What if protecting your skin from the sun meant indulging in delicious dark chocolate? That may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. A recent German study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that daily consumption of a cocoa beverage high in flavanols shielded participants from several types of sun damage. (Flavanols are a subclass of flavonoids, plant-based antioxidants that help the body’s cells resist damage by free radicals.)
The study involved 24 women, ages 18 to 65, who were divided into two groups. One group consumed a high-flavanol cocoa drink containing 329 mg of total flavanols daily while the control group drank one containing 27 mg of cocoa flavanols a day. The main flavanols in the study’s cocoa were epicatechin and catechin.
Women who drank the flavanol-rich cocoa saw a reduction in reddening of the skin in response to UV light—by 15 percent at six weeks and by 25 percent at 12 weeks, compared with the beginning of the study. In the control group, there was no decrease in reddening. The skin of women receiving the hefty flavonoid dose was 16 percent denser, 13 percent moister and 11 percent thicker, as well as smoother and less scaly than it was at the beginning of the trial. They also saw blood flow to their skin double at 12 weeks, while the low-flavanol group experienced no change.
Researchers are unclear about the exact mechanism for most of the skin benefits, but suspect that improved blood circulation is more than likely a factor. The skin, as with all other bodily tissues, depends on healthy blood flow.
Flavonoids help protect the skin via a twofold process—they absorb UV light that can damage skin, and they act as antioxidants, scavenging the damaging oxidants UV light creates. Some flavonoids also have been found to inhibit the inflammatory process (skin reddening) involved in sun-damaged skin.
The German findings show that continued consumption of a high-flavanol cocoa product decreased sensitivity of human skin toward UV light and improved overall appearance and hydration of the skin.
The amount of cocoa flavonoids consumed by the high-flavonoid group was equivalent to 100 grams (just over 3 ounces) of dark chocolate. Remember, the highest amount of flavanols is found in dark chocolate, which has a richer chocolate taste, rather than milk chocolate, which is higher in fat and sugar.
The skin-protective effects of chocolate in the German trial are similar to findings in earlier studies using lycopene-rich tomato products. Previous research also suggests that dark chocolate confers cardiovascular and other health benefits. Important note: Dermatologists recommend applying sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. Chocolate is not a substitute for sunscreen but might offer an extra line of defense.•
Heinrich, U., et al. “Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women.” The Journal of Nutrition 136:1565-1569.
Cindy Jones, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health. Visit her at www.HerbsForHealth.com/contributors.