What Is Shea Butter?
If you are someone who has dry or flaky skin you probably will know of the benefits of shea butter. Shea butter has a long history of traditional use and is well known for its moisturizing, anti-aging and antioxidant properties.
Shea butter is a plant fat extracted from the nuts of the shea tree, which is native to Africa. The shea nuts are lightly boiled and then sun-dried prior to grinding into a paste. Lastly, the fat is extracted from the paste and turned into butter through churning. It is usually yellow in color when raw, however, more processed versions can be ivory or white in color. As a naturally-derived plant ingredient, shea butter is made up of a number of different oils and fats. Shea butter contains oleic acid, 40 to 60%, stearic acid, 20 to 50%, linoleic acid, 3 to 11%, palmitic acid, 2 to 9%, and arachidic acid, less than 1%. In shea butter’s complex composition allantoin, vitamins E, A and D are also found. Shea butter is generally regarded to have similar anti-aging properties to green tea, another plant-based anti-oxidant.
Shea butter is used in many different types of products, such as lip balms, skin moisturizer creams and emulsions, bath products, suntan products, and hair conditioners. It can also be used to make soaps, however, it must be used in small amounts since it contains many nonsaponifiable components or components that don’t lend themselves to being turned into soap.
the good: Helps protect the skin and maintain the skin’s natural barrier, provides the skin with antioxidant properties, and helps to moisturize the skin.
the not so good: Like many naturally-sourced ingredients there it is important to consider where the ingredient is being harvested, whether it is sustainable, and what conditions those who are harvesting the ingredient experience. Look for brands that ensure ethical and sustainable harvesting.
Who is it for? All skin types, especially dry skin types.
Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most oil-based ingredients.
Keep an eye on: Congestive skin should be mindful when using shea butter as it may exacerbate congestion when used in higher concentrations.
How Is Shea Butter Good For The Skin?
Shea butter is mainly used for its hydrating abilities, helping to protect the skin barrier and prevent moisture loss. It may also have antioxidant and antiaging properties, helping to improve the appearance of the skin.
Shea butter is a potent moisturizer that works to soften and soothe the skin. Since shea butter melts at body temperature, it is able to coat the skin and form a protective film. This film helps to prevent evaporation of the skin’s natural moisture and increases skin hydration by trapping water in the upper layers of the skin.
In fact, shea butter has been shown to be superior to mineral oil, a commonly used protective ingredient, at preventing transepidermal water loss or TEWL. Transepidermal water loss occurs when the skin barrier is disrupted or when the skin is exposed to harsh environments where the water is lost from the skin to the air. This water loss can make the skin look dehydrated and dull.
The skin’s natural barrier is an important part of how the skin maintains water levels and protects itself from allergens and bacteria. The skin barrier consists of the upper layers of skin and the natural oils and Natural Moisturising Factors that the skin produces. In addition to fatty acids found in our natural oils, the barrier consists of ceramides and cholesterol. Disruption of the skin barrier has been linked to conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis. Shea butter helps to maintain the skin’s natural barrier, helping to hydrate, plump, and protect the skin. The rich supply of triglycerides and fatty acids in shea butter helps to replenish the skin’s natural barrier function.
One study that looked into the protective properties of shea butter, tested this by washing participants’ arms in water containing ethanol. Ethanol is thought to dry out the skin and disrupt the skin’s barrier. The study then examined how shea butter compared to mineral oil in terms of helping the skin recover. Within two hours, the researchers found that shea butter was able to help the skin totally recover from transepidermal water loss. After three to four hours, shea butter was found to improve the skin barrier. With the mineral oil, there was a slower recovery and starting values were not recovered.
Another study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology compared the effects of shea butter to Vaseline or petrolatum for treating eczema. Using a scale from zero to five (zero denoting clear and five denoting very severe disease) shea butter took a three down to a one, while Vaseline only took a three down to a two. Thus, the study concluded that shea butter works as an effective emollient for eczema. It is important to keep in mind that a few studies do not indicate a therapeutic application but the research around the ability of shea butter to support dry skin is indicative of its traditional uses.
In addition to its moisturizing properties, shea butter may also be able to improve the appearance of aging skin due to its nonsaponifiable components or components that aren’t able to be disrupted by the soap making process. A study published in the Journal Phytotherapy Research determined that the nonsaponifiable components of avocado and soybean oils may stimulate the synthesis of collagen and elastin fibers, which reverses the degenerative skin changes seen with aging. Thus, the nonsaponifiable components of shea butter are thought to have similar properties in improving the signs of aging. This, along with the antioxidant properties that the vitamin E in shea butter provides, helps to mitigate the visible appearance of aging skin.
Shea butter is also used in many hair care products such as conditioners, leave-in treatment and styling products. Shea butter may help to strengthen the hair and improve shine and moisture. In higher concentration formulations shea butter can be a great ingredient to help hydrate and style curls and drier hair types.
As Healthline discussed in their article, shea butter also has a mild SPF of about 3-4. While this is not enough for shea butter to be used sun protection by itself it is an added protective benefit of the ingredient.
What Are The Traditions Around Shea Butter?
Shea butter has been used for thousands of years in Africa, where the shea tree is native. The shea tree is mainly found in the savannahs of Sudan and doesn’t grow well in plantation environments. Shea trees live for around a hundred years and only produce fruit for half of their lives. Traditionally, shea trees are considered to be sacred in many African cultures with many of those cultures only allowing women to touch and harvest from the tree. Used in traditional cooking, healing and cosmetic practices, shea butter has been used and treasured for its moisturizing and antioxidant properties.
How Do You Know If Shea Butter Is High Quality?
A general rule of thumb for knowing if your shea butter is of high quality is whether it melts on the skin. If it does, it is probably a pure or high-quality product.
Does Shea Butter Last?
As shea butter consists mostly of oils it can last without preservatives for some time. Bacteria and mold require water-based environments in order to grow, in the absence of water they are generally unable to survive. If you are making shea butter products at home, such as whipped shea butter it is important to keep it in a cool dry place to ensure that the oils don’t go rancid or lose their beneficial properties.
Is Shea Butter Safe?
The safety of butyrospermum parkii or shea butter has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, a group responsible for evaluating the safety of skincare and cosmetic ingredients. The CIR Expert Panel evaluated scientific data and concluded that this ingredient was safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products.
Nisbet S, 2018. ‘Skin acceptability of a cosmetic moisturizer formulation in female subjects with sensitive skin’, Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, vol. 11, pp. 213–217.
Lin, T, Zhong, L, & Santiago, J, 2017. ‘Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils’ International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 19, is. 1, pp.70.