A Brief History
Shea butter has been used to moisturize, repair and beautify skin for thousands of years. Its history dates back to Ancient Egypt with rumors of caravans bearing clay jars filled with the magnificent butter for Cleopatra herself! (1)
To this day, women in Africa lather their pregnant bellies with shea butter to prevent stretch marks and cover their babies in it once they are born. Studies have even shown that shea butter's naturally occurring antibacterial properties help prevent infection when cutting the umbilical cord. (2)
But where does this lovely butter come from?
Considered a sacred tree, the Shea-Karite tree grows naturally in the dry savannah belt of West Africa. The shea butter comes from the nuts found on the tree by removing the outer shell. The nuts are crushed by hand and slowly roasted into butter, which is then kneaded by hand in a large basin of water to separate the fatty acids (these give the butter its restorative properties). The shea butter formed is removed from the top and cooled until it hardens. (2,3)
The following vitamins and fatty acids found in shea butter help give it its nourishing, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties:
Vitamin A: An antioxidant that heals and prevents stretch marks and scars and strengthens the skin’s outer layer.
Vitamin E: Powerful antioxidant that heals and soothes irritated skin, helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and rejuvenates and moisturizes the skin.
Oleic Acid: A moisturizing, anti-aging and soothing fatty acid that helps keep skin soft while also repairing damaged cells present in conditions like eczema.
Stearic Acid: An essential fatty acid that creates a protective barrier on the skin and helps lock in moisture.
Cinnamic Acid: A unique acid with highly anti-inflammatory and gentle UV protection qualities. Assists with skin cell regeneration and healing. (2,3)
While the uses and benefits of shea butter are endless, here are some of my favorites to get you started :)
Moisturizer: By far my favorite winter moisturizer as it hydrates, repairs and soothes dry, itchy skin while forming a protective barrier. I like to apply this butter at night to allow it to fully absorb into my skin.
Tip: A little goes a long way! Work the butter between your fingers until it warms and softens before rubbing into your skin for easier application.
Eczema Relief: Nothing beats the soothing qualities of shea butter to relieve the itchy, irritated, bumpy patches associated with eczema (believe me, I know firsthand!). The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of shea butter help repair skin and reduce the appearance of scars. And for all you scratchers out there, it also creates a protective layer which will help prevent you from doing major damage when you just can’t resist the urge ;) Simply rub a small amount between your fingers and apply as needed.
Repair Dry, Cracked Skin: The vitamins and fatty acids present in raw shea butter are perfect for repairing and soothing dry, cracked skin! Use it to heal cracked heels and hands, rough elbows and knees, or any other dry patches on your skin.
Tip: Use a gentle sugar scrub or another natural exfoliant in the shower to remove dry patches and flakes from skin. Pat skin dry and warm raw shea butter between fingertips, gently massaging into heels, hands and other rough areas while skin is still moist.
Heal Stretch Marks: Because of its amazing healing properties, shea butter can reduce the appearance of stretch marks by hydrating and smoothing the skin. While your stretch marks may not disappear completely, a daily shea butter massage can help restore your skin’s natural elasticity, making stretch marks less noticeable over time. Simply massage the butter into your skin in a circular motion for 5-10 minutes daily. This helps improve circulation, which will improve the appearance of stretch marks with time.
Tip: To help prevent stretch marks altogether, take a tip from the woman of the Africa and massage your pregnant belly, thighs and other prone areas with shea butter daily. Use enough shea butter so your fingers can easily glide over your skin without pulling.
Lip Balms & Body Butters: Raw shea butter is my favorite base for lip balms and body butters. With its high fatty acid content and vitamins A and E, raw shea butter provides lips and skin with many of the moisturizing, nourishing and healing properties they need.
Tip: Don’t want to make your own? Try our Original Lip Balm made with fair-trade, unrefined, organic raw shea butter :)
Protection from Sun Exposure: The anti-inflammatory properties of raw shea butter are helpful in reducing burned, sore and sensitive skin after sun exposure. While raw shea butter might not replace your sunscreen on a hot, sunny day, with an SPF of 6 it can definitely provide gentle UV protection on cloudier days.
Tip: Allow the butter to melt well between your hands before applying to prevent further irritation.
Soothe Insect Bites: The anti-inflammatory and healing properties of shea butter quickly reduces the itching, pain, and swelling related to insect bites. Simply spot treat and reapply as necessary.
Repair & Prevent Wrinkles: Wrinkles can easily form if we don’t protect our beautiful skin from sun damage and pollutants in the environment. Lucky for us, raw shea butter forms a protective barrier on the skin that helps shield it from sunlight, wind burns, and pollution. Underneath this protective barrier, vitamins A and E and fatty acids go to work to increase collagen production and smooth and nourish the skin. It’s a win-win!
Tip: Massage into skin daily for a few weeks to really notice a difference and reap the full benefits of this magnificent butter.
Soothe Dry, Irritated Scalp: Shea butter seals in moisture, conditioning the scalp and alleviating dandruff. It also works as a great scalp protectant in harsh climates.
Tip: Gently warm the shea butter by rubbing it between your fingertips to soften and massage well throughout scalp. Leave on for 20-30 minutes and rinse, followed by your normal hair cleansing routine.
Hair Protection/Softener: Shea butter is an excellent natural conditioner for your hair, especially for those of you with unruly, curly locks like me! The presence of vitamins A and E make shea butter a fantastic moisturizer and prevent hair from drying out and becoming brittle. It’s also great for restoring lost moisture to damaged or heavily treated hair, and won’t leave hair feeling greasy or weighed-down since it absorbs fully into the skin.
Tip: Rub a spoonful of shea butter between your fingertips until it begins to soften and melt. Using both hands, spread it over a small portion of hair and repeat until you’ve coated every strand. Comb through to spread evenly. Leave in overnight and rinse out any excess oil in the morning (although with my thirsty curls, not much is left by the am!)
Where to Buy
In order to get the most out of your shea butter there are a couple things to look for:
Raw & Unrefined: This basically means that the shea butter was made without chemicals or additives, which ensures that its natural nutty scent, color, and valuable healing properties remain fully intact as this is its purest form.
Fair-Trade: This helps to ensure the women making your shea butter by hand in Africa are paid fair wages and working under good conditions.
Here's my favorite!
How to Store
Raw unrefined shea butter has a shelf life of 1-2 years if stored properly. Make sure to store in a cool area out of direct sunlight, and try to avoid overheating and repeat meltings.
Nourishing Shea Hair Mask: Say buh-bye to frizzy curls with this deep conditioning mask!
- Fill a small saucepan with a few inches of water
- Put the shea butter in a glass bowl and place on top of saucepan to create a double boiler
- Heat on Low until the shea butter begins to soften. You don't need to melt it!
- Remove from heat and mix in remaining ingredients, stirring well
- Use fingertips to apply evenly throughout hair and scalp. Wash out after 45-60 minutes
- Tip: For easier application, whip with a hand mixer until creamy
Rosemary Shea Sugar Scrub: Exfoliate flaky, dry skin away with this gentle, nourishing body scrub :)
- 1/4 cup raw shea butter
- 2 tbsp organic extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp organic coconut oil
- 1/4 cup organic unrefined cane sugar
- 3-5 drops organic rosemary essential oil (optional)
- Use a double boiler to melt the shea butter on Low heat (see recipe above)
- Remove from heat and whip with a hand mixer until creamy (about 5 minutes or so)
- Slowly add in the coconut oil, olive oil, and essential oil if using
- Mix well and stir in the sugar
- Store in an airtight glass jar and enjoy!
- Tip: Replace sugar with Epsom salt for a stronger exfoliant for dry feet, elbows, and knees
Are you a shea butter lover? Write in to share some of your favorite uses below! Or take a pic and post to social media: #simplysmitaco #ingredientinsights
- Chalfin, Brenda. Shea Butter Republic: State Power, Global Markets, and the Making of an Indigenous Commodity. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Goreja, W.G. Shea Butter: The Nourishing Properties of Africa’s Best-Kept Natural Beauty Secret. New York: Amazing Herbs Press, 2004.
- Dr. Axe, Josh. “Repair Skin & Boost Collagen with Raw Shea Butter.” Dr. Axe Food is Medicine. Dr. Axe.com. 12 Feb. 2017. <https://draxe.com/raw-shea-butter/>