The surprising benefits of super shea butter
Soft, silky and sumptuous to the touch, shea butter is one of nature’s timeless health and beauty products.
Shea butter is the plant fat derived from shea nuts, which are the seeds of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). The fruits of the tree look like a large plum, and inside them is the egg-shaped nut.
Even though it’s called a butter, shea is, in fact, a fatty oil that is solid at room temperature. Its use as a natural beauty product dates back thousands of years. Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra, was said to use shea butter to keep her skin soft and youthful.
The shea tree resembles an oak, and there are over 500 million shea trees worldwide. In Africa, where they grow wild in the beautiful arid landscape, it’s rubbed onto stretch marks and used as a moisturising agent. Shea is also applied to umbilical cords to stop infection, because it has antibacterial properties. In African tribal medicine shea butter is reportedly mixed with boa constrictor oil to help with keloids or raised scar tissue. And it also helps with nasal congestion and ulcers — shea really is a superfood for the skin.
Shea is a gentle moisturiser with a buttery light texture that’s suitable for all skin types, including dry, combination, oily and acne-prone skin.
But it is far more than a culinary additive and natural beauty product. It has a myriad of diverse uses. For example, shea butter is also used in the construction of African buildings to help waterproof them. The shea tree itself was also felled and crafted to make coffins for tribal kings in centuries past.
The shea tree is sacred in parts of Africa. It gives life to those in dry locations, where it is difficult to sustain crops. It also adds texture and calorific value, as well as flavour, to bland and unpalatable foods. It’s consumed much in the way Westerners use butter or cooking oil and is used as a substitute for cocoa.
The fruit falls from the tree usually during the rainy season and is collected by hand in Africa. These customary methods of extraction involve hard labour — it takes around eight hours of work to produce just one litre of shea butter.
Traditional methods of collection involve extracting the kernel from the fruit and carefully washing it. The kernels are dried, crushed, roasted and milled into a thick paste. Water is added to the paste, and it’s kneaded to emulsify the oil. Once this is done, it’s boiled in order to sanitise it and separate the shea butter from the residual water, and it’s then filtered and solidified.
With the growing popularity of shea butter as a natural beauty product, dried kernels are now exported across the globe to countries including India, Japan and Europe, where the shea butter is extracted via machinery and processing plants.
In the raw
As an organic beauty product, shea butter is both versatile and affordable. Dermatologist Dr Katherine Armour says it is suitable for dry, oily and normal skin. “It certainly stacks up well against other natural beauty products because it’s suitable for all skin types,” she says. “Some oils are very nourishing — however, not ideal for those who are acne-prone or those with oily skin,” she says.
If you are predisposed to having problem skin, Dr Armour says you can use shea in its raw form and it won’t clog your skin, but if you prefer, you can also dilute it. “Add a little lighter moisturiser you’d normally use, or jojoba, almond or rosehip oil,” she suggests.
Shea butter can be either processed or refined, or you can also buy raw pure shea butter. Dr Armour says they are relatively easy to tell apart.
Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra, was said to use shea butter to keep her skin soft and youthful.
“The raw product varies from a light beige to a yellow gold colour depending on the way it has been processed, and it has a nutty smell to it,” she says. “Refined shea butter may be bleached so can appear lighter and whiter; it’s usually odourless, but may have added scent.”
According to Fairtrade Ghana there are five different types of grading that apply to shea butter: A (unrefined, extracted using only pure water), B (refined), C (highly refined and extracted with solvents such as hexane), D (lowest uncontaminated grade) and E (with contaminants).
Empowering African women
Shea butter has been called woman’s gold, not only because of its colour, but also because the global proliferation of shea butter as an organic beauty product is beginning to have a positive impact on the woman of Africa.
Founder of Remedica Australia, Lisa Phipps, says the story of shea butter is much like that of argan oil; basically the collection and manufacture of shea butter is a job that is done by the woman of Africa.
“I have a bit of a love story for the African indigenous ingredients, and shea butter really was the beginning of that,” she says.
Phipps says that discerning consumers are paving the way for greater access and availability of organic beauty products.
“The market for skin care is becoming more and more demanding, consumers want sustainable, raw and fair trade products,” she says. “There’s more information out there for users to understand there’s a lot more constituent and ethical value in the raw product.”
The increasing demand for natural and ethically sourced beauty products is also proving to be a positive catalyst for change in rural parts of Africa. “We know it’s been used in indigenous pharmacopoeias for thousands of years,” says Phipps. “It’s a right of respect for females in the villages and now the money-making ventures created with shea butter are being invested back into local communities and infrastructure.”
The increasing demand for natural and ethically sourced beauty products is also proving to be a positive catalyst for change in rural parts of Africa.
Businesses are evolving and strengthening, processes are being streamlined and local women are embracing the positive changes that flow on in their communities. Phipps says: “They’re are doing their own packaging, and taking raw materials, making their own products, becoming small industries within their own villages.”
As an example, Ojoba Women’s Shea Butter Cooperative has given over 400 women a collective voice and greater financial stability. By receiving a fair price for their work, they’re now accessing more resources for their families and better education for themselves and their children. Organisations like Global Shea Alliance are also paving the way for a brighter future, with training in processing and storage, education and entrepreneurship.
Natural beauty uses
Shea is a gentle moisturiser with a buttery light texture that’s suitable for all skin types, including dry, combination, oily and acne-prone skin. To maximise the shelf life of your natural shea butter, store it in a sealed container in a cool dry place. It has a lifespan of around two years.
One of the features of shea butter is its luxurious, creamy texture. Shea butter is filled with nutrients that feed the skin. It’s rich in fatty acids including palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic acids. Shea has emollient properties, meaning it softens the skin and covers it with a moist waterproof layer, this prevents transepidermal water loss.
Phipps says shea butter is a natural wrinkle filler. “It’s an occlusive agent: it locks moisture into the skin, so it’s protective, offering a barrier against dehydration,” she says. “For mature skin, shea butter can work wonders, plumping up the skin cells, giving the skin an immediate youthful glow.”
It also has humectant properties, so it maintains and preserves the skin’s natural moisture. So as an additive to other beauty products, or on its own, it helps to keep the skin smooth and supple.
Shea butter is also rich in vitamins A, D and E. Dr Armour says vitamin A is particularly good for skin rejuvenation and repair, because it’s a powerful antioxidant that fights against free radicals like pollution and cigarette smoke that potentially damage the skin. she explains that the vitamin A in shea butter blocks the activity of a group of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases. “These degrade collagen and other skin support and plumping fibres. These enzymes tend to be activated by exposure to free radicals,” she says. “Vitamin A also stimulates fibroblasts in our skin’s dermis to produce more collagen, which is good for anti-ageing.”
The anti-inflammatory properties of this natural skin superfood nourish and heal. Dr Armour says vitamins A, D and E are anti-inflammatory. “The vitamin E in shea butter helps to support barrier function (which in turn aids with skin inflammation) and vitamins D and A are also anti-inflammatory,” she says.
For ailments like rheumatism and muscle aches and pains, gently rubbing on a little shea butter can bring some relief. It can also help with dermatitis and rosacea, as well as nourish and calm sunburnt skin. If you have mild skin pigmentation, rubbing in a little shea butter may also help. Shea butter also promotes faster wound healing for burns, insect bites, scratches and cuts, so pop some in your first aid kit.
10 fast beauty fixes with shea butter
- Shea butter can be applied to nourish and soften dry and ragged cuticles. Just rub a small amount in a gentle circular motion at the base of the nail bed. Repeat as needed.
- To soften cracked dry heels, first immerse your feet in a warm foot bath to soften the skin. Use a pumice stone to gently remove excess skin from the heels, then pat your skin dry and liberally apply shea butter.
- To soothe winter- or sun-ravaged skin, apply shea butter liberally from top to toe after showering.
- For soft and kissable lips, shea butter is the perfect soothing lip balm. Apply to chapped and dry lips.
- Shea butter is a versatile and affordable hair tonic. For a quick pick-me-up for your hair, rub it through your hair to the ends. Leave on for 20 minutes and shampoo and condition as normal.
- Shea butter helps with razor lumps and bumps. As shaving irritates the skin, an application of shea butter after shaving can reduce redness and discomfort.
- Apply liberally to your skin during pregnancy to help reduce stretch marks.
- Problem scalp issues like eczema, psoriasis or dandruff? Rub a little shea butter into your scalp to soothe the skin.
- If you are suffering from a cold, and have a dry sore nose, gently pat a little shea butter on your nose.
- Mix a little shea butter with brown sugar and use as a body scrub to soften your skin.
Hair Wax (for dry and brittle hair)
Sun, sea, surf and an Aussie lifestyle can take its toll on your locks. Try this leave-in hair wax on dry brittle hair.
3½ tbsp beeswax
2 tbsp coconut butter
1 tbsp glycerine
2 tbsp shea butter
Melt beeswax on a low heat in a mini slow cooker dedicated to beeswax products.
Add coconut butter and glycerine to the wax, stirring with a spoon dedicated to beeswax products, until well combined.
Add shea butter, stir and remove from the heat.
Transfer to an airtight container or silicone moulds and place in the freezer until completely cooled.
Warm a 10-cent piece size in your hands, and apply to your hair, styling as desired. It keeps for a year.
Recipe courtesy of Natural Beauty Skincare by Deborah Byrnes.
Chocolate Mousse Body Cream
Sweet indulgences don’t have to just be foods you can eat, this delicious-smelling body cream is the perfect way to pamper your body.
4 tbsp cocoa butter
2 tbsp shea butter
2 tbsp coconut oil
2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
20 drops eucalyptus essential oil
Melt cocoa butter and shea butter in a double boiler, stirring a little. When nearly melted, add coconut oil.
When completely melted, remove from the heat and add cocoa powder and cinnamon, then add eucalyptus essential oil.
When it starts to solidify, whip with a hand mixer until light and fluffy like chocolate mousse.
Recipe courtesy of All Natural Beauty by Karin Berndl and Nici Hofer.