What is shea butter?

Shea butter is a byproduct of shea nuts that are harvested from the Vitellaria paradoxa tree in West Africa.

Shea butter is produced through an arduous process of harvesting, washing, and preparing the shea nuts from which oil is then extracted.

The shea tree is also known as the “karite tree” (which means “tree of life”) because of its many healing properties.

There is evidence that food, skin balms, soaps, shampoos, traditional medicines, cooking, and lamp oils have been made with shea butter in Africa for thousands of years. Its use has been documented as far back as the 14th century.

Recently, use of shea butter has become prevalent in hair and skincare products throughout North America.

What are the benefits of shea butter?

Shea butter has many potential benefits for hair and skin including moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging effects.


One study tested a cream that contained 5 percent shea butter on the forearms of 10 people. The participants noted that they could feel the moisturizing effects of the cream for up to 8 hours after it was applied.

Another study found applying shea butter to skin can help treat eczema.

Shea butter is also very moisturizing for the hair and scalp. People with curly and coarse hair textures benefit from using shea butter as a sealant to keep moisture in their hair and increase softness.


Another study found that shea butter helps your skin react less to irritants. Researchers believe this is because shea butter contains the chemical compound amyrin, which has well-documented anti-inflammatory properties.


Several studies have found that shea butter helps cell regeneration, minimizes signs of aging, and boosts collagen. Many of these benefits are also attributed to amyrin.

Hair care

Shea butter also has a lot of potential in the hair care world. While shea butter hasn’t been extensively studied or reported on in scientific journals, related butters and oils have been researched with animal and human subjects.

Prevents breakage

One human study investigated the role of miracle fruit seed oil in preventing hair breakage. Synsepalum dulicificum, a native West African fruit, also produces an oil. It has a high fatty acid content (just like shea butter), which makes it easy for it to penetrate hair in oil form. This can help with hair breakage.


Filled with Vitamins A and E along with essential fatty acids, shea butter has both emollient and healing properties for the skin. Some of these ingredients, such as the high content of fatty acids in shea butter, are also thought to help add moisture to your hair.

This might possibly reduce dryness and prevent split ends. Fatty acids also help increase shine and reduce the frizz of your hair. It may also help protect hair from heat damage caused by flat irons and blow drying.

Reduces scalp irritation

Shea butter’s anti-inflammatory properties might also help reduce redness and scalp irritation by providing healing effects without clogging the pores. Additionally, as a natural product, it’s safe to use on all types of hair, even hair that’s damaged, dry, or color treated.

Raw shea butter isn’t the only hair care solution available. Certain over-the-counter hair care products (especially conditioners) also contain shea butter. The role of conditioners in overall hair health includes strengthening hair fibers, lubricating cuticles, and reducing frizz.

What should you know before you use shea butter?

Before you start using shea butter, you need to understand the different types of shea butter extracts that are available, your hair texture, and how you intend to use it.

Shea butter can be used as frequently as you see fit.

The quality of the product

Raw, unrefined shea butter is the highest quality. You may not see as many benefits if you use a different kind.

How it effects different hair textures

Oils and butters can leave a film on your hair. This may not be desirable if you have thin hair, as this can weigh it down. Excess oil in your hair also isn’t suitable if you have oily skin, as this can put even more oil on your face, shoulders, and back, leading to breakouts.

Because shea products are available in both oil and butter form, you must know your individual hair needs prior to purchase:

  • In the case of thin or oily hair, shea butter can be heavy and make hair flat or greasier.
  • If you have a looser hair texture, shea oil in small portions may be more beneficial.

How it smells

Pure shea butter has a strong, somewhat nutty scent that some people might not enjoy. Adding essential oils can change the smell and add extra benefits.

How to store it

At room temperature, shea butter should melt into your hand and quickly be absorbed into the skin. Make sure to store shea butter at a consistent temperature. Exposure to different temperatures can cause the texture to change.

Be sure to keep your shea butter in locations that aren’t affected by heat. If too warm, it will melt and return to liquid form. Similarly, if you keep your shea butter in a place with too low a temperature, it will become a hard solid and be difficult to use.

If you find that shea oil and shea butter are both too heavy, there are many products that contain smaller proportions of shea butter.

The bottom line

Shea butter is developed by harvesting the nuts of a tree that is native to Africa. It has many uses including in cooking and skin care, but one of the most common is for the hair.

Shea butter comes in different grades that have different appearances and scents. The smell and weight of shea butter aren’t for everyone.

Be sure you don’t have a hair texture that’s prone to grease and buildup as shea butter could potentially make that worse. If shea butter is too heavy, shea oil is an excellent alternative.

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