Ingredient Showcase: Everything you Need to Know about Shea Butter

Love moisturizing your skin!

Aside from being commonly seen in a multitude of cosmetics; not many people know very much about shea butter and its benefits. The extent of most peoples’ knowledge on the topic is that it’s great for moisturization, but shea butter is much more than that! Read on to learn more about this amazing healing material and hopefully gain an appreciation for the work that goes into making it!

How is Shea Butter Made?

Shea butter is made from the shea nut, which is the inner part of the shea fruit. The shea fruits grow on a tree that can grow to become 60 feet tall. Even crazier, “the Shea tree does not flower before it is 20 years old and can live up to 200 years” (2). These trees are indigenous to western Africa and grow in the savannah.

An African Landscape

Now, on to the actual process! After the fruits are harvested from the shea trees, the nuts are removed from the fruit and well-dried. Depending on conditions, a single tree can produce 40 kilos of shea fruit! (5).

Once the shea nuts are dried, the laborious process begins. Ghana is one of the main producers of shea butter, and Ghanian women continue to process shea butter by hand. They must crack the outer shell of the nut off, oftentimes with stones. Then the nuts are once again washed and sun-dried. Afterward, the nuts are ground up. Traditionally, the nuts were ground up using a mortar and pestle, but nowadays most have a mechanical grinder that lightens the load (5).

Next, the ground up nuts are roasted. They are ground once more into a thick, dark brown paste. Then this paste is put into a large bowl where women churn it by hand until oil separates from the water they’ve added to the paste. This part can take over an hour! (5).

The separated oil is then added to another bowl of boiling water. The women then draw off the oil that rises above the water. The oil is strained and then put in a bowl to cool and solidify into that glorious product we know as shea butter! (5)

Definitely a lot more work than you initially thought, no? I know I certainly have much more appreciation for the time and effort put into creating this wonderful material myself and so many others use in their products.

If you’re interested in seeing more about the process of making shea butter, the video below provides a wealth of great information on that.

Fun Facts!

Queen Nefertiti, who I am sure had flawless skin if she used shea butter!
  1. Among the local communities where shea butter grows naturally, the shea tree is considered sacred. It is also said to possess protective spiritual powers (3).
  2. Shea butter is actually edible! Many chocolate manufacturers actually use shea butter in their chocolates. However, they use the refined version of shea butter which is not great for reasons I will explain later (2).
  3. Supposedly, the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti credited her astounding beauty to the use of shea butter! (2).

Why Shea Butter is Great for the Skin

Shea butter contains many nutrients and healthy fats that contribute greatly to the health of your skin. You’ll quickly realize that shea butter is much more of a nutritional powerhouse than you’d think!

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a key nutrient we need to remain healthy. Everyone knows this! Yet many of us don’t realize the importance this vital nutrient has for the skin as well.

Vitamin A fights inflammation, which means it destroys free radicals that oxidize our cells. This process of oxidization is actually what causes us to look older! Vitamin A also produces more collagen in the skin. The combination of free-radical fighting and collagen production causes your skin to look younger, longer! (6).

Regrowth and wound healing are also processes that require Vitamin A to function optimally. It is also supposedly an aid in fighting skin cancer! How’s that for important? (6).

Fatty Acids

Alpha linolenic acid

Shea butter contains many fatty acids, but the most predominant are “oleic, stearic, palmitic, linoleic, and arachidic” (4).

These lipids are key to the skin’s ability to remain hydrated. The biggest sign of fatty acid deficiency is transepidermal water loss (TEWL). This describes the skin’s inability to retain moisture. This lack of moisture would lead to dry and cracked skin; neither of which are very comfortable! (7).

Fatty acids also help to protect the skin from sun damage. Even further, fatty acids can aid in accelerated wound healing and slow skin aging much like vitamin A. This occurs due to the antioxidant qualities of the fatty acids which cause an inflammation response (7).

Cinnamic Acid

What do shea butter and cinnamon have in common? Cinnamic Acid!

This is a compound found in, you guessed it, cinnamon! Surprisingly, it is also found in shea butter. What is so special about cinnamic acid? Well…

Cinnamic acid has been shown to possess depigmenting activity, which is just a fancy way of saying it can lighten skin. That means if you have scars, shea butter may help to make them fade, or at least make them less noticeable (8).

Cinnamic acid has antioxidant properties! Like the ingredients above, cinnamic acid will help fight free radicals and keep the skin looking fresh (8).

It’s antimicrobial. Cinnamic acid doesn’t appear to be highly antimicrobial like other natural substances, but it is still important when it comes to wound healing. This means that if you use shea butter for wound healing, you will be less likely to get an infection (8).

Vitamin E

Vitamin E and other vitamins can help protect you from sun damage!

I remember when I was younger and I got a burn on my finger from the stove, my mom would pop open a pill of vitamin E and put that on the burn. It worked well and swiftly took the sting away from my throbbing finger!

This relates in that shea butter contains a considerable amount of vitamin E. Much like the previous nutrients listed, vitamin E contains antioxidant, wound healing, and photoprotective properties. Since vitamin E is known to help the skin repair from UV damage, it would make sense that it also helped provide relief from burns when I was younger! (9).

Allergy Alert!

If you have dietary sensitivities to allergies or tree nuts, take caution when using shea butter. Since shea butter is derived from a tree nut, you may have an allergic reaction.

Unrefined vs. Refined: Why I use Unrefined Shea Butter

Glorious, beautiful, unrefined shea butter.

First of all, why would someone want to use a refined version of shea butter? Many cosmetic manufacturers don’t care for the strong aroma that unrefined shea butter gives off. So refined shea butter reduces most of the odor which makes it easier for companies to add fragrance. (I actually find the scent pleasant so this seems silly to me!) It also supposedly creates a more attractive off-white color and is cheaper than unrefined shea butter.

However, this process of refining shea butter will alter, or even completely destroy the nutritional value of shea butter to the skin. Improved appearance and reduced odor are sacrificed for healing benefit (1).

Even worse, refined shea butter is often processed chemically. “Refined Shea butter has been extracted with chemical process (with hexane mostly), which involves bleaching, deodorizing and overheating” (2). So not only are the nutrients destroyed through high temperatures, the end product has been tainted with chemicals that don’t belong on your skin. It’s about as natural as mechanically separated chicken. Yeah, it started out from a natural and pure product, but by the end it barely resembles the material from which it originated!

I hope this blog has helped you to think a little more about the benefits of shea butter. If you already use shea butter, I hope this has provoked you to do a little more digging as to the quality of shea butter you have been using and whether or not it is refined.

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  1. Great informative article on Shea Butter. I didn’t know Shea Nut Trees grow up to 60 feet tall and can live up to 200 years old! I was surprised how much labor, time and effort is put into the process of making Shea Butter! You did a wonderful job describing the health benefits of this nut butter:)

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it and learned some new things! I didn’t know how much work went into making shea butter either, it’s pretty amazing!