body’s priority list is clearing lipids out of the skin’s sebaceous glands. This will cause the glands to increase their sebum production. And before you know it, you’ll have a clogged pore on your hands – or face, as the case may be.

There Are a Few Ways to Avoid This Problem

One is to consume less sugar (chocolate included). And that can certainly be effective. Several studies have linked dietary fat and acne. However, few studies look at the combination of sugar and fat. That’s where the real problem occurs. And if a lot of your fat intake includes sugar (such as chocolate and processed foods), changing your diet is a smart move. A diet high in fat from avocados is different than a diet high in fat from maple syrup and bacon.

You can’t – and shouldn’t – avoid fat altogether. So, in addition to avoiding sugar, it’s a good idea to address the other side of the coin as well. Instead of rationing out the coenzyme-A, why not just make enough of it to go around? This is where vitamin B5 can help. Let me explain.

Coenzyme-A is composed of adenosine triphosphate, cysteine, and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). Your body can make the first two. But it has to get B5 from your diet. The good news is that it’s easy to get plenty of B5. Practically every food you eat contains it. The bad news is that your body uses it for a lot of processes. So it’s still possible to be deficient.

Researchers thought this might help explain the prevalence of acne, especially in teens. All of a sudden, your body needs a lot of coenzyme-A to make sex hormones. So it starts putting plenty of B5 to work on this. But teens aren’t changing their diets to increase their B5 intake. If anything, they’re increasing their intake of fat and sweet fast food. And there may not be enough B5 left over to break all that down.

This theory may help explain why a study found that two groups of teen boys with different amounts of acne had very similar levels of androgens. All of the boys’ bodies prioritized making enough androgens. And the androgens themselves didn’t cause the acne. But once they finished making the androgens, some boys had enough coenzyme-A left over to break down pore-clogging fat. Others didn’t.

Of course, this explanation is all well and good in theory. But will increasing B5 levels actually make a difference for people with acne?

Researchers Wanted to Find Out if B5 Helped Reduce Acne

In this study, the researchers recruited 100 Chinese participants, 45 male and 55 female. The participants ranged in age from 10 to 30, though approximately 80% fell between the ages of 12 and 23.

The researchers asked the participants to take 10 grams of B5 daily, broken up into four doses. They also gave the participants a 20% B5 cream and asked them to apply it to their areas of acne-affected skin four to six times a day.

Within three days, most of the participants noticed that their skin was significantly less oily. Their sebum production slowed. Within two weeks, their existing breakouts were beginning to heal. And the rate at which they broke out was slowing.

Most of the participants with moderate acne found that within eight weeks, their skin was almost completely clear. They experienced occasional breakouts. But the change in their skin was noticeable.

Those with severe acne took longer to heal. But they also found that their skin improved significantly within six months. Some found that increasing their B5 intake as high as 20 grams per day helped them get results more quickly.

Predictably, most of the subjects experienced flare-ups if they ate particularly fatty meals. And the female participants occasionally had minor eruptions as a premenstrual symptom. But overall, the improvement was noticeable.

As an added benefit, within a couple weeks, most participants noticed that their pores appeared smaller. As oil accumulates in pores, it stretches them. Decreased sebum production means pores aren’t just unclogged. They’re actually less noticeable.

Does This Apply to Adults Too?

Of course, all of this information is great news for teens. But what about adults? Can vitamin B5 still make a difference?

Absolutely. It’s true that as you age, your production of sex hormones slows down. Hopefully, you’ve noticed that acne slows down too. But it’s still possible to get out of balance. If your acne fluctuates with your menstrual cycle or your diet, vitamin B5 may be able to help. And if you have stubborn acne, you could consider supplementing with B5 no matter your age.

Vitamin B5 does more than help the body digest fat and produce sex hormones. It also plays a role in converting food into glucose. It helps you synthesize cholesterol. It helps you form red blood cells. And it’s a building block for stress-related hormones.

Clearly, you’re always going to need plenty of B5. And in older women, the need for stress hormones may deplete your stores just like the sex hormones did in adolescence. Women today often seem more stressed than ever before – and stubborn acne doesn’t help matters.

Supplementing with B5 can really support your adrenal function. And it can ensure your skin has enough left over for its essential functions. If you crave chocolate at certain times of the month, a B5 supplement can help make sure you have enough coenzyme-A to make the hormones you need and break down the extra fat.

B5, or pantothenic acid, is often packaged with other B vitamins or nutrients to support adrenal function. This is great for adult women. Teens might just need the extra boost of B5. But many adult women could benefit from the adrenal support of all the B vitamins.

I often recommend biotin (vitamin B7), nicotinamide (vitamin B3), vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 in addition to pantothenic acid. For younger women, methylfolate (vitamin B9) is usually a good idea too. Taken together, these vitamins help support healthy hormone production and healthy skin.

What About Topical B5?

If you’d prefer to try using pantothenic acid topically, I actually recommend panthenol. The body can easily turn panthenol into vitamin B5 because they’re only one metabolic step apart. But panthenol is better for topical application because it gets through the skin barrier more easily than B5. This makes it much more effective, especially with hydration.

Panthenol helps keep your skin from losing water, keeping dry skin moisturized. It even defends the skin from some of the effects of detergents that can dry the skin out. In fact, panthenol attracts water to the skin. After about two-to-four weeks, panthenol makes the skin able to hold onto water more effectively than ever by making the epidermis stronger and more “leak-proof.” You’ll find panthenol in the Système 41 Vitamin C Serum.

If there’s a teen struggling with acne in your life, encourage him or her to consider a pantothenic acid supplement. Cutting back on dietary fat, including chocolate, could help as well.

We typically think of hormonal changes and acne as going hand in hand. But if you give the body the resources it needs, it can function at its best. And you’ll even be able to indulge in a treat every now and then without worrying about how your skin will respond.

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