Healthy Skin in a Nutshell: Shea Butter

The next time your skin feels dry, tight or chaffed, the solution may be found in a nutshell, a shea nutshell to be exact. Shea trees, also called Karite trees, are native to sub-Saharan Africa, growing uncultivated across 20 countries. Once they reach about 20 years of maturity, they produce the extremely emollient and skin-friendly moisturizing shea nuts, which are made into shea butter, and continue to produce these nuts for about 200 years.

Not all shea butter is created equal. The difference in grades mostly comes down to how it’s processed. Traditionally, shea butter was extracted from the nuts by pounding and grinding them, then boiling them to release the fatty, creamy substance that is shea butter. Less desirable methods involve the use of harsh solvents to extract the butter. More recently, efficiency has been improved through the use of cold-pressing to extract the raw, unrefined shea butter, taking several hours off processing time and eliminating the need for solvents. Shea butter has been used throughout Africa for centuries to moisturize and protect the skin from sun, wind, heat and salt water. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, it has also been used to ease arthritis and rheumatism, has been used as decongestant and to help heal eczema, bruising and soreness. Rich in fatty acids and plant sterols, including oleic, stearic, palmitic and linolenic acids, shea butter is highly beneficial for skin protection and healing. Rich in antioxidants including vitamins A, E and catechins, shea butter also provides skin with some natural protection from UV damage (not enough to skip your SPF, though) and may also provide some protection from tumor development.

It’s no surprise that a number of beauty brands have taken cues from this this time-tested seed and started incorporating shea into a variety of products, from shampoos and conditioners to soap and rich body creams. Many products will make claims regarding their shea content, when in fact, there’s only a trace present somewhere way down on the ingredients list and likely a low quality shea butter at that. How much shea butter is present in a given product and the grade (how it was processed) will determine just how beneficial it is for your skin. 

Look for brands using hand or cold-pressed shea butter (or, make your own lotions) and be sure it’s at the top of the (preferably short) list of ingredients. If the label doesn’t say unrefined or cold-pressed, ask. A good example is Metropolis Soap Co’s Whipped Shea, which, while not stated on the label, is made using cold-pressed shea butter sourced from a small farm in Ghana that provides income to women in the local community. Because straight shea butter is fairly hard at room temperature, blending with a small amount of complimentary butters or oils increases pliability and makes it easier and more pleasant to use. Simply scoop, warm with your hands to melt, and massage in. It’s quickly absorbed and won’t leave a greasy residue. Highly beneficial after shaving, on rough elbows, knees, hands and feet, it’s also excellent for dry hair and scalp and to prevent or ease windburn after a day on the slopes. Why bother with synthetics and petroleum by-products when Mother Nature provides such amazing ingredients?

Image: Davey Nin