Shea tree (mandingo or karité – Vitellaria nilotica, Butyrospermum parkii, Vitellaria paradoxa) grows naturally in tropical Africa. It is 12-20 meters high and its habitant is a dry area near the Sahara desert. It has never been cultivated – the main reason is that it takes about 15 years for it to bear the first fruit, and the tree is fully mature in about 25-50 years.
Vitellaria paradoxa (shea tree, karité), eastern Burkina Faso
By Marco Schmidt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The nutty fruits of the shea tree are delicious, and the crops are always so rich that the tree provides food for everybody, even for animals and birds. The fruits are gathered when ripe, between July and August, in the middle of the rain season. There is an old African tradition that allows only women to touch the tree, gather fruits and process them. Shea butter is also known as “womens gold” because it makes possible for thousands of African women to earn money by processing the shea fruit to butter, and that way buy clothes and medicine, and send their children to schools. For that reason cutting down the shea trees is strictly prohibited.
Traditional preparation of shea butter, Mali
By Freepius (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
There is an African saying that each tree growing in the savannah bears divine fruit, and when we’re talking about the shea tree, there is no doubt about it. Shea butter has been used in Africa for its healing purposes for over 2000 years – as a treatment for rheumatism, muscle inflammation, as a “shield” during dry desert wind, and for skin care for babies. Some tribes believe that not even a bullet can pierce a skin covered in shea butter.
Properties and effects
Due to its composition, shea butter is irreplaceable in daily skin care. It contains unsaturated fatty acids (between 7 and 12%), vitamins A and E, as well as high content of proteins and minerals. It is especially useful for skin cell regeneration and for mature skin with wrinkles (anti-age effect).
It also has anti-inflammatory properties, so it can be a great help for various skin disorders such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, seborrhea, eczema, neurodermitis and acne. It can help heal smaller wounds, scratches and burns. Shea butter penetrates deeply into the skin, regenerating it, so it can be used for scar or stretch mark treatment. During pregnancy, shea butter is extremely efficient as a stretch mark preventative.
Shea butter stands out among other oils and butters because it is one of the rare natural substances that protects from UV rays (courtesy of cinnamon acid esters, which also give shea butter a characteristic smell). Only unrefined butter has UV filter. As sun protection, it is applied on the whole body and face. It can also be applied on the hair, so it can simultaneously protect from drying out due to sun and salt.
After exposure to sun, it can be used as a regular skin care ointment – it will help the burned skin to heal, and the skin will be nourished and silky soft.
Shea butter also helps with capillary circulation, which increases the oxygen flow in the tissue and metabolic waste elimination (i.e. toxins).
Completely safe for even the most sensitive skin, it can even be used for the fine wrinkles around the eyes. Shea butter doesn’t cause any kind of allergic reaction and that’s why it is an excellent choice for sensitive baby skin. African women have been using it for centuries for daily care of newborn babies, as well as for skin related problems such as diaper rash or cradle cap.
Shea butter can be used as hair mask. For dry, fragile or colored hair a small amount of butter can be applied after shampooing, without rinsing.
Its anti-inflammatory properties make it a good choice for treatment after shaving or depilation. Minor cuts will heal faster, irritations will be prevented, and the skin will be deeply nourished.
Very popular use of shea butter is in preparation of lip care balms – it protects from wind and cold, and makes lips supple and moisturized.
Experience with shea butter
In my home shea abutter is omnipresent and considered omnipotent remedy for a myriad of skin conditions. I use it for almost every kind of skin disorder, as well as for regular skin care routine.
But first, let me explain a bit more about the butter itself.
Depending on the batch, shea butter can vary in colour, ranging from off-white to yellowish. Beware of snow-white shea butter- it rarely comes in such form unless it is refined.
The smell of true, unrefined shea butter is characteristic (I’m trying very hard to avoid the word “stinky”) and it may come as a surprise to people who are used to refined, or even scented shea butter. The smell comes from cinnamon acid esters, which only unrefined butters contain, and which are the main creditors for the anti-inflammatory, regenerative and UV protective properties. So, the nutty and slightly rancid smell is a hallmark of high quality shea butter.
One other thing that can surprise an unexperienced user is the presence of small grains in the butter, which are caused by saturated fatty acids. The grains melt when you rub the butter between your palms, or if you heat it during preparation of balms (in case of balms, the grains can reappear after several weeks). Usually it is only an aesthetic issue – the presence of gains is absolutely not a sign of butter gone bad. On the contrary.
And finally, shea butter can be of various consistency – softer, harder and thicker, oilier… It all depends on the batch, meaning on the conditions of weather, soil and similar of the previous year. No matter what form your shea butter is, if it satisfies the conditions described, you have a metaphorical pot of gold in your hands.
Now that you have it, what can you do with it?
The first association for shea butter is sensitive skin, rashes, atopic dermatitis and similar.
It has been an immense help with my daughters diaper rash and using shea butter prevented the dreaded corticosteroid therapy that our pediatrician subscribed. I simply applied a layer of butter every time I changed her diaper (maybe it’s also worth mentioning I was using cotton diapers) and the rash slowly withdrew. Also, during her cradle cap days, a thin layer on her scalp (applied regularly) prevented further skin scaling and helped removed the existing scales from her head.
So, from the time she was a baby till now (she’s 9), I used shea butter for all kinds of skin disorder. Since it is so mild, it can be easily used even on sensitive areas such as genitals.
The story about shea butter and atopic dermatitis is more known every day. Since it is free from allergens, it is very safe to use on the super sensitive atopic skin. Also, it has an occlusive property (which is usually attributed to Vaseline and lanolin) that is very important for dermatitis treatment. I would not like to under-simplify the treatment of atopic dermatitis, which in some cases can be very complex indeed, but you cannot go wrong with the following combination: hydrolate (hydrosol) hamamelis and shea butter. First you spray the hydrolate (or apply it with a moisten cotton pad) on the affected area, and then, while the skin is still moist, apply the shea butter. This procedure is especially beneficial if you react immediately at the first sign of AD. With regular and persistent usage, further development of dermatitis can be stopped. Just be very careful that you use pure, unadulterated shea butter, as well as pure hydrolate, without conservans or alcohol.
In a daily skin care, shea butter is the first choice for dry, tight, itchy and scaly skin. Use it for dry hands, cuticles, elbows, feet…Just apply a small amount several times a day, preferably immediately when you notice the dryness. Bear in mind, when the skin is already very dry and cracked, it will take some time for it to recover.
I love using shea butter for my legs, I’m prone to “crocodile skin”. After showering, I apply a small amount of butter, before towel drying. Do it every day and enjoy your soft baby skin.
My skin is constantly changing according to the season, so during winter it is dryer than usual (due to coldness outside and dry air indoors). Every now and then I put pure shea butter in the evening, instead my usual night cream, and in the morning the skin is very supple and nourished. It even seems tighter and younger.
If you are making your own cosmetic products (like I do), than you can use shea butter instead of vegetable oils (or replace a part of oils with the butter). I would like to share with you two recipes where shea butter is irreplaceable.
Manufacturing lip balm without butters is unthinkable, and shea butter is the first choice. To make a lip balm first you have to have some equipment. Most of it you can find in your own kitchen, but one thing you do need to have is a good scale that measures at least by 1 gram (preferably 0,1 gram, or even 0,01 gram for more complicated products).
To make a fantastic lip balm, measure on your scale, in a glass, heat resistant pot:
4 grams of shea butter
3,5-4 grams of vegetable oil
2 grams of bees wax
Put the glass pot in hot water (it must not exceed 70˚C), stir until it melts. When everything is completely melted, you can add (if you like, this is optional):
1 drop of essential oil German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita, Chamomilla recutita, Matricaria chamomilla)
8 drops of essential oil Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
Stir again and pour the mixture in a clean pot or tube.
Regarding vegetable oil, you can use any oil you like, as long as it is unrefined and cold pressed. Jojoba oils is a good choice, but you can also use almond, macadamia, apricot, sunflower…even olive oil.
I always use raw yellow bees wax, but if you like you can also use the white variation.
This kind of lip balm is a blessing for lips, especially during extreme weather conditions, but you can also use it for cracked or damaged skin on your hands, elbows etc. Sometimes, when I’m outside and forget my hand cream, I just put the lip balm on my hands, and even on my daughters face during windy or snowy weather.
Soft body care balm
This one is super easy to do. You simply mix shea butter with any kind of vegetable oil and you will get very rich, nourishing and long lasting balm for the whole body.
You can use any kind of vegetable oil, but bear in mind you will get different types of balm with each vegetable oil. For example, with olive oil the mixture will be very slowly absorbing, and with some oils like hazelnut or cucui, the mixture with penetrate the skin more readily than with shea butter alone.
The amount of vegetable oil that shea butter can take while still remaining to be a butter (to keep it in a pot) varies and depends on the consistency of the butter. So, for softer butter add 20-30% vegetable oil, and for more solid ones you can add up to 50% of vegetable oil. The best way is to experiment a bit, and add the oil little by little, mixing after every addition.
You can of course add essential oils in the final mixture if you like (I always do), but for that you need to know the amount of the mixture (weight or volume) and put the proper concentration of essential oils in it. I will explain the procedure and the concentrations of essential oils in some other text.
The name of this product is self-explanatory – use the soft balm for skin care after showering or bathing. Remember, only continuous use will result in healthy and well-nourished skin. If you’re wondering what is the difference between using this balm and just shea butter, the answer is that the balm, depending on added vegetable oil, is more readily penetrated in the skin and in some way easier to use. Also, it gives the opportunity to play with vegetable oils and experience their effect on the skin.
In conclusion, if shea butter is still not “a must” in your home, after trying it, I’m sure it will be.