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The Beauty Of Shea Butter.

What is Shea butter?

Shea butter is a fatty oil that is extracted from the nuts of the African Shea Tree (Vitellaria).  The shea tree is a traditional African food plant and provides nutrition as well as is used for medicinal purposes, both ingested and applied topically by indigenous people for centuries.

 Shea Tree

The Shea Tree grows naturally in about 19 countries on the African continent, including Ghana, Nigeria to the west expanding to include Sierra Leone, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and ultimately to the east to include, Uganda and Ethiopia.  The tree begins producing nuts in it’s second to third decade of life.

Production of shea butter provides employment and income to countless African women as extraction of the butter from the nut is labor intensive.  This income allows women to be more self-sufficient and provide for themselves, their families, their village, and ultimately their countries, continent and the world.

What are some of the therapeutic effects of shea butter?

Shea butter is an anti-inflammatory humectant with low level SPF (sunblocking) properties.  Arguably just enough UV protection to the skin while allowing the requisite amount of penetration to maintain healthy vitamin D levels (thereby preventing “bone aches” and body pain).  Shea butter is also used to treat a myriad of illnesses and discomforts.

Skin issues such as:

  • Rashes - dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, itchy skin
  • insect bites
  • diaper rash
  • dandruff
  • sunburn soothing
  • diminishes scars and stretch marks
  • evens out skin color
  • decreases wrinkles.

Musculoskeletal issues such as:

  • arthritis and arthralgias
  • fibromyalgia
  • restless leg syndrome
  • muscle fatigue
  • muscles aches and tension
  • excellent massage cream.

Hair issues:

  • Moisturizes hair and decreases breakage, improves appearance, and promotes growth through a healthy scalp.   Shea butter is waxy and can be sticky on hair.  This works well on very coily hair, but may interfere with styling of hair with less layers of cuticle and straighter hair (either flat-ironed, or naturally less coily hair) so use sparingly and possibly mix with a small amount of grapeseed or coconut oil to add “smoothness.”

What makes Shea butter so beneficial?

Shea ButterThe fatty acids (primarily oleic and stearic) in shea butter, promote cell regeneration, increases circulation, and promotes effective healing of the skin and scalp.  The unique composition of these fatty acids distinguishes it from other butters, such as cocoa butter.

The phenolic compounds are known antioxidants, similar in composition to green tea, and similar in quantity to virgin olive oil.

What is the difference between East and West African Shea butter?

The composition of the oil extracted varies based on the location of the tree.  There are 5 primary components of shea butter:  oleic, stearic, linoleic, palmitic, and arachidic fatty acids.  It is the first two components that affect the consistency of the butter.  Steric acid is more solid, while oleic acid is softer, and melts at lower temperatures.

The fatty acid composition of West African (Vitellaria paradoxa) shea butter tends to have a higher content of stearic acid, and is typically more solid, darker yellow, firmer, and has a more “nutty” scent.  So at room temperature, West African shea butter will be firm and will require more “melting” in your hands in order to apply.  This may work well on thick, curly hair by offering an element of control and “adhesion.”

East African (Vitellaria nilotica) shea butter is a lighter semi-solid cream at room temperature and is easy to apply, and is nearly odorless and is therefore better for skin application, finer hair, and use on babies.  Finally, East African shea butter is more expensive because there are less East African processes in place to maximize production of shea butter in these areas.  So the is supply low.  This is exacerbated by chronic civil unrest in the areas where the East African shea trees grow.

How is shea butter made?

Water/heat/hand extraction:

Shea fruits are harvested from the tree and steamed.  This causes the kernel (nut) inside to Making Shea Buttershrink away from the outer shell for easier extraction of the nut.  The nuts are then allowed to dry out.

After drying, the acceptable nuts are chosen.  The nuts are washed and crushed and water added.  This mixture is kneaded by hand for hours, and as water is added, the fats float to the top.  The fats are collected, filtered, partitioned, and allowed to cool.  Finally, as the shea butter begins to cool, it crystalizes, and the manufacturing process is complete.  This is the ideal extraction method of shea butter.

Hexane extraction:

However, there are other methods of making shea butter using harmful chemicals like hexane as a solvent.  With this method, the shea kernels are placed into a vat of hexane, and this removes the shea butter from the kernel.  Much simpler, and commonly used by commercial cosmetic industry, however residual hexane remains in the shea product.

Hexane is a petro-chemical, and it’s metabolite (2,5-hexanedione) is a neurotoxin.  Neurotoxins can lead to various (initially vague) neurologic symptoms such as headaches, weakness, dizziness, and progress to cognitive problems such as memory loss, learning difficulties, and lower intelligence.  Hexane also decreases fertility, and may trigger adverse respiratory symptoms.

So be sure to use only hexane-free extracted shea butter products.

Refined versus unrefined, what is the difference?

Unrefined shea butter is pure and raw.  This means that nothing has been added, and nothing has been taken away.

Added ingredients that diminish the quality of the butter include parabens or other preservatives.  Shea butter has a very long shelf life and doesn’t require preservatives.  Hexane is added in certain extraction methods and is harmful.  Pesticides, fragrance, and other chemicals only serve to interfere with the pure qualities of raw shea butter.

As with many of the natural foods we enjoy, if they are “refined” (such a wheat and rice) much of their nutritional value is loss.  Refining makes the shea butter lighter, smoother, removes the odor, and potentially adds undesirable chemicals in the process.  So overall, our preference is unrefined shea butter.

Who can use shea butter?

Organic shea butter, unrefined, extracted without the use of hexane is actually edible.  A large portion of the dietary fat is shea based in indigenous people.  Shea butter is not greasy, does not clog pores, has no added anything (parabens, gluten, fragrance, mineral oil, pesticides, phthalates) and is safe for infants, children, elderly individuals, and even on pets.  HOWEVER, those with nut allergy should be cautious as shea butter is a nut butter.

Where can I buy shea butter?

Right now, the best way to obtain shea butter is online.  Common drug stores and department stores rarely sell 100% pure organic unrefined shea butter.  There are many online vendors, so familiarize yourself with the various options, and opt for hexane-free, unrefined, pure, raw, organic butter. We recommend our very own Authenticity 100% organic unrefined East African Shea butter by Global Authentics.