What Is Shea Butter?
Shea Butter & Its Origin
Shea butter is the oily extract from the seeds of Shea (or Karite) tree. It’s a superb moisturizer with amazing healing abilities for many skin related problems. Shea butter has been used in Africa for centuries to remedy various skin & hair problems. It has been gaining global attention just roughly a decade ago & with more research, the list of health benefits & skin condition that shea butter can remedy is increasing.
As a skincare, shea butter is in a unique class of its own. Generally seed oils used for skincare has 2 important fractions; the moisturizing fraction & the healing fraction. What sets shea butter apart from the others is its extraordinarily large healing fraction.
Its healing fraction is very rich in nutrients, vitamins (A & E) and other phytonutrients required for healing. Other seed oils may have good moisturizing fraction, but their healing fraction is in the range of 1% & below. On the other hand, shea butter’s healing fraction ranges from 5% to 15% depending on its level of refinement.
As for the moisturizing fraction, shea butter contains the same substance as the one naturally produced by our skin glands. Since its substance is the same, shea butter is well tolerated by our skin & usually does not trigger off any allergy reaction or irritates sensitive skin. Hence shea butter has the best of both healing & moisturizing fractions.
Characteristics of Shea Butter
Like most butter, it’s solid at room temperature. Generally beige in color, it may vary depending on its source & level of refinement. It has a nutty & smoky (roasted) smell, not the most pleasant smell a person would expect from a skincare product. However, the smell will fade away after approximately 10 minutes when the shea butter absorbs into the skin. It absorbs quickly & penetrates deep into the epidermal layer without leaving greasy residue like mineral based oils. Hence it does not clog the skin pores.
Shea butter is refined, mainly to remove its odor, color & improve its texture. But unfortunately, refined shea butter losses some of its healing properties. How much it’ll lose depends on the degree of its refinement. Therefore, 100% pure & unrefined shea butter has the best healing properties. Its moisturizing property would still be there, only the healing properties will be lost through the process of refinement.
Shea Butter Extraction
Traditionally, shea butter is extracted by roasting and pounding the nuts after being sun dried for several days. Then the paste is boiled until the butter rose to the surface. The butter will then be scooped and left to cool/set. This is a very time consuming process.
Commercialized chemical extraction method can extract the shea butter faster, cheaper and larger scale. However this method is highly criticized as hexane (or other petroleum solvents), a very common chemical used for extraction, is harmful to human & the resulting shea butter will possess little to no healing ability.
Cold pressing is the latest method of extracting shea butter. This method is basically using a machine to greatly squeeze the oil out of the shea nuts. Practically it’s just pressing the fatty oils out from the shea nuts without heat involved, hence the process named cold pressing. The result is shea butter with lighter smell & color but equally nutritive. The smell & color is lighter because no water is used & the shea nuts are not roasted. Hence cold pressed shea butter are best for now in terms of quality.
Why Shea Butter Isn’t Popular
Shea trees only grows in Africa, currently it grows wild & uncultivated across 19 countries in Africa (known as the Shea Belt). It takes anywhere from 20 to 50 years before the trees start to bear fruits. Even then, only less than half of the trees will bear fruits. Hence no MNC ever consider cultivating it & thus shea butter remained a cottage industry. Plus 90% of the shea nuts are used as cocoa butter substitute in the production of chocolate as it’s cheaper.
Also different brands of shea butter has inconsistent quality & healing results, so some people may be disappointed after trying it out a few times. Reason for the inconsistency is due to:
- Different extraction methods. Each region, country & company has different ways.
- Contamination during production, especially for unrefined ones.
- Post-production factors (mixed with other ingredients until lost its benefits).
- Level of refinement (highly refined shea butter will lose most of its healing ability)
- Source of the shea butter (East Africa or West Africa)
Fair Traded Shea Butter
Fair trade practices supports small communities in third world countries who are socially and economically marginalized. Fair trade business practice ensure fair wages, safe working conditions, environmental responsibility & greater equity in international trade. Fair traded shea butter is important to ensure that the shea butter is produced hygienically or responsibly as this will severely affect the quality of the shea butter produced. Unhygienic extraction will lead to contaminated & poor quality shea butters.