Shea Butter, also known as karite butter, is a cream-colored fatty substance made from the nuts of karite nut trees (also called Mangifolia trees) that grow in the savannah regions of West and Central Africa. Karite trees, or shea trees, are not cultivated. They grow only in the wild, and can take up to 50 years to mature (they live up to 300 years!). In most parts of West Africa, destruction of the shea tree is prohibited because this little nut provides a valuable source of food, medicine, and income for the population. In fact, shea butter is sometimes referred to as “women’s gold” in Africa, because so many women are employed in the production of shea butter.
Why is shea butter in such demand? Western countries are just beginning to recognize the considerable health and beauty benefits of shea butter, something Africans have known for thousands of years. Shea butter has been used to help heal burns, sores, scars, dermatitis, psoriasis, dandruff, and stretch marks. It may also help diminish wrinkles by moisturizing the skin, promoting cell renewal, and increasing circulation. Shea butter also contains cinnamic acid, a substance that helps protect the skin from harmful UV rays.
Shea butter is a particularly effective moisturizer because contains so many fatty acids, which are needed to retain skin moisture and elasticity. The high fatty acid content of shea butter also makes it an excellent additive to soap, shampoos, anti-aging creams, cosmetics, lotions, and massage oils—its soft, butter-like texture melts readily into the skin.
Shea butter protects the skin from both environmental and free-radical damage. It contains vitamins A and E, and has demonstrated both antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Shea butter is already added to many cosmetic products, but you can also purchase 100 percent pure shea butter at most health food stores and from online distributors. Unrefined shea butter is superior in that it retains all its natural vitamins, especially vitamin A and vitamin E. However, the natural smell of shea can be a bit off-putting (stinky), though the aroma does disappear after it has been applied to your skin within minutes. You can also buy ultra-refined and refined shea butter. Both of these types are have a more pleasing scent, color, and consistency, although the refining process may diminish the vitamin potency.
Many online distributors sell shea butter in various sizes, containers, prices, and types, but make sure to do your research before buying them—not all shea butter products are created equal, and some products contain a significant amount of potentially irritating additives and very little real shea butter. That said, one hundred percent natural shea butter is a handy thing to have around the house. It can be used as an all-natural hair conditioner, moisturizer, and makeup remover, or as a treatment for burns, cuts, scrapes, sunburns, and diaper rash. Shea butter may also help treat skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis; however, keep in mind that you should always consult a physician or dermatologist about serious or persistent skin problems. Shea butter is not recommended for people with nut or latex allergies.