Chocolate and Acne: Does Chocolate Cause Acne?

Chocolate: my nemesis. Does it cause acne, though?

I confess.

I am a chocolate addict.

For years, I have eaten chocolate to bury feelings of pain, emptiness, or sadness.

(I also love how it tastes, of course. Who doesn’t?)

But I always wondered… was chocolate giving me acne?

It was always super hard to tell. If you’ve ever tried to isolate whether one specific food gives you acne, when there are always 100 things changing in your life, you know what I’m talking about.

But when I realized I had an iron overload problem (read about iron and acne here), I felt like I “should” stop eating chocolate.

It was HARD. That’s because I used to eat up to a whole bar of 85% dark chocolate EVERY DAY.

We used to buy 12-packs of organic 85% dark chocolate bars on Amazon. Two at once. That would last us 2-3 weeks.

And whenever I felt sad or stressed out, I craved chocolate. I ate some, and then I felt better, without dealing with the underlying soul pain.

Sound like an addict to you? Does to me!

But aside from the addiction, which was preventing me from fully expressing my repressed emotions and growing spiritually, I began to suspect it was giving me low-level acne. The reasons are a bit complicated, so let’s dig in.

Chocolate and acne – is there a link?

There were a few old (junky) studies done on chocolate and acne years ago, but they lacked proper control groups and were poorly designed, so the results were meaningless.

But just recently, a CSF book reader posted on the forum about some new research:

Dark chocolate exacerbates acne.

The effects of chocolate on acne exacerbations have recently been reevaluated. For so many years, it was thought that it had no role in worsening acne. To investigate whether 99% dark chocolate, when consumed in regular daily amounts, would cause acne to worsen in acne-prone male subjects, twenty-five acne prone male subjects were asked to consume 25 g of 99% dark chocolate daily for 4 weeks. Assessments which included Leeds revised acne scores as well as lesion counts took place weekly. Food frequency questionnaire was used, and daily activities were recorded. Statistically significant changes of acne scores and numbers of comedones and inflammatory papules were detected as early as 2 weeks into the study. At 4 weeks, the changes remained statistically significant compared to baseline. Dark chocolate when consumed in normal amounts for 4 weeks can exacerbate acne in male subjects with acne-prone skin.[1]

Finally, a properly-designed study! But wait… no control group? Scratch that! Not a properly designed study!

Seriously, researchers, this is NOT how you do nutrition science. You need a CONTROL GROUP to come up with any meaningful results at all.

You need to give 25g of pure chocolate to half the subjects, and 25g of a placebo to the other half, and then compare results.

But eh… this is the best we’ve got. It sort of looks like chocolate increased acne in these 25 men, but we can’t know for sure. Maybe they just believed that chocolate would worsen their acne, and made it true with the extremely powerful (and scientifically verified) placebo effect.

But I still have an inkling that chocolate gives me low-level breakouts… sometimes.

Why might this be?

3 possible ways chocolate could cause acne

  1. Giving me too much iron
  2. Disrupting my sleep
  3. Making me anxious angry

Trigger 1: Iron

First, iron. As I’ve written about before, I think excess iron can strongly trigger acne when it reacts with PUFA in the body.

And chocolate has a ton of iron. A whole bar of 85% dark chocolate has 12 milligrams of iron, or 67% of your daily value. (I think the daily value is WAY too high, by the way – read my iron article for more on why I think anemia is almost never due to a true iron deficiency, but rather to deficiencies of other co-factors.)

So iron reacts with PUFA in your body (and PUFA stores up in your body from years of eating veg oil and whatnot), and forms lipid peroxides, which are the single strongest direct acne trigger, or so my research has led me to believe.

Trigger 2: Disrupted sleep

I also discovered recently that chocolate was REALLY screwing up my sleep.

If I ate a good amount of dark chocolate in the afternoon or evening, I would wake up in the middle of the night, just bolt upright. Wide awake. And this was usually 8 hours after eating the chocolate. I’d be wide awake for an hour or two, mind racing, before being able to sleep again.

How could this be? Now, chocolate actually doesn’t have caffeine, contrary to popular belief, but it does have theobromine (which is also what makes it toxic to dogs). Is that what was causing my sleeplessness?

Or was it iron-related? Could excess iron be feeding pathogenic bacteria in my gut, which might be somehow releasing some chemical or endotoxin that made me wake up?

I’m not sure, but it’s a strong effect for me nonetheless, and I can’t ignore it.

Trigger 3: It makes me angry?

I know this is going to sound bizarre – but I began to realize that chocolate was also making me angry. The day after I ate chocolate, I was more likely to snap at my partner Sonia or my two-year-old daughter, or at worst, burst out in rage at the slightest trigger. (I had to take a pillow into the bathroom and rage into it for 10 minutes just to vent it all – yikes.)

And I’ve seen a study showing that when you get angry, it makes your acne worse within a day or two. (Can’t find the link at the moment.) Not sure why this happens, but anger may boost inflammation.

The crazy part? I only just made this connection, between chocolate and anger, in the past few months.

Kind of like how I only just realized that modern wheat gives me nightmares (I’ll save that for another post).

Chocolate also tends to make me a bit anxious, perhaps due again to theobromine being a nervous system irritant. I had some REALLY bad anxiety attacks 1-2 years ago, for a few months, until I started to get my iron overload under control (read more here).

My addiction was also hurting chocolate farmers

This isn’t directly related to acne (unless you count that soul pain can worsen acne, which I think it can), but it’s really important to me all the same.

I’ve been doing a lot of research in the past year about how my lifestyle, and the foods and stuff I buy, harms other people and animals and ecosystems all around the world (especially the Global South).

When I dug into chocolate’s impacts, I found some surprising (and awful) facts.

Yes, I always was careful to buy Fair Trade and organic chocolate. But is Fair Trade really all that fair to the cocoa farmers? Turns out not so much.

When you pay $3.49 for a fair-trade, organic dark chocolate bar, do you want to guess how much of that money goes to the cocoa farmers in Africa or Central or South America?

3 cents.[2]

Three gorram pennies! For a whole bar of chocolate?! Does that sound fair to you? It doesn’t to me!

The cocoa farmers are literally only making 0.9% of the retail price of those “fair-trade” chocolate bars. That means 99.1% of the money is going to multinational corporations, rich white people in the developed world, etc. No thanks.

When I buy eggs from my neighbor Louisa, you can bet all $7 goes right into her pocket. 100%! That’s the power of buying local food – you keep the money right in your neighborhood, and it goes right to your farmer, rather than losing 99.1% to a long string business interests.

And did you know that a single cacao tree only produces enough cacao for two chocolate bars in a whole year?

And have you calculated the environmental impact and fossil fuel pollution of shipping cocoa from Africa or South America up to Switzerland for processing, and then all the way over to the US or wherever you live? Ugh.

Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s environmentally friendly – not if it’s shipped halfway across the world twice to get to me.

I started to really feel sad about buying chocolate, knowing that it was having all these effects, even the “fair-trade” stuff.

Combined with the anger and anxiety issues it was giving me, and the acne risk from the high iron (and my own iron overload problem), I decided to (mostly) give up eating chocolate.

I’m not 100% about it, and if someone gifts me a bar of chocolate, I will accept it graciously and enjoy it. But I will not regularly spend my money on chocolate anymore.

What about “Direct Trade” chocolate?

There are some Direct Trade chocolatiers like Taza and others that are worth looking into, if you want to keep buying chocolate. They pay cocoa farmers much more than the standard Fair Trade premium. Search the web for “Direct Cacao” to find links to some other companies.[3]

What will you do?

I can’t make this decision for you – all I can do is express my heartfelt feelings on chocolate and tell you where I stand.

I’m not trying to guilt you into stopping chocolate – I don’t think it’s a good idea to stop doing things out of guilt, generally. It just breeds resentment.

It’s much more powerful, to me, to stop doing things because they make you feel sad. Buying chocolate makes me feel sad due to the pain it causes me, the environment, and exploited cocoa farmers. So it feels in integrity to me to stop buying chocolate (most of the time!).

If that’s not you, then please do not stop buying it on my account!

Though if you are still struggling with acne, and you suspect that chocolate is a factor, then it’s worth experimenting with avoiding chocolate for 3-4 weeks and then reintroducing it. Does it make your skin react at all?

If so, you might just decide to eat less chocolate (like me). Does it mean quitting chocolate forever? Of course not! Sometimes you just gotta let loose, eat chocolate and be merry!

By the way, if you happen to live somewhere where cacao trees grow, by all means support local farmers and co-ops and buy direct from them! Then it’s a great local food option. 🙂

What’s your relationship with chocolate?

Share it in the comments below. I’d love to hear it!

Key Takeaways

  • Chocolate has a lot of iron, which might worsen acne by reacting with PUFA in the body and forming toxic lipid peroxides (the most potent acne trigger there is, I think).
  • Chocolate gave me anger and anxiety issues, likely because of an iron overload problem.
  • If you think chocolate is giving you acne, try avoiding it for 3-4 weeks, and then eat a bunch at once. Does your skin react?
  • “Fair Trade” chocolate isn’t really fair to cocoa farmers, who only get 3 cents for every $3.49 chocolate bar you buy, or 0.9%. The other 99.1% goes to big business, shipping companies, processors, distributors, and other rich white people.
  • Direct Trade chocolate, from Taza or a similar brand, is much better for cocoa farmers. Search the web for “Direct Cacao” for some brands that do this.
  • Chocolate is a small piece of the whole acne puzzle. I wrote an easy-to-understand master guide about how to solve the acne puzzle once and for all, using a variety of little-known diet and lifestyle hacks. (Even if you think you eat healthy now, and have tried everything, I guarantee you there’s things you haven’t tried in my book that can help! No case of acne is too difficult, in my experience.)

About Devin Mooers

Devin MooersHey! Over the past 10 years, I've developed a powerful system for clearing acne with a little-known diet- and lifestyle-based method, and I want to spread the love. That's why I started Clear Skin Forever back in 2011. I studied engineering and product design at Stanford University, and graduated in the top 5% of my class, but afterward, I decided to focus on writing about health, since I found it so fulfilling to help people clear their acne for good. Thanks for reading, and sign up for email updates to stay in the loop with clear skin tips! Also, be sure to check out our book if you haven't yet, all about how to fix acne permanently with diet and lifestyle changes. We've helped thousands of people get clear skin this way!

Sources (click to expand)

  1. Vongraviopap S, Asawanonda P. Dark chocolate exacerbates acne. Int J Dermatol. 2016;55(5):587-91. (link) ^
  2. https://www.chegg.com/homework-help/fair-trade-really-fair-chocolate-comes-small-beans-grow-coco-chapter-2-problem-2cq-solution-9780538478755-exc ^
  3. Available at: http://www.chocablog.com/features/how-fair-is-fairtrade-chocolate/. Accessed December 17, 2018. ^

{ 16 Comments }

  1. Kris says

    Hi Devin,
    Great research, thank you for linking the sources. I’ve suffered with back acne for years. I eat a mostly plant based diet, so I’d call myself a flexitarian (95% plants, 5% grass fed-organic animal). Before that I did mostly Paleo, therefore lots of fresh plants, but still a lot of organic meat/poultry.
    From recent testing, I have low iron stores (ferritin), normal iron (since I suppliment), and low iodine (I now supplement—-boyfriend has shellfish allergy…). I take vitamine A and Magnesium as well.
    I’m game to try anything thats humane and organic even if its not a plant based suppliment, but I would be interested in the Frankin-rice you mentioned since I try to avoid dairy due to an intolerance (causes me inflammation and IgG testing shows markers). If the colostrum is derived from cows or colostrum is from humans, wouldn’t in theory the human one be closer to what we need? Albeit odd to consider!!
    I’ve also looked for a non-bovine ferritin supplement, but it seems I may need to take the bovine one as the plant ones are just more iron (leading to excess). I just want to be humane in my choices, with no added hormones from the cows, etc. With all that said—I’m open to anything—as my skin and other health issues are the number one priority! Any product tips would be greatly appreciated. I use Pure Encapsulations too. 😊 Thank you!

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Kris! Sorry for the epic delay on this, I haven’t checked blog comments in a long time. My fault!

      How low is your ferritin? Did you get liver enzymes checked? It’s quite possible to have low ferritin, but also have an overload of unusable iron stored up in your liver. Taking additional iron supplements on top of that, if that’s the case, isn’t a very good idea. Liver enzymes (and/or GGT) can help point to iron overload in the liver. (See my iron article for more info on tests.)

      What kind of iron are you supplementing with?

      Doubt you’ll find human-sourced colostrum, though it’s an interesting idea! 🙂

      Are you interested in lactoferrin for reducing your iron levels, or for boosting your ferritin? There are definitely other, more effective ways of modulating ferritin, I think (see the iron article linked above for way more info on all the iron stuff, including why I think many people may have an iron overload problem even if ferritin levels don’t show it). I’d target the iron-utilization-boosting nutrients listed in the iron article, personally.

      Also, how much iodine are you taking? What form?

      Finally, have you thought about A2 milk as a skin-safe dairy option, that would give you some lactoferrin in a whole food form?

  2. Donna says

    I actually test low for iron. My Tibc, Total Iron, Iron Saturation, and Ferritin are all low.
    It was recommended for me to take Lactoferrin with an iron supplement to properly increase my iron.
    I’m confused about your article because it makes me second guess my situation. You don’t believe ANYONE is actually low in iron?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Donna! How low are we talking on these numbers?

      I definitely think there are a small number of people who are actually low in iron, but I think it’s probably a lot fewer people than most doctors think. Often, if you have iron dysregulation, excess iron gets stored up in your liver, which doesn’t show up one these blood tests. If you’re lacking in one of the co-factors necessary to use iron properly (vitamin A, molybdenum, vitamin C, copper, ceruloplasmin, vitamin B12, etc.), you can get excess iron deposits in the liver combined with low circulating iron. When you add a plain iron supplement on top of that, without addressing the deficient co-factors, you can worsen the problem. Did you happen to get your liver enzymes and/or GGT tested? That can sometimes indicate excess iron storage in the liver. But keep in mind I have zero clinical experience in all this and just going based on the all the research I’ve read (and my own iron overload problem).

  3. jay,s says

    hi, suffering from acne for 20 years and a rediculolus amount of money spent on “solutions”i tried a newer supplement that’s called acne block that contains lactoferrin,found it on amazon.. it actually was/is one of the only supplements I have tried that actually helped..

    • Devin Mooers says

      Great to hear you got good results from lactoferrin! The science is sound behind why it works, helping to reduce iron overload. Good stuff.

  4. Sara says

    Would eating liver or taking a dessicated liver supplement cause iron overload? I would like to get more vitamin A, but am concerned about the extra iron I would be getting.

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sara! Wise to be cautious about this. Do you have reason to suspect you have existing iron overload? Curious about that, I’ve suspected that in myself for a while now, and have been avoiding liver for that reason. I’m taking Pure Encapsulations vitamin A instead.

    • Sarah says

      Suggesting vegans/Vegetarians have a greater risk of iron deficiency is incorrect. There are at least as many meat-eaters as vege people deficient in Iron. Meat is not an efficient source of iron for human beings. Cutting out animal products goes along way in clearing up acne.

      • Devin Mooers says

        Hey Sarah! I actually agree with your first point now, but differ in the second. I think many people, vegeterians and meat-eaters, have an iron overload problem. This is pretty new to me, but the research seems sound. Turns out you can have anemia AND iron overload, due to iron getting deposited in your liver, but a lack of nutrients that are required to put iron into hemoglobin, like vitamin C, vitamin A, molybdenum, and copper. I also think the research strongly points to heme iron from meat being an excellent source of iron – much more absorbable than plant iron – but I now think eating too much meat leads to iron overload, because your body can’t shut off absorption from heme iron like it can from plant iron. If you’re curious to learn more, I just posted a huge article on iron and acne two days ago:

        Iron and Acne

        I think this is really an unusual perspective, and the opposite of what most people will tell you! Curious to hear your thoughts! 🙂 (I’m actually eating mostly vegetarian these days, due to trying to reverse my iron overload problem, and, yes, the environmental impact.)

  5. Taylor says

    So if I maintain a Paleo/Whole 30 diet that includes high quality meats and seafoods and I do not eat any of the iron-fortified foods or foods that inhibit lactoferrin – my body should be creating lactoferrin on it’s own in a healthy manner and I likely do not need to supplement it, correct?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Yep, exactly! Historical iron overload can be an issue, less so for menstruating women due to the continual iron dumping outlet. Bloodletting was effective back in the day for many diseases due to iron removal! Men don’t have such a built-in iron removal system (perhaps explaining why men tend to live shorter lives than women – iron buildup!). I’m not 100% sure how effective lactoferrin supplementation is for addressing built-up iron overload. Morley Robbins (gotmag.org) is the guy to read about on all the iron issues.

  6. Christina says

    I’m confused. I was just about to purchase some FCLO for my teen daughter to help her with her acne and now I stumbled across your reply where you state you no longer recommend FCLO! Why the change?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Christina! Sorry about the confusion here – I wish we could keep the same recommendations forever, but our knowledge (and the science, and reader experience, etc.) forces us to change our recommendations now and then, and it’s hard to change everywhere all at once! We changed this recommendation because FCLO is basically pure PUFA (polyunsaturated fat), which is more susceptible to lipid peroxidation than other fats, and this is a major contributor to acne, we now believe (lipid peroxidation). The vitamin A in FCLO tends to be very beneficial, but you can get that vitamin A from eating liver, taking desiccated liver capsules, or taking a vitamin A supplement such as this one by Pure Encapsulations. We now think it’s best to reduce the total body load of PUFA as much as possible, rather than trying to boost omega-3s, for instance. Does this make sense?

    • Devin Mooers says

      Hey Sam! That’s actually a really good idea. We currently do not recommend taking FCLO or cod liver oil – we’ve updated our book but haven’t found the time yet to update our cod liver oil blog post – we’ll do that soon! We recommend taking desiccated liver capsules or eating grass-fed liver regularly, or taking a vitamin A supplement like this one:

      Pure Encapsulations Vitamin A 10,000 IU

      Taking vitamin E is a great PUFA defense strategy when you’re eating out at restaurants or for some reason consume a large amount of PUFA. We’re working on a “PUFA Shield” supplement that incorporates full-spectrum E along with some other lipid peroxidation blockers to make it easier for travelers, folks who eat out a lot, etc. to avoid the worst PUFA effects on acne.

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