Introduction: Shea butter is a fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). It is ivory in color when raw, with more processed versions being white in color, although it is commonly dyed yellow with borututu root or palm oil. It is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer, salve or lotion. Shea butter is edible and is used in food preparation in some African countries. Occasionally, shea butter is mixed with other oils as a substitute for cocoa butter, although the taste is noticeably different.
Composition: Shea butter extract is a complex fat that in addition to many nonsaponifiable components (substances that cannot be fully converted into soap by treatment with alkali) contains the following fatty acids: oleic acid (40–60%), stearic acid (20–50%), linoleic acid (3–11%), palmitic acid (2–9%), linolenic acid (<1%) and arachidic acid (<1%). Shea butter melts at body temperature. Proponents of its use for skin care maintain that it absorbs rapidly into the skin, acts as a “refatting” agent, and has good water-binding properties.
Uses & Benefits: Shea butter is mainly used in the cosmetics industry for skin- and hair-related products (lip gloss, skin moisturizer creams and emulsions, and hair conditioners for dry and brittle hair). It is also used by soap makers and massage oil manufacturers, typically in small amounts, because it has plenty of unsaponifiables, and higher amounts result in softer soaps that have less cleaning abilities. Some artisan soap makers use shea butter in amounts to 25% – with the European Union regulating the maximum use around 28%, but it is rarely the case in commercially produced soap due to its high cost compared to oils like palm oil or pomace (olive oil). It is an excellent emollient for dry skin. No evidence shows it is a cure, but it alleviates the pain associated with tightness and itching. In some African countries such as Benin, shea butter is used for cooking oil, as a waterproofing wax, for hairdressing, for candle-making, and as an ingredient in medicinal ointments. It is used by makers of traditional African percussion instruments to increase the durability of wood (such as carved djembe shells), dried calabash gourds, and leather tuning straps.