Shea Butter 101

What exactly is it?

Shea butter is a naturally occurring substance used in skin, hair, and nail teatments. Rich in vitamins and fatty acids -- including oleic acid, linoleic acid, stearic acid, Vitamin A, and Vitamin E -- it is sometimes called a “skin superfood” because of its many skin-friendly uses and benefits. Shea butter is obtained from nuts of shea trees, also known as African butter or karite trees.

In addition to being used for healthier skin, shea butter is edible and is commonly used as an ingredient in dishes local to regions where shea trees grow.

Unrefined and Refined Shea Butter: What's the Difference?

As you shop, you may see both "unrefined" and "refined" shea butter offered for sale. "Unrefined" or "raw" shea butter typically has a yellowish color and a nutty fragrance. It is made using traditional, chemical-free techniques, which, at a basic level, include heating shea nuts (by, for example, boiling them in water) and crushing them to extract the butter inside. Pieces of the shell are then removed, and other steps are taken to produce a room-temperature-solid, butter-like substance that melts when it touches the skin.

Refined shea butter is made using more modern production methods that typically employ chemicals to assist with extraction, as well as preservatives to improve shelf life. Refined shea butter lasts longer than unrefined shea butter, is typically free of any shell or pulp particles, and is typically white and odorless. Some shea butter is marketed as "ultra refined."

Why Use Shea Butter on Your Skin?

The answer is simple: It's nature's most effective moisturizer. Whether used in its raw form or as an ingredient in lotions and soaps, shea butter has been used for hundreds or even thousands of years to maintain healthy and vibrant-looking skin. And the benefits don't stop there: according to research posted on the website of The National Center for Biotechnology Information, shea nuts and shea butter constitute a "significant source of anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor promoting compounds."

In addition:

    • Shea butter is an excellent emollient and has skin-moisturizing properties. If you have flaky skin, dryness, psoriasis, or determatitis, shea butter can offer significant relief.
    • According to a study conducted by American Journal of Life Sciences, shea butter may propel tissue cell regeneration and skin softening, and may block ultraviolet radiation. For this reason, shea butter is used in some natural sunscreen lotions.
    • In countries like Nigeria, shea butter is used for the sinusitis management and joint pain relief. Shea butter is massaged in the areas where pain occurs.

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