Theobroma cacao seed oil is one of the most widely used natural skin care ingredients in the products available from top brands, but many people have never heard it's name before. That's because this fatty oil typically goes by a simpler name--cocoa butter. In addition, cocoa butter can be called a variety of other names, including cacao butter, cacao oil, cocoa seed oil and cacao seed butter.
Cocoa butter is derived from the Theobroma cacao tree. An evergreen tree, the species prefers tropical climates and grows naturally in a band that begins in southeastern Mexico and extends southward through Central America and into the Amazon basin in South America. The high demand for the products of the cacao tree, which include chocolate and cocoa powder in addition to cocoa butter, have led to its cultivation throughout the world. More than 17 million acres of forests are grown specifically for harvesting cacao trees with much of the farming occurring in northern Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Latin America.
Although it is a highly useful ingredient in skin care products, theobroma cacao seed oil is actually a by-product of the chocolate-making process. To produce chocolate, seeds from the Theobroma cacao tree are harvested and roasted. After roasting, the seeds are processed and refined, and a yellow, fatty substance is removed from their hulls. This waxy material is what we commonly refer to as cocoa butter. The rich fat is comprised of a number of skin-healthy fatty acids, including stearic acid, oleic acid and palmitic acid.
Cocoa beans and cocoa butter were an integral part of the religious practices and natural healing methods of a variety of indigenous Central American tribes, particularly the Mayas and Aztecs. The delicious taste of cocoa and the benefits of cocoa butter were introduced to Europeans through Spanish explorers and conquistadors, and by the 17th century, the use of cocoa butter to treat skin conditions was prominent throughout much of Europe.
One common use for cocoa butter was handed down as a home remedy through generations of women--applying the ingredient to the breasts, stomach and thighs to prevent the formation of stretch marks during pregnancy. Scientifically known as striae, stretch marks typically form when the skin undergoes rapid growth, causing bruising underneath the skin and disrupting collagen production. Many women recommend using cocoa butter for preventing stretch marks based on their own positive experiences using the ingredient, but scientific research has yet to prove that theobroma cacao seed oil is able to prevent the formation of striae. Still many women continue to use cocoa butter to improve the condition of their skin.
Although its ability to prevent stretch marks is open for debate, skin care experts agree that applying cocoa butter to the skin does have other real benefits. The rich, fatty texture of theobroma seed oil makes it an effective emollient, a substance that fills in the spaces that exist between skin cells to soften and smooth them. Cocoa butter also acts as an occlusive, an ingredient that creates a barrier on the skin and reduces the amount of moisture lost from the tissue into the air due to evaporation.
Because of its emollient and occlusive properties, cocoa butter is a common ingredient in moisturizers and body lotions. It is also sold in pure form for use as a moisturizer and treatment for dry skin.
Chocolate is known to function as an antioxidant, a nutrient that slows down the aging process by limiting the effects of environmental free radicals, which cause cellular damage. Studies have found that cocoa butter also has antioxidative properties, making the ingredient useful in products designed to protect the skin against sun damage. Anti-aging skin care products meant to delay the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles also frequently contain theobroma seed oil.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved cocoa butter for use in skin care products in concentrations of as much as 100 percent. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel has also reviewed the ingredient and asserts that it is safe for use and not likely to cause skin irritation. As a result, cocoa butter is often used in products designed for those with sensitive skin who may be unable to use other types of emollients or occlusives.