Shea butter is fat that’s extracted from the nuts of the shea tree. It’s solid at warm temperatures and has an off-white or ivory color. Shea trees are native to West Africa, and most shea butter still comes from that region.
Shea butter has been used as a cosmetic ingredient for centuries. Its high concentration of vitamins and fatty acids — combined with its easy-to-spread consistency — make it a great product for smoothing, soothing, and conditioning your skin.
Curious? Here are 22 reasons to add it to your routine, how to use it, and more.
Shea butter is technically a tree nut product. But unlike most tree nut products, it’s very low in the proteins that can trigger allergies.
In fact, there’s no medical literature documenting an allergy to topical shea butter.
Shea butter doesn’t contain chemical irritants known to dry out skin, and it doesn’t clog pores. It’s appropriate for nearly any skin type.
Shea butter is typically used for its moisturizing effects. These benefits are tied to shea’s fatty acid content, including linoleic, oleic, stearic, and palmitic acids.
When you apply shea topically, these oils are rapidly absorbed into your skin. They act as a “refatting” agent, restoring lipids and rapidly creating moisture.
This restores the barrier between your skin and the outside environment, holding moisture in and reducing your risk of dryness.
Shea butter contains high levels of linoleic acid and oleic acid. These two acids balance each other out. That means shea butter is easy for your skin to fully absorb and won’t make your skin look oily after application.
The plant esters of shea butter have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties.
When applied to the skin, shea triggers cytokines and other inflammatory cells to slow their production.
This may help minimize irritation caused by environmental factors, such as dry weather, as well as inflammatory skin conditions, such as eczema.
Shea butter has significant levels of vitamins A and E, which means it promotes strong antioxidant activity.
Antioxidants are important anti-aging agents. They protect your skin cells from free radicals that can lead to premature aging and dull-looking skin.
A 2012 study suggests that oral doses of shea bark extract can lead to decreased antimicrobial activity in animals.
Although more research is needed, this could indicate possible antibacterial benefits in humans.
Because of this, some speculate that topical application may decrease the amount of acne-causing bacteria on the skin.
Shea tree products have been established as powerful ingredients to fight skin infections caused by fungi.
While shea butter may not be able to treat every kind of fungal infection, we know that it kills spores of the fungi that causes ringworm and athlete’s foot.
Shea butter is rich in different kinds of fatty acids. This unique composition helps clear your skin of excess oil (sebum).
At the same time, shea butter restores moisture to your skin and locks it in to your epidermis, so your skin doesn’t dry out or feel “stripped” of oil.
The result is a restoration of the natural balance of oils in your skin — which may help stop acne before it starts.
Shea butter contains triterpenes. These naturally occurring chemical compounds are thought to deactivate collagen fiber destruction.
This may minimize the appearance of fine lines and result in plumper skin.
Shea’s moisturizing and antioxidant properties work together to help your skin generate healthy new cells.
Your body is constantly making new skin cells and getting rid of dead skin cells. You actually get rid of anywhere between 30,000 to 40,000 old skin cells each day.
Dead skin cells sit on the top. New skin cells form at the bottom of the upper layer of skin (epidermis).
With the right moisture balance on the surface of your skin, you’ll have fewer dead skin cells in the way of fresh cell regeneration in the epidermis.
It’s thought that shea butter stops keloid fibroblasts — scar tissue — from reproducing, while encouraging healthy cell growth to take their place.
This may help your skin heal, minimizing the appearance of stretch marks and scarring.
By boosting collagen production and promoting new cell generation, shea butter may help reduce what researchers call photoaging — the wrinkles and fine lines that environmental stress and aging can create on skin.
Shea butter can’t be used by itself as an effective sunscreen.
But using shea butter on your skin does give you some added sun protection, so layer it over your favorite sunscreen on days you’ll be spending outside.
Shea butter contains an estimated SPF of 3 to 4.
Shea butter hasn’t been studied specifically for its ability to make hair stronger.
One way to treat dandruff (atopic dermatitis) is to restore moisture to your dry and irritated scalp.
More research is needed to determine how effective shea is when used alone.
Shea also absorbs rapidly, which could mean quick relief for flare-ups.
Shea’s anti-inflammatory components may reduce redness and swelling. Its fatty acid components may also soothe the skin by retaining moisture during the healing process.
Although the researchers in this study established that the use of shea butter, aloe vera, and other natural products is common, more research is needed to assess their efficacy.
Shea butter has been traditionally used to soothe bee stings and insect bites.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that shea butter may help bring down swelling that bites and stings can cause.
That said, there isn’t any clinical research to support this.
If you’re experiencing severe pain and swelling from stings or bites, consider seeing a health professional and stick to proven treatments.
In addition to reducing underlying inflammation, shea is also linked to the tissue remodeling that’s crucial for treating wounds.
Its protective fatty acids may also help shield wounds from environmental irritants during the healing process.
Arthritis is caused by underlying inflammation in the joints.
Although this study focused on knee joints, these potential benefits could extend to other areas of the body.
Muscles that have been overextended can be affected by inflammation and stiffness as your body repairs muscle tissue.
Shea butter may help sore muscles in the same way it may help joint pain — by reducing inflammation.
When used in nasal drops, shea butter may reduce inflammation in the nasal passages.
It could also help reduce mucosal damage, which often leads to nasal congestion.
These effects could be beneficial when dealing with allergies, sinusitis, or the common cold.
The benefits of shea butter come from its chemical makeup. Shea butter contains:
- linoleic, palmitic, stearic, and oleic fatty acids, ingredients that balance oils on your skin
- vitamins A, E, and F, antioxidant vitamins that promote circulation and healthy skin cell growth
- triglycerides, the fatty part of the shea nut that nourishes and conditions your skin
- cetyl esters, the waxy part of the shea nut butter that conditions skin and locks in moisture
Keep in mind that the exact makeup varies according to where the shea nuts are harvested from. You may also find shea butter mixed with added ingredients, such as tea tree oil or lavender oil.
You can apply shea butter directly to your skin. Raw, unrefined shea butter is easy to spread.
You can use your fingers to scoop a teaspoon or so of shea butter from your jar, and then rub it onto your skin until it’s completely absorbed.
Shea butter is slippery and can keep makeup from adhering to your face, so you may prefer to apply it at night before bed.
Raw shea butter can also be applied directly to your hair.
If your hair is naturally curly or porous, consider using shea butter as a conditioner. Make sure your hair has absorbed most of the shea butter before rinsing and styling as usual. You can also use a small amount of shea butter as a leave-in conditioner.
If your hair is naturally straight, thin, or fine, consider using shea butter on the ends of your hair. Applying shea butter to your roots may cause an oily-looking buildup.
Shea butter should be stored slightly below room temperature, so that it stays solid and easy to spread.
There are no documented cases of topical shea butter allergies. Even people with tree nut allergies should be able to use shea butter on their skin.
That said, discontinue use if you begin experiencing irritation and inflammation. Seek emergency medical attention if you experience severe pain, swelling, or difficulty breathing.
If you want to get the most out of your shea butter, purchase it in its raw and unrefined form. The more that shea butter is processed, the more its amazing, all-natural properties are diluted.
For this reason, shea butter is classified by a grading system from A to F, with grade A being the most pure form of shea butter you can buy.
Buying shea butter that’s raw and unrefined also helps more of your purchase count toward supporting the communities that actually harvest and grow shea nuts. You can go a step further by purchasing grade A shea butter that’s labeled “fair trade.”
Here are a few products to try that support the West African communities producing most of the world’s shea tree nut supply:
Shea butter is packed with essential nutrients that can enhance your natural complexion and help you glow from the inside out.
Although it’s considered safe every skin type, many products containing shea butter have other ingredients mixed in.
If you experience any side effects that you suspect are connected to a shea butter product, discontinue use and see a doctor or other healthcare provider. They can help determine what’s causing your symptoms and advise you on any next steps.