Shea Butter

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Shea Butter is extracted from the nuts of the Shea-Karite tree found in the African tropics, and is prized for its unique healing and moisturising properties. It contains vegetable fats which are much more beneficial to the skin than those found in cocoa butter and other vegetable butters.


Why should I be aware of this?

Shea Butter, an all-natural vitamin A cream, is not only an excellent moisturizer but also has very good healing properties for skin conditions such as blemishes, wrinkles, eczema, and dermatitis. It is derived from the seed of the Shea tree and prepared without chemicals or preservatives.

Shea Butter cream is ideal for treatment of skin allergies, insect bites, sunburns, frostbites, and a number of other conditions of the skin.[1] The natural moisturizers present in Shea Butter are the same as those produced by the sebaceous glands in the skin.

Shea Butter is also a wound healer with its positive biochemical and physiological effects.

By buying Shea Butter, conscious consumers are also aiding underprivileged communities in Africa, for whom producing and marketing this product is a sustainable sources of livelihood.

All about Shea Butter

Traditionally, Shea Butter was extracted by people who picked the nuts, cracked them, grilled them and pounded them.[2].

Thse nuts were boiled with water for hours until the shea butter rose to the surface. The butter was separated from the water, put into gourds and left to cool and set. Today, however, there are techniques available to refine this natural butter to increase its shelf life and improve its fragrance.


Shea Butter is solid at room temperature although it quickly liquefies right around body temperature. This Shea Butter is called unrefined Shea Butter or raw Shea Butter. Since Shea Butter is an all natural product, it can vary widely in quality, appearance and smell depending on where it is produced from and how it is refined or extracted. The low melting point of shea butter has its pros and cons. When applied on the skin, it instantly melts, leaving a luxurious layer on the skin. However, this also means that shea butter routinely liquefies during summer. Melted shea butter, as long as it does not smell rancid, is perfectly safe to use. If regrigerated, it will just set again.

The color of unrefined Shea Butter depends on the Shea nuts used. Shea nuts will vary in color from almost white to yellow. Therefore, refined Shea Butter will vary in color. [3]

Where it is found

The shea tree is found all across the African tropics -- nearly 5,000km from Senegal (west) to Uganda (east) across the African Continent. It usually grows to an average height of about 15m with profuse branches and a thick waxy and deeply fissured bark that makes it fire resistant.

There is some confusion as to which shea butter is better, West African (Vitellaria Paradoxa) or East African (Vitellaria Nilotica). The East African Shea Butter is higher in olein (the liquid part of the Shea Butter), which makes it softer and and more fragrant than West African Shea Butter. It also has a much better yield, giving Ugandan women farmers over five times the amount received by their West African counterparts.

Compared to West African shea butter, East African Shea Butter has less vitamin A and less sterols. To use for prevention of stretch marks, you might want to use West African Shea Butter. However, if you are looking for natural, intense moisturize, East African Shea Butter may be a better alternative.

Shea butter and health

Shea Butter is different from other seed oils because it has exceptionally large healing fractions, consisting of important nutrients, vitamins, and other valuable phytonutrients. Here are some of its health benefits [3] --
  • Healthy skin
  • Insect bites
  • Eczema
  • Dermatitis
  • Peeling skin
  • Rashes
  • Protection from cold
  • Sunburn
  • Itching
  • Dry skin
  • Blemishes
  • Wrinkles
  • Skin allergies
  • Muscle fatigues
  • Frost bites
  • Stretch mark prevention during pregnancy
  • Smooth shave


  • The African shea tree was given its name at the end of the 18th century by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park.
  • In many parts of West Africa shea butter is the main source of fat for cooking and for skin care, the fruits are also eaten.
  • The Shea Tree is considered sacred in some parts of Africa.
  • In the hot Sahara shea butter has a life-preserving function. For centuries the people there have used it to protect their skin from the drying wind.
  • In Germany shea butter products were first imported at the end of the 19th century. The first large-scale practical tests of its use in skin care were performed between 1930 and 1952.
  • The chemists were very enthusiastic about the high fat content of the fruits as well as about their long stability without preservatives.
  • In the mid-1960s shea butter disappeared from the world markets and was supplanted by the cocoa butter promoted by the industrial countries.

What can I do about it?

Tips for choosing shea butter

Pure Shea Butter can be found in three types of extractions. Also, recently, Shea Butter has begun to be graded.

  • Raw or unrefined shea butter is extracted using water. The color ranges from like cream (similar to whipped butter) to grayish yellow. This is the original form of Shea Butter.
  • Refined shea butter is more highly processed, but still has many of its natural components intact.
  • Highly refined or processed shea butter has solvents added to it to increase the yield (hexane is an example). The color is pure white.

How should Shea Butter smell?

Shea Butter has a natural smell, which is not unpleasant to most people. The smell of raw or lightly refined West African Shea varies from nutty to similar to Crisco® or shortening. Over time the smell of the Shea Butter will diminish. If an unrefined Shea Butter has almost no smell, it is probably getting old. Shea Butter should not stink, not matter how old it is. It is possible for Shea Butter to go rancid. If it does, do not use it.

How do I store Shea Butter?

Shea Butter does not need to be refrigerated. However, over a period of two or three years, the Shea Butter will begin to lose some of its effectiveness. As the natural ingredients begin to break down, some of the healing benefits will be reduced, but the Shea Butter will continue to be an effective moisturizer. Store Shea Butter is a cool (not necessarily cold) place. If you're going to use it within a couple of years, you should have no problems.


The shea tree also has a great, untapped capacity for producing copious amounts of sap that can constitute an important source of raw material for the gum and rubber industry.

Shea nuts may also be a good food source. The trees begin to bear fruits at maturity and start flowering by early November, with picking or gathering lasting from April to August every year. When the shea fruits ripen, they fall under their own weight to the floor and are gathered by hand. The fruit, which is green in color, has a fleshy edible pulp, which contains 0.7-1.3g of protein and 41.2g of carbohydrate and is very sweet. The fruit pulp is a particularly rich source of ascorbic acid: 196.1mg/100g compared with 50mg/100g in oranges. The iron and calcium content compares favorably with raspberries: 1.93mg/100g as against 0.92mg/100g for iron, and 36.4mg/100g as against 26mg/100g for calcium. (FAO, 1988b), reports that B vitamins are also present. The sugar content varies from 3-6%, equally distributed between glucose, fructose and sucrose.

Shea butter and culture

In Ghana women pick shea fruits from their husbands’ plots, and the oldest wife regulates the activity and is responsible for the allocation of farmlands of husband among wives in polygamous marriages (Grigsby & Force, 1993). Fallow or abandoned plots are destined for the wives of the previous owners, whilst uncultivated plots are open to all women. Pickers wake early in the morning and trek up to 15km, then carry the loads back in head pans of 20-25kg (sometimes over 40kg). Hazards include scorpions and snakes, especially beyond cultivated areas (Schrechenberg, 1996).

In northern Burkina Faso, land rights are acquired through relatives tending previously cultivated land or spontaneous clearing, but also by requesting uncultivated plots from the village Chief. In Mali, every one in the village is allowed to collect from crop fields, regardless of who owns them

Basically an occupation for rural women and children, the shea business was previously, a largely opportunistic trade, with little or no organization at community level. Men do not participate in shea nut gathering and regard this as the preserve of women and children. It is called an “opportunistic business” because no one has ownership rights over the trees and gathering is equally open to all. The owners of farms and old, abandoned farms maintain the right to harvest their trees. The fruit is also an important source of food for many organisms, including birds and bats. In northern Ghana the fruits contribute to food security, particularly for the rural poor, especially since their ripening coincides with the lean season of food production.

Shea butter and environment

Here are some reasons why shea butter production is considered sustainable --

  • Shea trees are readily available in tropical Africa, live for up to 300 years and are adapted to the dry climate.
  • The trade in shea butter has enabled women to earn a better living. Some money is used to train them in business skills.
  • As the women work locally, they are still able to look after their children and homes.
  • Shea butter has multiple uses -- used to make soap, candles, as cooking fat, as a moisturiser, and to help protect grains in storage.
  • Shea fruits, which contain the nuts, are an important source of vitamin C.
  • Waste products created by making the butter are spread as organic fertiliser, used to waterproof mud walls and burnt as fuel. [4]


  1. Shea Butter Market Report
  2. Shea Butter and Its Uses
  3. 3.0 3.1 Shea Butter Benefits
  4. STEP Report on Shea Butter


  • Shea Butter and Its Uses
  • Beauty Out Of Africa

See Also