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Shea Butter: What It Is, Why It Works

This African Oil Has Powerful Anti-Aging & Healing Skin Benefits

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Shea Butter: What It Is, Why It Works

Shea butter at a market in Africa.

Photo by Diane MacDonald/Photographer's Choice (Getty Images)

Shea (pronounced shee) butter is now well known as an ingredient in skin and hair care products. As an ingredient for skin care, especially in its natural and pure form, it has multiple benefits from reducing premature facial lines and wrinkles to soothing skin conditions like eczema.

Shea butter comes from the shea nut tree more commonly known as the karite nut or mangifolia tree. The name varies depending upon the country (it can be found in 19 African countries), so it is also called nku, bambuk butter tree and galam butter tree.

The shea nut tree grows wild in the savannahs of west and central Africa. A tree can take from 18-25 years to produce the nuts from which shea butter is made. It is called the “tree of life” because it provides a life support system for African people in several ways. Different parts of the tree (nuts, roots and bark) are used for food, medicine, soap and other purposes, as well as for commerce.

Royal Beginnings

The shea tree was (and still is) an important and revered tree and was often used in religious ceremonies. While other trees could be cut down for clearing, it was forbidden to cut or damage the shea tree.

Shea butter was used for trade and medicinal purposes, as well as for beauty. Jars of shea could be found in the caravans of Egyptian queen Cleopatra and was also used by Nefertiti and the Queen of Sheba.

Uses in Africa

Shea butter is used to provide protection from the sun (it contains natural sunscreen in the form of cinnamic acid) and harsh wind. It also has medicinal uses for stomachaches, headaches (as a vapor bath) for jaundice and to protect the skin of newborn babies.

As a food, it is a popular staple, mixed with couscous for the evening meal. In Nigeria shea butter is rubbed around the nostrils for sinus and congestion problems. Shea butter is also used for dressing wounds. (It is said that in the past rebel groups in Uganda were known to rub shea butter on their bodies in the belief that it could stop bullets).

Since the shea tree is held in reverence, nothing taken from it is wasted. (In fact, in some countries the people give thanks to the tree when it is being harvested.) Even poorer quality shea butter that cannot be used for cosmetics or food is put to good use as drum skins, lamp fuel, candles, lubricant for donkey carts, and on walls, doors and windows for water- and weather-proofing.

Women's Gold

Years ago it was discovered that shea butter could be used as a substitute for the more expensive cocoa butter, for chocolate, cosmetics and other cocoa-based products. It has been called “women’s gold” because extracting the butter gives employment and income to rural African village women and farmers. Traditional extraction is a very long process. It can take between 20-30 hours to extract 2.2 pounds, but through traditional extraction, shea butter retains more of its nutritional, skin care and medicinal benefits.

Skin Care & Beauty Benefits

Shea butter’s phenolics, a constituent element of polyphenols, have anti-aging benefits and properties similar to green tea. Shea butter contains five essential fatty acids, (a major amount coming from stearic and oleic acids), phytosterols, vitamins E and D, allantoin (good for healing skin irritations), and vitamin A. This combination of ingredients helps neutralize free radical damage, reducing fine lines and wrinkles and fading age spots, as well as stimulating collagen production.

The texture, consistency, as well as skin care benefits depends on the stearic acid and oleic acid content, which can be different in each crop of nuts harvested. The variety found in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan (vitellaria nilotica) is more expensive because it’s harder to obtain due to civil unrest. It’s also higher in olein (the liquid part of shea butter), which makes it softer and more fragrant. There’s also better absorption into the skin because of lower content of saturated fatty acids. Shea butter in the west (vitellaria paradoxa) is higher in vitamin A, which is better for wrinkles and stretch marks.

Shea butter’s healing skin care benefits are numerous. It helps fade acne and other scars, heals sunburned, cracked and peeling skin, soothes skin allergies like poison ivy and insect bites, and skin conditions like contact dermatitis and psoriasis. It is also believed to reduce muscle aches and rheumatism by stimulating the elimination of toxins from muscles.

Pure shea butter can be hard and especially difficult with work with when using it on your hair. This tutorial will teach you how to make whipped shea, which will make it much easier to take out of the jar and use.

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