skin care, shea butter



If you are a reader of ingredients, you already know that SHEA BUTTER is in many of our cosmetics, particularly natural ones. What do you know about it? If you are like I was, perhaps nothing at all. After some research, and this is what I learned:

Shea Butter is extracted from the nut of the African Shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) by a long and labour intensive process. The Shea tree of Karite tree is known in Africa as “The Tree of Life” because it provides, among other things, oil for cooking and skin and hair care. The butter is also called “Women’s Gold” as it provides income as well as healing for skin problems. There are stories of caravans bringing this valuable butter to Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, thousands of years ago; the healing properties have long been known in this part of the world. Now it is exported round the world for inclusion in cosmetics and body care products.

The tree fruit looks much like a plum, and falls from the native trees on the Savannah of West Africa in countries such as Ghana and Burkina Faso. Women gather the fruit, peel off the flesh and process the kernel of the seed inside a washing/drying/crushing/roasting/kneading process that results in a firm whitish product ready for use and export. It is valuable because it contains 2 fractions of oils within its complex fat: saponifiable  (moisturizing) and unsaponifiable (healing). These oils are common in nuts and seeds, but the Shea nut has much higher percentages than any other seed oil and is therefore more effective when made into butter. Often used in medicinal ointments, it melts at body temperature and absorbs quickly into the skin.


There are several commercial grades of Shea Butter, ranging from A, B, C to F (you don’t want this one). Grade C is more highly refined (think of it as the white flour variety of wheat flour) and has much of the vitamin content removed, so Grade A is probably best if you make your own personal products. There are many on-line sites that offer recipes for natural and organic body butters, lip balms and lotions. I tried one for body butter, and found it everything I hoped for in a moisturizer that my skin appreciates in our dry and heated homes this time of year.


That recipe included COCOA BUTTER, which prompted more research. Cocoa Butter, also known as Theobroma Oil, is an edible fat extracted from the cocoa bean, which is grown throughout Central and South America. Found inside the large fleshy fruit/pod of the cocoa tree, the beans are cleaned, roasted and pressed into cocoa butter and solids, which will become cocoa powder. Both butter and powder will eventually find their way into all manner of edible chocolate, but that is another story.

The butter is popular in the cosmetics industry, partly due to its velvety texture which is solid at room temperature and liquid at body temperature, making it a regular ingredient in soaps, skin creams and lotions, and even some suppositories. It smells faintly of cocoa, unless the odor has been totally refined out, which means that a good percentage of the beneficial nutrients have also been removed (note the white flour example above). Cocoa Butter is an excellent moisturizer, and has anti-oxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties, adding it to the healing butters and oils available to in our stores.

If you are inclined to venture into making your own natural skin products without chemicals and preservatives, these two butters will find a place in your pantry. If that isn’t your thing, watch for them when squinting at the list of ingredients on your favourite lotion, hand cream, or lip balm. If you are buying organic they should be there.

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Barbara Shorrock

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