Shea butter is skin food. It’s a natural moisturizer that protects skin from extreme cold and dry conditions, helps wounds heal, prevents tissue scaring, and is claimed to have natural UV-B absorbing properties and therefore offer natural sun protection.
But there’s more to this plant butter than that. Shea butter has an interesting story. It’s derived from the kernels (seeds) of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) berry and it’s in high demand around the world because it’s incredibly unique, nutritious (even for your insides!), and healing. In various regions of its native Africa, it’s also called karité and it’s a primary source of income for numerous communities.
Why Shea Butter is Fantastic for Skin Health
Shea butter is edible, although most people on this side of the world don’t realize that. In North America, the butter is mostly used topically—in cosmetics, face and body moisturizers, and hair products. However, in Africa the oil is also used for cooking and in Europe it’s used in confections (particularly by the chocolate industry) and baking as a substitute for cacao butter.
Shea berry seeds contain up to 50% fat. The fat is comprised primarily of oleic acid (which is a monounsaturated omega-9 fat and the primary fat found in olive oil) and stearic acid (a common saturated fat found in plants and animals), but also contains smaller amounts of other saturated fats as well as linoleic acid (the polyunsaturated omega-6 fat, which is essential for human health).
Oil from trees growing in southeastern regions of the species' geographical range (that are primarily of the subspecies V. paradoxa nilotica) produce a fat that has more oleic than stearic acid and therefore this fat has a more liquid consistency. In contrast, the fat produced from trees growing in the western regions (primarily subspecies V. paradoxa paradoxa) is thick and solid because it contains more saturated stearic acid. These oils have slightly different applications in the beauty and cosmetics industry.
Most shea butter is still extracted using traditional methods of sun drying and physical separation of oil from the seed fibre using mortar and pestle. No chemical solvents or reagents and few, if any, machines are used. Therefore, the majority of shea butter sold commercially is pure and completely natural.
Shea butter is naturally rich in vitamin E, a fat soluble antioxidant that is particularly effective in protecting fat-rich cell membranes. Antioxidants that prevent fats from becoming damaged and changing into free radicals are critical for maintaining cell health. Fats play many essential roles in cell physiology and they can be particularly sensitive to damage caused by heat, light, moisture, and free radicals including oxygen. Polyunsaturated fats are the most vulnerable to this kind of damage but they’re also the most important for health because the majority of them are anti-inflammatory.
Vitamin E also protects shea butter from becoming rancid during periods of storage. However, vitamin E isn’t the only antioxidant shea butter provides. Shea kernel oil contains a variety of plant phytonutrients, such as sterols and phenols, that can minimize free radical damage caused by skin inflammation due to injury, sun exposure, and dehydration. Ensuring that the fats you use topically are fresh and not damaged can help prevent skin discolouration and scarring.
One noteworthy phytonutrient—a compound called lupeol (a type of triterpene)—that’s found in shea butter reduces the pro-inflammatory compounds released from a class of immune cells known as macrophages. One study showed that the anti-inflammatory effect of lupeol was comparable to that of a common pharmaceutical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). When taken internally, some researchers believe that lupeol may help reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Another group of researchers noted that the antioxidant profile of shea butter is similar to that of green tea, a plant that is heralded for its powerful antioxidant concentration and activity. Equally impressive is that the concentration of antioxidants in shea butter is almost equal to that found in extra virgin olive oil (which is touted to be one of the “beauty secrets” for youthful, healthy skin amongst Mediterranean and Middle Eastern women).
Beyond its antioxidant and mineral content, shea butter has proven to be an incredibly effective and deeply penetrating moisturizer. Its anti-inflammatory properties help heal wounds and soothe or resolve inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema. It’s far more effective than petroleum based products, which can clog skin pores and thus contribute to acne or accelerate skin aging.
It's Not Too Good to Be True!
Maybe all shea butter sounds too good to be true, but I assure you it's not. I use shea butter everyday and there is nothing my skin loves more (although cacao butter comes in at a close second!). Being an avid gardener and rock climber, my hands can get quite dry, especially in the fall. Shea butter is key to keeping my fingers (and feet!) soft. And the people to whom I've recommended a switch from petroleum-based moisturizers to shea butter are happy they found an effective all-natural solution to dry skin.
Shea butter is suitable for every skin type. The thicker butters are ideal for softening body parts while soft whipped oils can be used for more delicate skin. For moisturizing your face and hair, formulations that include shea butter as an ingredient are ideal because using shea butter alone can be too thick and heavy for some people. Shea based shampoos, conditioners, and hair treatments are perfect for people who tend to have dry scalp, chemically treated hair, or many split ends.
As the demand for shea butter is constantly on the rise it's clear that more and more people outside of Africa are being sold on the wonders of shea butter, the benefits of which Africans have enjoyed for centuries. Moreover, an increasing number of expensive cosmetics and anti-aging creams include shea butter in their formulations. However, there's more to shea than its phenomenal effectiveness as "skin food". In my next post, I'll explain the socioeconomic story that every shea lover should know about.
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