Chocolate found to protect skin from light damage

I generally advise against eating refined sugar. I, personally, eat hardly any, but I do eat some. Practically all of this comes in the form of 85 per cent cocoa chocolate. I, for quite some time now, have been recommending dark chocolate as a sweet treat of choice. Firstly, dark chocolate is generally lower in sugar than milk or white varieties. Another boon, I think, that dark chocolate offers is that it lacks the morishness that other forms of chocolate tend to have. This is good news for individuals (such as I) who might to ensure that a little treat doesn’t turn into a big one. Dark chocolate is also relatively rich in plant substances known as ‘flavonols’ that have been linked with benefits for cardiovascular health.

However, if the results of a newly published study are to be believed, another benefit of eating dark chocolate might be protection from the potentially damaging effects of the sun’s rays [1]. I am a huge fan of sunshine, both in terms of psychological and physical benefits it brings, it is not entirely without risk. While I think the link between sunlight exposure and malignant melanoma has been generally overstated (see here for more about this), excess sunlight can burn the skin and damage it in a way that can cause visible ageing. In general terms, I advise seeking shade and donning appropriate clothing to protect against sun damage. But at the same time, it is possible to afford protection from the inside too (see here for some thoughts about this).

The study I’m writing about today tested the effect of dark chocolate rich in flavanols on the ability of the skin to withstand sunburn. There were 30 subjects in the study. Half of them ate 20 g of chocolate rich in flavanols each day. The other half ate the same amount of low-flavanol chocolate. The study lasted 12 weeks.

At the beginning and end of the study subjects had their skin exposed to UV light. The dose of light required to induce redness (known as the minimal erythema dose or MED) was assessed.

In those eating low-flavanol chocolate, there was no different in MED over the course of the study. On the other hand, the individuals eating high-flavanol chocolate saw their MEDs double on average. This study suggests that eating high-flavanol chocolate has some capacity to protect the skin from the potentially damaging effects of the sun’s rays.

I have no idea how one might ensure that the chocolate one eats is rich in flavanols. However, because the flavanols are found in cocoa, dark chocolate is going to offer up more in the flavanols than other varieties (and the darker the better).


1. Williams S, et al. Eating chocolate can significantly protect the skin from UV light. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology 2009;8(3):169-173

23 Responses to Chocolate found to protect skin from light damage

  1. Paul Anderson 6 November 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    I think this is yet another area where the quality of the food is more important than the quantity. Good quality food tends to be more satisfying and nutrient dense. This applies to chocolate. But also to protein and fat sources. Eggs and meat are much more nutritious and satisfying tham say, wheat based foods such as breaf and pasta.

    Paul Anderson.

  2. Stephen Hoyt 6 November 2009 at 3:39 pm #

    Your article states: “it lacks the morishness that other forms of chocolate tend to have” What does “morishness” mean? I can’t find it in the dictionary!

    Great e-zine!

    S Hoyt
    Quebec, Canada

  3. Dr John Briffa 6 November 2009 at 4:05 pm #


    Moreish is an informal term referring to the tendency foods have to induce a desire for more of that food.

  4. Hilda Glickman 6 November 2009 at 4:27 pm #

    The trouble with buying chocolate or even having it in the house is the tendency to eat the lot in one go (for many people). However if you break it up and put it in the freezer it takes much longer to eat!

  5. Vin - NaturalBias 6 November 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Interesting study, thanks for sharing! I too am a big fan of natural sun exposure and am always interested in learning about new foods and habits that protect the skin from sun damage. I also enjoy dark chocolate once in a while and actually prefer it’s bitter taste to the more popular stuff that’s full of sugar. It’s always nice to get nutritional benefit out of an occasional tasty treat! 🙂

  6. simona 6 November 2009 at 6:59 pm #

    Can we talk about chocolate?
    Which 85% chocolate do you prefer, Dr. Briffa? I tried Tesco’s Arriba and wasn’t bad. Green and Black has powdered milk in it, although supposedly not a lot, so I avoid it. I like Castelain and Valrhona Abinao. Lindt is terrible.

  7. Chris 6 November 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    Were tomatoes also accredited with being protective odf sun exposure? Is the agent common to both?

  8. Tanya 6 November 2009 at 9:47 pm #

    What about flavanols in cocoa powder – the proper kind not hot chocolate? I drink it made with boiling water and a dash of double cream but no sugar. It’s lovely mid morning, satisfying and stops any staff room biscuit cravings.

  9. Nigeepoo 6 November 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    I’m very fair-skinned and have burned several times in the past in the late September sun while holidaying in the south of England.

    Since taking 5,000iu/day D3, for two years running, I was exposed to the sun in the middle of the day for 4 hours at County shows in Guildford at the end of September wearing a short-sleeved shirt and I didn’t burn, just going slightly pink in places. Yay!

    I can’t risk having chocolate in my house as it triggers binges, even of the 85% cocoa kind kept refrigerated. 125g can disappear down my throat in no time.

    Tomatoes are a bit safer!

  10. Dr John Briffa 6 November 2009 at 10:04 pm #


    I buy Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ 85 per cent cocoa chocolate. It comes in packets of 5, individually wrapped 25 g bars. I like the fact that the bars are individually wrapped – it kinda sets a limit on how much I eat.


    Sounds good – might try this myself…

  11. Bill 6 November 2009 at 10:12 pm #

    Tesco sell Lindt 90% cocoa chocolate. I consume 2 bars at least a week, but only in 2 piece treats once or twice a day.

    I’ve been doing this for 3 years now. This is the only source of sugar in my diet.

    I believe that good levels of vitamin D3 also help in UVA protection. The only problem this last summer has been the lack of prolonged sunny spells, to test the theory.

  12. jon w 7 November 2009 at 2:37 am #

    like some others I have to ask for more specifics. Is the benefit coming from cocoa powder, or from the cocoa butter? I use cocoa powder in coffee and with cream or yogurt.

  13. Dr John Briffa 7 November 2009 at 11:38 am #

    jon w

    The flavanols (which from this study appear to be the protective factor) are found in cocoa solids (e.g. cocoa powder).

  14. Dexter 7 November 2009 at 8:46 pm #

    After reading Dr T (Nephrologist) blog
    on the benefits of Cocao, I purchased Nativas Cocao Nibs from Amazon. No sugar. They are slightly bitter. I enjoy them on Greek Yogurt with blueberries, strawberries, or
    blackberries and some heavy whipping cream…only in the morning. The nibs do have caffeine

  15. Nancy 8 November 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Using chocolate as a spice might be worth a try too. Some friends made a Mexican mole that was interesting. It also took most of the day to make, and had lots of other ingredients.

  16. Katrina 8 November 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    Interesting blog post. I believe that eating a couple of squares of dark choclate after my evening meal (with complex carbs and quality protein), doesn’t initiate feelings of wanting more or alter my blood sugar levels. Lindt 90% for me, as my all time favourite is Hotel Chocolat 100%! Milk or white, is low in cocoa solids and tstes like sugar not choclate. It must be stated that only dark contains any source of beneifical Flavonols.

  17. Peter Silverman 8 November 2009 at 2:49 pm #

    I have a spoonful of cacao powder for dessert. The upside is that it satisfies the chocolate craving without sugar. The downside is that if someone makes you laugh while you have it in your mouth, it goes up your nose.

  18. Norma 9 November 2009 at 12:37 am #

    I find dark chocolate unpleasantly sweet; the milk in the milk chocolate reduces the sweetness for me. I know that there is a bit of snob value in dark chocolate, reflected in some of the posts above, but why eat the sugar if you don’t believe in it?

    Particularly if you want the health benefits.

    So why talk about the benefits of the flavanols and then talk about chocolate? I drink plenty of cocoa made with water and jersey cream. No sugar and I bet I get more flavanols than those who eat their two square of dark chocolate.

    If you like chocolate, have you tried raw chocolate? Quite a few people make raw chocolate bars now

  19. Ted Hutchinson 9 November 2009 at 3:46 pm #

    This review Carotenoids and flavonoids contribute to nutritional protection against skin damage from sunlight. tells us both carotenoids and flavonoids increase prevention of UV damage in humans. beta-Carotene and lycopene (tomato puree) preduce UV-induced erythema formation. Flavanols (as Dr Briffa points out from dark chocolate), also enhance natural photoprotection.
    Remember it takes 10-12 weeks of dietary intervention, for a decrease in the sensitivity toward UV-induced erythema to be observed. So you need to start well before your holiday.
    Stephan’s blog on skin cancer also makes some worthwhile points
    and it isn’t surprising that 4g daily of omega 3 also improves the skin’s natural sunscreen potential.

    These are, of course, not alternative strategies but can be simultaneously.

    As for snob value both the discount supermarkets LIDL and Aldi have over 80% Dark Chocolate but you have to be a bit lucky as it’s the strongest that sell first.

  20. simona 10 November 2009 at 1:05 pm #

    Thank you dr. Briffa. Unfortunately, we don’t have Sainsbury’s here so I can’t taste it.
    Regarding raw chocolate, it’s clear to me that it has more flavanols, and I can eat cocoa nibs no problem. However, so called raw chocolate bars have too little cocoa mass and too much much sweetener in it, sometimes agave, which is even worse than sugar.
    I’ve tried Lindt 99% and it was like eating ash, bad quality cocoa, too roasted, bitter.
    I haven’t seen the Aldi ones going over 72.
    For those who have hot chocolate made with cocoa, cream and water I recommend trying coconut milk instead of cream just for a change, I think it might be a good idea.( I haven’t tried it yet.)
    And let’s not forget that milk protein binds to the flavanols in cocoa and blueberries. I don’t think that if you’re looking for the beneficial effects of flavanols in cocoa nibs it’s a good idea to have it with yoghurt (but I don’t know to what extent, is it quantity dependent or not)
    Regarding the snob value, I disagree. Food is supposed to be enjoyed and shared, it’s not only about how healthy it is, or how virtuous one is by eating only healthy food. Even proponents of primal food diets/paleolitic life styles suggest the 80/20 principle. What matters is what you do 80% of the time. If chocolate is your only source of refined sugar and you keep your total carbs under 60, I don’t see what problems can you have if you have 5 grams of fructose from 10 grams of sugar from a half a bar of 85% chocolate (50 grams) I rarely eat more than 20 grams in a day and I keep it after the meal. The other point is that just because it has a high cocoa mass content it doesn’t mean that it tastes good. Obviously, everybody makes their own choice in the matter. I love good chocolate and try to eat organic too if possible.
    There is also the issue of lead in cocoa that few people talk about.

  21. Nicole 10 November 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    I love the 90% Lindt bars. I used to buy either the 85% or 87% (not sure which they are), but Wal-Mart was out of those on my last trip. I will be sticking with the 90% ones now.

    Target and Wal-Mart both have great prices on Lindt chocolate bars – they cost around $2.25 each. I’ve seen them at specialty stores selling for way over $3.

    I find the cacao nibs to be too fiber-y, and I don’t really enjoy eating them. I will grind some up and add to coffee or chai tea with the beans or leaves, however. Raw nibs have an odd fermented flavor that I do like, but texture wise, they just cannot compare with chocolate bars.

  22. Jill H 11 November 2009 at 10:30 pm #

    There is much more opportunity to purchase organic, fair trade dark chocolate (and coffee) I believe from supermarkets than in the past. I hope that by looking for these makes -I now live in the USA and purchase Dagoba but I seem to remember in the UK that supermarkets (?Waitrose) carried their own Organic, fair trade lines and Green and Blacks (now owned by Cadburys, I believe) still hopefully carry the ethos of respecting the communities who grow the beans for this line. The fact that chocolate, especially the yummy, rich dark kind has now entered the arena as a ‘superfood’ could help a lot of growers have a better, healthier life too.

  23. Maggie 22 January 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    For those in the UK, The Co-operative sells Fair Trade 85% chocolate. I haven’t tasted any other brand for comparison, but find that I can nibble just one of the marked squares without wanting to have another.

Leave a Reply