Shea butter has become a staple on many people's shelves and bathroom cabinets thanks to its supremely nourishing and skin enhancing benefits. It's a multi-purpose and natural product which has been used for centuries to treat a variety of skin conditions.
But, what do you really know about shea butter? We have put together a guide to walk you through all of the benefits and uses that you need to know to unlock this smooth, creamy butter's full potential. Find out all about this miracle product below in our 101 guide.
Discovering shea butter
What is shea butter?
Shea butter is a vegetable fat known for its supremely rich and intensely hydrating properties. It can be used externally on your skin - from your face to your hands. While it's also traditionally used in some African countries as a cooking oil - it is all natural after all - we do not recommend this as there are studies which suggest that it may interfere with our digestion.
Instead, shea butter is most commonly used in beauty and skincare products due to its high concentration of fatty acids. The butter is composed of five principal fatty acids: palmitic, stearic, oleic, linoleic, and arachidic. Stearic and oleic acid together account for 85 to 90% of shea butter's composition. This blend of skin-loving ingredients deliver a number of positive benefits to our skin.
Shea butter is solid, but soft, at warm temperatures. It is creamy and highly spreadable - perfect for applying on our body when we need a little bit of extra moisturisation.
What is shea butter made from?
Shea butter is made from the fat inside the shea nut. These nuts grow on Karite, or shea trees. Karite trees can take up to 50 years to grow to maturity, making them really valuable and highly prized.
Once the nuts are picked from the tree, they are extracted from their shells and made into shea butter. Depending on whether it has been refined or is unrefined, shea butter can be a bright white colour or an off-white, yellowy shade.
Our unrefined shea butter is made from hand and sourced directly from Northern Ghana. We only use organic shea nuts which are boiled, sun-dried, pounded and ground into a paste. This paste is then mixed with water to separate the fat. The fat is collected and manually churned into the whipped butter that we all know and love. We don't add any preservatives and make our shea butter in small batches so it's as fresh as it can be.
Where does shea butter come from?
The nuts that we extract shea butter from grow on the West African Karite Tree. This tree is common throughout Mali, Cameroon, the Congo, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria - an area also known as the Shea belt.
While the shea tree is indigenous to parts of West Africa, shea butter has become popular all over the world thanks to its health and cosmetic uses.
Refined vs unrefined shea butter
As we mentioned briefly before, shea butter comes in two different forms, refined and unrefined.
Refined shea butter has gone through a chemical purification process that strips the natural fat down to a stark white butter. Solvents, bleaches and high levels of heat are applied to remove any colour and fragrance from the product, as well as giving it an even smoother texture. Refining shea butter also gives it a longer shelf life. While the chemicals and heat remove any impurities, it also removes many of shea butter's prized vitamins and antioxidants.
Unrefined shea butter is shea butter in its most natural and earth-friendly form. It is unbleached, non-deodorised and contains no additives. Any physical impurities are removed traditionally by hand, without the need for chemicals or heat. This means that it retains its off-white colour and slightly nutty scent. It's also normal to find some stray shea nut fibres within your unrefined shea butter as they are much harder to remove by hand and through natural filtration.
The benefits of unrefined shea butter far outweigh the refined version. As unrefined shea butter isn't processed with any chemicals, it still contains all of the vitamins and fatty acids that help to nourish and heal your skin. It also has a richer, thicker consistency that some people find more luxurious.
How to store shea butter?
Always keep shea butter out of direct light and heat. These can cause natural oxidation where the chemical structure of the butter changes. You may notice this has happened when your shea butter starts to smell rancid.
Keep your butter away from any water too, as it can cause mould and yeast to grow which will spoil your butter. With these factors in mind, keeping your shea butter tightly sealed in its container in a cupboard that's free from moisture is ideal.
Does shea butter expire?
Yes, if your butter begins to smell acidic and the texture has changed, your butter has probably exceeded its shelf life.
As many types of shea butter are made without preservatives, they will likely have a shorter shelf life than your other cosmetic creams. Some sources suggest that 12-24 months is a reasonable lifespan for shea butter, but its incredible benefits mean that you might not be able to make it last that long!
Shea butter benefits
It's suitable for sensitive skin
As unrefined shea butter is all natural, there are no potential chemical irritants in it that could dry out the skin. The butter itself is also extremely low-risk and allergic reactions to it are really rare. While it's technically a by-product of a nut, the shea nut contains very little of the tree-nut proteins that can trigger allergies.
It's deeply moisturising
Shea butter is perhaps best known for its ability to intensely nourish even the driest of skin. Its mixture of natural vitamins and essential fatty acids deliver long-lasting hydration. Shea also contains allantoin, a conditioning agent which softens dry patches.
When shea is applied topically, these oils and fatty acids are absorbed into the skin and help to restore lipids. They also maintain and rebuild your skin barrier - the protective layer between your skin and your physical environment. Strengthening this barrier can prevent the loss of water from your skin and keep dryness at bay.
It helps promote cell regeneration
Keeping your skin hydrated is also crucial to help it generate healthy, new cells.
Our bodies are constantly turning over new skin cells and shedding our old ones. Having the right balance of moisture on the surface of our skin means that we're accelerating cell regeneration to promote a clear, glowing complexion.
Shea butter has been found to contain anti-inflammatory properties which can heal mild skin damage and concerns.
The shea triggers cytokines and other inflammatory cells when applied to the skin. This can help to minimise skin irritation caused by environmental forces, like cold and dry weather. It can also sooth inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis.
It's an antioxidant
Thanks to Shea's high vitamin A and E content, it's also a powerful antioxidant which contributes to healthy and less-inflamed skin. Vitamin A is also thought to improve collagen production, while vitamin E molecules can heal damaged skin.
Antioxidants are super beneficial to have in your skincare as they are important anti-aging agents that can protect your skin from premature aging. Extrinsic ageing is caused by the environment that we live in, and shea butter can help to fight free radicals and prevent damage caused by environmental factors.
Shea butter also contains a chemical compound called polyphenol which is often found in green tea. Polyphenol has strong antifungal and antimicrobial properties, making it a potent ingredient to fight some fungal infections.
While effective, it does not work against all fungal infections and you should always consult a medical professional before applying shea butter for medical use.
It can help to hydrate and protect your hair too
Shea butter's nourishing properties also extend to your hair as well. It moisturises and protects dry hair and damaged hair follicles. Applying it in the form of a hair mask means that it seals the hair shafts to prevent the strands from being damaged.
Shea butter uses
How to use shea butter
We recommend using pure shea butter externally as a cosmetic product. Apply generously to skin in place of your moisturiser. You can also boost its hydration properties by massaging it onto damp skin when you're fresh out of the shower.
Shea butter can also be used as a facial cleaner as it has the ability to penetrate pores and expel clogged dirt. Oils on the face are attracted to the oil from the shea butter, so it's a wonderful way to remove unwanted dirt and oil from the skin.
Shea butter is also commonly found in other cosmetic items like lip balms, hair conditioners and emulsions. It's great for providing hydration to many other parts of the body.
We wanted to share two of our favourite natural shea butter recipes with you. Enjoy the nourishing benefits of shea in a way that best suits your needs. Discover them below.
Shea butter lip balm recipe
This chapped lip saviour by Zero Waste Wisdom features only four earth-friendly ingredients. You'll need shea butter, orange essential oil, peppermint essential oil and olive oil or honey. Find out the method here and try it today to soothe dry and cracked lips.
Shea butter hand cream recipe
Our hands go through a lot in a day, so it's only right that we show them some love too. While you can apply shea butter straight to your hands, this super simple and easy-to-make recipe has added moisturisation properties to quench even the driest of hands. It requires shea butter, cocoa butter, almond oil, an essential oil of your choice and cornstarch. Take a look at the recipe here.
Our organic, unrefined shea butter is premium grade and sourced from a Women's Association cooperative in Northern Ghana. It's made the traditional way to ensure that we preserve its nutrient rich and skin-healing properties.