Shea butter is a popular ingredient in natural skincare products because of its many benefits for skin health. You’ve likely heard of it, but what exactly is shea butter?
This nutrient-filled butter comes originally from Africa and is filled with fatty acids that hydrate and restore skin. It’s also been found to have anti-inflammatory compounds and has anti-aging potential.
Here’s more about shea butter and why you would want to add it to your skincare and hair-care routines.
What Is Shea Butter?
Shea butter is a fat that’s extracted from the nuts of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa).
Shea trees are native to central and west Africa and are considered sacred to many African tribes. Shea has been used medicinally and cosmetically for centuries. Pure shea butter is also still used in African countries like an oil in cooking and food preparation. (1)
To produce shea butter, the nuts of the shea tree are harvested and the outer shells removed. Then, the nuts are crushed (oftentimes by hand) and roasted to bring out the butter.
It goes through a few more steps to completely separate out the fat, which ultimately becomes shea butter.
Shea butter is technically a fatty oil that is solid at room temperature. It has a whitish or ivory color and will begin to melt when rubbed together in your hands.
Shea butter is packed full of benefits for skin and hair. Here’s a closer look at the nutrients in it that are so beneficial.
Composition of Shea Butter
Shea butter is rich in fatty acids including oleic acid, stearic acid, and linoleic acid. These all help to naturally moisturize skin.
It also contains a good amount of both vitamin A and vitamin E, which both have their own benefits for skin. (2) Shea butter contains antioxidant properties that come from the phenolic compounds present in it. (3)
However, it’s important to know that the amount of these beneficial compounds is much higher in unrefined and traditionally extracted shea butter as opposed to refined or chemically extracted butter.
Processing shea can destroy many key compounds and nutrients.
Benefits of Shea Butter for Skin
The fatty acids found in shea butter, along with the vitamin E, make it incredibly moisturizing and hydrating for skin.
Not only does it easily absorb into skin to moisturize it, shea butter also provides a protective barrier that prevents skin from drying out again. (4)
This makes shea butter a good choice for anyone with dry skin, and it’s often a key ingredient in natural soaps and skincare products for its moisturizing power.
Research has shown that shea butter has anti-inflammatory properties due to the presence of cinnamic acid and other natural compounds. (5)
This means shea butter has benefits especially for skin conditions caused by inflammation like eczema, dermatitis, and rosacea. It can even be used on sunburned skin to help it heal.
The shea tree also has antimicrobial properties that work with the anti-inflammatory properties to heal skin. (6) Shea butter can be used to cover scrapes, cuts, and rashes to facilitate healing.
Along with hydrating skin, shea butter also helps to fight signs of aging.
Vitamins A and E along with the phenolic compounds have strong antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are key to protecting skin from premature aging and giving it a youthful glow.
The cinnamic acid present in shea butter along with the vitamins can also help to protect against sun damage.
Raw shea butter has been found to stimulate cell regeneration and skin softening, which both decrease the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. (7)
Damage from UV radiation coming from the sun can harm skin and cause premature aging.
While shea butter is not strong enough to be a sunscreen all on its own, it does have an SPF around 6. (1) You can use shea butter as a mild sun protector by rubbing it into your face under makeup.
Benefits of Shea Butter for Hair
Moisturizes Dry/Damaged Hair
Just like for your skin, shea butter moisturizes both your hair and scalp and helps repair hair damaged by harsh weather or too much heat when styling.
It can be used by itself as a hair mask or with other natural ingredients to condition scalp and hair.
Relieves Itchy Scalp and Dandruff
Raw shea butter has also been shown to have benefits for treating dandruff and an itchy scalp. Its anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties soothe an irritated scalp and relieve itchiness.
Especially when used with other natural moisturizers, applying shea butter to your scalp can reduce and prevent dandruff. (8)
Along with moisturizing it, shea butter can also strengthen hair and help to prevent breakage. Vitamins A and E both promote healthy hair and can mend split ends.
Shea butter may also help with hair loss when applied to the scalp and cause hair to grow out thicker and shinier.
Buying the Right Shea Butter
To get all of the benefits just listed for skin and hair, you need to buy the right kind of shea butter.
Refined shea butter has been processed in such a way that its nutritional value has been reduced. This means it won’t be as beneficial.
To get the most benefits, buy unrefined (sometimes called raw) shea butter that has been extracted in the traditional method (without chemicals).
The American Shea Butter Institute further separates unrefined shea into four different grades: A, B, C, and F. Grade A is the best quality and Grade F is the worst. (9)
Ways to Use Shea Butter
There are many different ways to use shea butter either by itself or as an ingredient in natural skincare products.
You can use it as a face or body moisturizer simply by taking a small amount out of the jar, warming it for a few seconds in your hands, and then rubbing it into your skin until absorbed.
You can also apply shea butter to irritated skin, chapped lips, or skin that’s been out in the sun too long.
For conditioning hair and scalp, gently warm a small amount of shea butter just until it’s melted. Then, massage into your hair and scalp. Let it sit for 20-30 minutes before shampooing and rinsing.
There are no documented allergic reactions to shea butter when used topically. Even those with tree nut allergies can use it safely.
However, if you do experience skin irritation or an allergic reaction, wash off the shea butter and discontinue use.
While some have found that using shea butter helps their acne, it can clog pores and promote acne for others who are prone to breakouts.
Try Some Shea in Your Life
With so many benefits for skin and hair, shea butter is a wonderful natural product to have on hand. Using it can be as simple as scooping a little out of the jar and applying it to your skin.
Especially if you struggle with dry skin, scalp, or hair, consider adding shea butter into your daily routine!