Shea butter is an off-white fatty substance obtained from the nuts of the shea tree from West Africa, typically used in cosmetic and natural skin care products. Full of all-natural vitamin A, 100 percent pure, unrefined, raw shea butter aids in numerous skin conditions such as blemishes and wrinkles, stretch mark prevention during pregnancy, muscle fatigue, dermatitis, and radiation treatments for certain medical problems.
Indeed, because raw shea butter is extremely moisturizing and very hydrating, when applied to the skin, it provides immediate softness and smoothness. But it has other proven benefits.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a study indicating that shea nuts and shea fat (shea butter) constitute a significant source of anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor promoting compounds. Another study from the American Journal of Life Sciences claims that shea butter boosts collagen production, demonstrating anti-aging properties.
Nutritional Background of Raw Shea Butter
Raw shea butter is rich in stearic, oleic acids and benefit-rich vitamin E and vitamin A. The shea tree is used as a source of vegetable oil containing about 45–50 percent oleic acid, 30–41 percent stearic acid, 5–9 percent palmitic acid and 4–5 percent linoleic acid. The best shea butter is extracted using cold pressed methods without added chemicals or preservatives.
Shea butter is smooth in texture and does not liquify at room temperatures; however, it will soften in your hands, making it easy to apply. Containing vitamins A and E, it has relatively high amounts of saturated fatty acids (like MCT oil) when compared to other plant-sourced lipids, such as grape seed oil, olive oil and canola oil.
Cosmeticsinfo.org reports that The Food and Drug Administration includes shea nut oil on its list of direct food substances affirmed at Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). While it is more common in beauty products, shea butter is often found in a variety of confections and chocolate as a cocoa butter substitute.
The safety of raw shea butter and related forms has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, and they note its popularity in cosmetics and personal care products as compared to many other oils with a total of 1,950 products, with 1,680 of those uses in leave-on formulations. They also note that “a recent survey of use concentrations for shea butter reports a maximum use concentration of 60 percent in leave-on products.”
The Journal of Oleo Science reported that through its studies, shea nuts and shea fat (shea butter) was found to reduce inflammation. The studies also showed that shea butter contains a significant source of anti-tumor promoting compounds such as cinnamate esters, which also make up the health benefits of cinnamon.
6 Benefits of Topical Use of Shea Butter
1. Key Ingredient for Natural Skin Care
Most of our skin care products contain synthetics (I call it “the real price of beauty“) that are often the primary ingredients, and you will find it in many lotions, creams, eye makeup, facial makeup and lipsticks.
In contrast, raw shea butter is a great natural ingredient because it acts as a moisturizer and gives a nice glow to the skin. It helps make the skin supple by providing hydration; and therefore, is an amazing skin conditioning agent. Look for products that contain pure shea butter and other all-natural ingredients.
2. Provides Anti-Aging Properties
Raw shea butter helps tissue cell regeneration and softening of the skin, which reduces wrinkles. The American Journal of Life Sciences reported a clinical study involving 30 volunteers in which shea butter diminished various signs of aging. In another clinical study for dry, delicate or aging skin, 49 volunteers applied shea butter twice daily and discovered that it prevented photo aging. It is also shown to boost collagen production, which is essential for skin strength.
3. Moisturizes Both Scalp and Hair
Shea butter seals in moisture, conditioning the scalp, alleviating dandruff and providing overall protection from harsh climates — much like how coconut oil works for hair. You can use it on your scalp, hair or both to improve your health and appearance.
Gently warm the shea butter to soften it and rub thoroughly through your hair and scalp. For best results, leave on for 20–30 minutes. Then, rinse, shampoo and condition as normal. It can actually provide volume when applied to just the roots when styling!
4. Relieves Windburn, Sunburn and Winter Dry Skin
Raw shea butter is perfect to help eliminate that itchy winter skin! Its moisturizing qualities penetrate deep into the skin offering more moisturizing benefits while preventing windburn. It’s perfect for cracked and dry heels, hands, rough elbows and knees.
Like my own homemade sunscreen, shea butter also protect your skin from the sun and is a much healthier choice because most sunscreens are filled with noxious chemicals that penetrate the skin and enter our bodies. These chemicals can cause disease-causing inflammation and numerous other problems. While the SPF is about 6, it can provide some protection in a more natural way and is perfect underneath makeup.
5. Reduces Stretch Marks, Scarring and Cellulite
How do you get rid of cellulite and stretch marks? While many believe that Retin-A and laser treatments are the only way to diminish stretch marks, raw shea butter may help. Because of its amazing healing properties and hydrating qualities, shea butter can possibly reduce the appearance of stretch marks and scarring as well as cellulite by smoothing and softening the skin.
6. Prevents Diaper Rash for Babies
Shea butter makes a great diaper rash ointment for your baby because of its antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties that can fight off yeast. Raw shea butter can help improve blood circulation promoting cell regeneration while providing improved collagen production.
Both cell regeneration and collagen production are important to healing diaper rashes quickly. Since most children are exposed to a large number of chemicals through the numerous products found on the shelf, this is the perfect DIY solution to help avoid those chemicals and ensure comfort and rapid healing for your baby.
History & Interesting Facts
Considered a sacred tree, the shea tree (Shea-Karite tree) grows naturally in the wild in the dry savannah belt of West Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. The shea butter comes from the nuts found on the tree by removing the outer shell. The nuts are crushed by hand so that they can be slowly roasted into the butter.
Once this has been done, the butter is kneaded by hand in a large basin of water to separate the oils, also known as the fatty acids. These fatty acids are what provides the restorative properties making it one of the best options for skin care and more. To get the final product, the shea butter is removed off of the top and cooled until it hardens.
Because it’s thought to have spiritual protective powers, many communities and ethnic groups consider the shea tree as sacred, and it plays an important role in religious and cultural ceremonies. The shea tree has many beneficial health claims and when combined with palm oil, it serves as an edible oil for many households in parts of Sahel Africa, particularly Northern Nigeria. Shea butter has been in existence for centuries and some believe that it was used by Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba!
How to Find the Best Shea Butter
It’s important to purchase only high-quality premium raw shea butter so that you get the most benefits. The American Shea Butter Institute notes that shea butter contains the ingredient cinnamic acid, an anti-inflammatory agent, which is a substance closely related to the same cinnamon you find in your kitchen cabinet. The less pure the shea butter, the less cinnamic acid present; therefore, the shea butter benefits greatly decrease.
Also, many shea butters have added ingredients, such as fragrances, to make it cheaper — and these additives can dilute the benefits greatly. It’s recommended that shea butter is used within 18 months of extraction from the seed, as beneficial properties may diminish over time. You can also look for The American Shea Butter Institute Seal of Approval on the container (though not all reputable brands feature this seal of approval). You can find shea butter at your local health food store. Always look for raw/unrefined and organic.
Shea Butter Recipes
Of course, it’s easy to make your own skin care products right at home. Raw shea butter is gentle enough to use daily and is perfect for many uses from facial creams and body lotions to lip balms and even shaving cream! Try these recipes.
Tea Tree and Lavender Shea Butter Facial Cream
This cream not only provides hydration for your skin, it can be a home remedy for acne and help combat wrinkles or any scarring that may have resulted from sun damage or acne. It will also revitalize your skin leaving it radiant!
Directions: Apply liberally in the morning underneath makeup and at night, leaving it on while you sleep.
- 3 tablespoons raw, unrefined shea butter
- 1 tablespoon jojoba oil
- 3–5 drops of tea tree oil
- 3–5 drops of lavender essential oil
- 2–3 drops of frankincense essential oil
- It’s important to not overheat shea butter, as it will lose much of its healing properties. Heating it makes it easier to blend, so keep a close eye on it.
- Add the oils slowly as you blend it.
- Whipped shea butter will not change its chemical structure and benefits.
- If you prefer the end result to be harder vs. whipped, you do not need a hand mixer. Simply blend with a spatula.
How To Make It:
- Using a double boiler, melt the shea butter. Another option is to use a heat safe container that you can place in a pan filled with some water, such as a jar.
- Once melted, place the shea butter in the refrigerator to cool and partly solidify. This takes about 10–15 minutes.
- Remove from the refrigerator and place in a bowl. Add the oils slowly while whipping the shea butter. You can use an electric hand blender to whip it to the desired consistency. If you do not have one, just use a spatula and blend the ingredients well.
- Place the mixture into a glass jar with a lid and store. You can store in the refrigerator or a cool dark place for added shelf life which is approximately 3 weeks.
Possible Side Effects/Caution
Some people are allergic to tree nuts, and that can include nuts from the Shea tree. Therefore, the FDA Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that all food containing shea nuts be clearly labeled. Though the American Shea Butter Institute states that there have not been any clinical trials proving that shea butter causes allergies, if you are allergic to nuts, it may be best to stay away from shea butter until you are sure that you will not have any negative side effects.