For thousands of years, shea butter has been extracted from the fruit of the African shea tree, (otherwise known as Vitellaria paradoxa) for the purpose of nourishing and protecting skin.
The Scottish explorer Mungo Park introduced shea butter to Europe in the 1700s. Native only to the savannahs of Sudan, shea trees do not tend to grow well in domestic plantations - instead, they grow best in rain forests and jungles, often reaching thirty to forty-five feet high. Astoundingly, shea trees don’t reach full maturity and production capacity until they are fifty years old, and they can successfully produce fruit for another fifty years after that.
The shea tree is considered sacred in many African tribal cultures, and some tribes only allow women to touch the trees or fruit -- men are strictly forbidden. It has been frequently used as a heating oil, lamp oil, and soap-making oil, and is also a staple ingredient in African cuisine, where it's used as a cooking fat.
In the 1940s, German scientists realized that people who used shea butter as a moisturizer had fewer occurrences of skin diseases and more healthy appearing skin, leading to clinical trials on a large scale. Shea was clinically proven to be an excellent moisturizer, and has retained major popularity in the western world ever since.
Ancient cultures, including ancient Egypt, under Cleopatra’s rule, mention shea butter as a valuable commodity. Shea butter was often used to protect skin and hair from the unrelenting sun, and was used to treat arthritis and joint pain in traditional tribal medicine. It continues to be used as a salve on infants’ umbilical wounds, and has been shown to reduce the risk of infection and subsequently reduce infant mortality.
Shea butter has also been used as an insect repellant, preventing dangerous conditions caused by flies and mosquitos. Pregnant women have long used shea butter to moisturize their bellies, preventing overstretched skin and the stretch marks which often appear.
Nuts are collected from within the shea fruit, and traditionally dried in the sun. After being shelled, they are then ground into a meal, after which they are cold-pressed using various techniques typically involving boiling and filtering to separate the fatty butter from the mixture. When properly processed, shea butter can last on its own for many years without any added preservatives.
Shea butter contains powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components, as well as vitamins and important nutrients for healing, and contains more healing and nourishing compounds than any other seed-extracted oil.
Both anecdotal evidence and clinical trials suggest that shea butter can help treat:
A scientific study conducted in France demonstrated that a shea butter-containing moisturizer was ten times more effective than a placebo moisturizer at maintaining high moisture levels in the superficial layers of skin.
Because it is very close in composition to the oil (sebum) which the skin naturally produces, shea can effectively moisturize without causing any sensitivity, making it invaluable as a skin protectant. And shea butter's ability to increase circulation within the skin can catalyze cell turnover and healing. These benefits are primarily due to high content of skin-loving fats and fatty acids.
The nuts and seeds within the shea fruit have a fat content of around 50%, making them a rich source of triglycerides, and it has a high level of stability without any added preservatives. Shea butter also contains essential fatty acids, triterpenes, and saponins. UV-absorbing triterpenes help protect and heal skin from sun damage, and can help speed healing of sunburns. Vitamin E, in particular, helps reduce inflammation and has antioxidant effects.
Shea butter is composed of a whopping 11% unsaponifiable fats; compared to olive oil (another popular moisturizer in traditional skincare), which contains only 1%. These fats help bind moisture to the skin and protect skin’s moisture barrier.
Shea butter also contains five of the essential fatty acids:
Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids are absolutely necessary to maintain skin health. A study from 1929 demonstrated that a lack of essential fatty acids in one’s diet could result in skin damage and skin dehydration. Omega-6s have an essential role in protecting the structure of skin, and can therefore prevent premature aging. There’s also evidence that Omega-6s protect from collagen breakdown and UV damage, and can also improve skin’s metabolism.
Sunburns are caused by overexposure to UV radiation, which can result in inflammation, cell damage, and decreased immunity. When applied to the skin, essential fatty acids can prevent and reverse some of the damage caused by UV overexposure.
In comparison, shea butter is considered suitable for most skin types with a low comodegenic rating and strong ability to moisturize. Whereas most butters aside from mango tend to be greasy and occlusive, shea can be incorporated into both face and body formulations. However, all have benefits and places in skincare!
Many poor-quality mass-produced moisturizers are filled with water, alcohol, and mineral oil, which temporarily increase moisture levels within the skin, but aren’t effective in the long term. The ingredients will either evaporate away (like alcohol) or remain sitting on the skin without penetrating it deeply (like mineral oil, which is protective, but not nourishing).
Natural butters like shea remain on the surface of the skin as a protective barrier, but also penetrate the skin deeply to ensure their maximum benefits are discernible. Mineral oil can clog pores, causing breakouts, and its molecule size is too large to absorb deeply into the skin, unlike shea butter. There are also indications that contaminants in mineral oil may cause cancer after long-term use.
Shea butter is soft and should melt easily at room temperature, making it highly absorbable into the skin, and has no artificial scent added. If your shea butter does not spread easily at room temperature and possesses a strong scent, it is probably of low quality (making it less effective for skincare). Ethical skincare companies will only use the highest quality shea butter in their products!
Maintaining the health and youthfulness of our skin is a priority as we age, and natural ingredients like shea butter can help treat skin, maintain moisture, reduce inflammation, and protect from sun damage without causing undesirable sensitivities.
Shea butter is safe for even the most sensitive skin types due to its composition, and can even help heal minor wounds, making it a versatile and desirable ingredient in skincare. While for many centuries shea butter was Africa’s best kept beauty secret, we can now reap all the skincare benefits of this magical healing butter!