A woman in her 50s vacationing in South America was touring a chocolate factory when its owner asked, "Who wants to be covered in chocolate?" The spunky gal, who'd had a bit to drink -- or so the story goes -- obliged. She woke the next morning to find she had, not a hangover but, lo and behold, extremely soft skin.
"It was amazing," said John Scharffenberger, a chocolatier in Berkeley, Calif., who retells the legend every chance he gets. "The results lasted for weeks."
As a founder of Scharffen Berger, the maker of famously dense, dark Nibby Bars, Scharffenberger has more than a passing interest in the stuff. So he was moved to follow the woman's example by testing a chocolate soak himself, at home. (It worked for him, too.)
That was nine years ago. No one paid much attention, especially when he went on to suggest that chocolate could work as a softener in skin creams. Back then people bought their chocolate from the drugstore, called it junk food, and blamed it for a host of unflattering problems, including acne flare-ups, bad teeth and a flabby figure.
But times have changed. Chocolate boutiques have cropped up, Starbucks-like, on every corner. And dark chocolate has a new reputation as health food. It has been found to be a potent antioxidant and a boon to cardiovascular health.
Now cosmetics makers are claiming a spot on the bandwagon. They are increasingly putting chocolate into their formulas, to work as a skin softener, yes, but also to use its antioxidant powers to smooth wrinkles. Theoretically, cocoa might prevent damage by free radicals to collagen, elastin and other proteins in the skin. And that, in turn, would keep skin looking young.
Scientific evidence to back up this premise is lacking and some doctors are skeptical that it ever will come along. But that has not squelched the building enthusiasm for chocolate cosmetics. At least 90 new cocoa-infused treatments popped up on beauty shelves in 2004, quadruple the figure from the previous year, according to the Global New Products Database at Mintel, a consumer products market research firm. So far this year, 30 more have appeared and many more are in the pipeline. At the Eighth Annual Chocolate Show in New York in November, the usual beauty booth will be expanded into a full-fledged spa.
Even Scharffenberger received his long-awaited call, from the Nob Hill Spa in San Francisco. Its director tapped him to help whip up a chocolate body scrub.
These treatments are nothing like the $2 fudge-scented lip balms made for schoolgirls addicted to the taste of chocolate. The new products have been cooked up by cosmetics companies such as Origins and Bath and Body Works specifically to combat grown-up problems like fine lines and dull skin. "Guess what flows from the fountain of youth?" beckons the label on the $28 Origins Cocoa Therapy Deeply Nourishing Body Butter. "Chocolate."
Evidently, the chocolate-acne myth has all but melted away. "Consumers are becoming aware of the healing properties of chocolate," said Carrie Bonner, industry manager of consumer products at Kline & Co., a business consulting and research firm specializing in health and beauty. "The beauty industry follows the health industry and the food industry and fashion."
How well do chocolate skin treatments work? That depends on what you mean by work.
Chocolate products do seem to soften skin. Perhaps it is because they often contain cocoa butter, the fat that is extracted from the cocoa bean. Cosmetics makers have been using cocoa butter as a moisturizer since the mid-19th century, said Louis Grivetti, a professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis.
Softer skin is what Siobhan Coen, 41, a meeting planner for Genentech in San Rafael, Calif., says she got when she recently treated herself to the $115 Scharffen Berger Chocolate Scrub at Nob Hill Spa. Like Bliss spa's $70 Double Choc Pedicure in New York, Nob Hill's chocolate scrub has gone from being a winter-weather special to a year-round staple.
"When I came out," Coen said of the scrub, "my skin was so soft. It was like that for two days."
But if by work you mean make the skin look younger, then the picture gets a little fuzzy. Makers of chocolate cosmetics do not go so far as to say that chocolate can erase wrinkles. But they do suggest that its antioxidant properties can make the skin look more youthful.
"It's the glow," said Dr. Philip Cohen, professor of dermatology at the College of Naturopathic Medicine in Bridgeport, Conn., the M.D. behind Ecco Bella's "M.D. formulated" Organic Dark Chocolate Mask. "When you apply this mask, the skin glows, and the glow is an important part of what we perceive as beauty."
But if the skin really glows after a chocolate treatment, other doctors say, it is not because of any antioxidant effect, but simply because other ingredients are working. The aloe and cocoa butter in face creams moisturize, for instance, and the clay in face-masks tones the skin. The same goes for spa treatments. "Maybe it's the massage," said Dr. Leslie Baumann, chief of cosmetic dermatology at the University of Miami. "Maybe it's the better light reflection off exfoliated skin."
As Dr. Steven Pratt, the ophthalmologist who is co-author of the book SuperFoods Rx (HarperCollins, $24.95), put it, "I think the marketing people are ahead of the research folks in this category."
What researchers do know is that cocoa's antioxidant potential compares favorably to that of green tea. The anti-oxidant potential of a substance can be measured using something called an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) assay. Green tea has an ORAC value of 1,686 units per 100 grams. Oranges are just 750. Dark chocolate, it turns out, registers a whopping 13,120.
Chocolate is considered dark if it is at least 35 percent cocoa (the rest is sugar, fats and emulsifiers), and it is cocoa that gives dark chocolate its antioxidant kick. On a chocolate cosmetic's label the manufacturer might list cocoa (a broad term referring to refined cocoa beans) or cocoa extract (the bean minus the shell) or cocoa powder (the extract minus the fat).
All these forms may contain anti- oxidants, but the chemical composition of the cocoa can vary depending on where the beans were grown and how they were prepared. So can the quantity of cocoa in a jar of skin cream. As a rule, for cocoa or any other ingredient to be considered significant, it must be among the top three listed on the label, said Laurie DiBerardino, editor of Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine.
Even if a skin cream contains plenty of cocoa, and even if you leave it on for a few minutes so that it has time to interact with the skin, it still may not work its anti-oxidant magic. To do that, it would have to penetrate the dermis or lower layer of skin, where free radicals operate, but many doctors do not believe cocoa molecules can soak in that far.
"As sexy and alluring as chocolate is, there are many antioxidants available which are more well studied," said Dr. Laurie Polis, director of dermatological services at SoHo Skin and Laser Dermatology, "and those are the ones I recommend to patients." Topical vitamins C and A have shown promising results on humans, for example.
Perhaps some day scientists will conduct a large-scale study exploring cocoa's anti-aging potential for human skin. By the time they do, other once-vilified foods -- cream cheese? bacon? -- may have found their way into cosmetic jars. By then, we will have already moved on to the next course.