When it comes to beauty and skin care treatments, some ingredients fall in and out of favor, and others — like shea butter — stand the test of time. People have been using shea butter to moisturize and heal skin (even improve hair) for thousands of years, and you can find it in a wide variety of products today. Reach for one and experience the benefits of this amazing beauty butter for yourself.
What Is Shea Butter?
Shea butter comes from the nuts of the Karite tree (also called the shea tree, or the tree of life), which grows wild in the savannas of central and western Africa. Shea trees can live for 300 years, but they produce nuts only once annually when they are immediately harvested. The nut’s fatty oils are extracted and heated to make the butter—a process African women have passed down for generations. In its raw form, shea butter can look like soap or a thick ointment, but it melts into oil when you rub it on skin or heat it up. It has been used for centuries to care for, protect and heal the skin, as well as in cooking, candle making and more.
While everyone has their products of choice, those containing shea butter are loved by many for these main characteristics of the ingredient:
It’s Moisturizing and Healing
Much of the butter’s healing properties come from its fatty lipids, which make it a powerful emollient capable of quickly softening dry, flaky skin and even parched, brittle hair. Though used all over the body, many use it to address extra-rough areas, like heels and elbows. Shea butter acts as a sealant, too, locking in moisture and protecting cells from outside irritants and extreme weather; this provides ideal conditions for the healing of dry, cracked skin.
It Helps Protect Against UV Rays
Because it is rich in vitamins C and E and other polyphenols and phytonutrients, shea butter helps neutralize free radicals and ward off damage from the sun’s ultraviolet light. Though you shouldn’t toss your regular sunscreen in favor of shea butter, know that you may be getting a little extra protection when you slather it on.
It Eases Skin Inflammation
Long-known, anecdotally, to help soothe various skin irritations, research is now helping explain how shea butter works its magic. Shea butter contains cinnamates and other compounds that may help inhibit enzymes that contribute to the inflammatory response. It’s even an ingredient in a prescription cream used to treat atopic dermatitis, a condition that results in itchy, irritated skin.
Choosing a Shea Butter Product
You can typically buy unrefined, 100 percent shea butter—its purest, most effective form—at health food stores. But because the raw butter is so thick, you may prefer formulated products that use shea butter as a main ingredient. Large, chain health food stores carry shea butter-centered brands, but you’ll find the botanical in other natural and mainstream products, too. To ensure you get the maximum benefit of the butter, check that a product lists shea butter (or Butyrospermum parkii, its scientific name) among the first few ingredients.
Because of its superior moisturizing and soothing abilities, shea butter also pops up in face cleansers, body washes, lip balms, lipsticks, stretch mark creams, shampoos and conditioners. But if you have an oily complexion or fine, oily hair, stick to shea butter products you only apply from the neck down.