Shea Butter Benefits and Uses for Hair, Skin & More

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You all know I’m a fan of using coconut oil and olive oil on skin and hair, but another all-star natural moisturizer around the home is pure shea butter. (Something about the name just even sounds luxurious, doesn’t it?)

Whether or not you have dry skin like me, you’ll love shea butter’s benefits. It can bring oily and combination skin types back into balance too. (My teens love it for this reason.)

This luxurious butter is very thick and solid at room temperature but has a buttery, rich consistency that makes it ideal to use as a natural eye cream, lip balm, or body butter.

Thanks to other unique properties, shea butter does more than moisturize and hydrate. It delivers vital health benefits like being anti-inflammatory and transporting anti-aging fatty acids right into the skin.

Many recommend it for sunburns or dark spots. It’s especially great for sensitive skin. There are so many shea butter benefits and uses!

So what exactly is it?

What Is Shea Butter?

Shea butter is a fat produced from the seeds and kernels of the shea (Karite) tree. The shea tree is native to West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its butter has been used internally and externally for centuries across the continent to soothe the skin.

This ancient African remedy is off-white and solid at room temperature, but it doesn’t leave your skin too greasy.

This skin superfood has been used in Africa and many other places for years to improve skin and hair. It also has a long history of medicinal use, such as in wound care and even treating leprosy.

While cocoa butter is hard at body temperature and coconut oil is liquid, shea butter is in between them as it starts to melt at body temperature when you touch it. This unique quality makes it easier to handle, cut, and measure than other moisturizers.

I love how it quickly absorbs, so it doesn’t stain clothes.

Shea tree butter has a strong, nutty, kind of earthy honey smell, likely from the cinnamic acid when you open the lid. (Don’t worry, you won’t feel like you smell like shea nuts for the rest of the day after using it.)

Shea Butter Benefits for Health

So what are the benefits of raw shea butter?

Shea butter is more than just a nice lotion or butter for dry skin. It is nutrient-rich and may help with some skin conditions when part of a healthy lifestyle.

  • Moisturizes – The concentration of natural vitamins and fatty acids in shea butter makes it incredibly nourishing and moisturizing for the skin. It remedies dry skin and helps protect the skin’s natural oils.
  • Reduces Inflammation – Due to its cinnamic acid and other natural properties, shea butter is anti-inflammatory. One compound, in particular, lupeol cinnamate, reduces skin inflammation and even potentially helps prevent skin mutations. Its anti-inflammatory properties make it beneficial for acne.
  • Smoothes Skin – Shea aids in natural collagen production and nourishes the skin to prevent drying. With long-term use, many people report skin softening and strengthening as well as wrinkle reduction.
  • Penetrates Skin – Many studies show that it is especially good at penetrating the skin and contains 60% fat, making it highly emollient (similar to how almond and jojoba oil polish the skin.) It’s high in essential fatty acids, which help build the skin barrier.
  • Provides Essential Fatty Acids – What makes shea butter unique is the fatty acid profile. In addition to cinnamic acid, shea contains oleic, stearic, linoleic, palmitic, arachidic, and linolenic acid. Together, these make it the perfect boost for cellular energy and regeneration.
  • Gives UV Protection – It may offer mild UV protection, up to SPF ~6.
  • Supplies Vitamins A and E – High in these nutrients, the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties on the skin may also help with dermatitis and psoriasis.
  • Reduces Joint Pain – A 2016 study found that it relieves the symptoms of osteoarthritis in rats and protects cartilage from destruction and degeneration.

More good news: it’s great to use on kids and babies too! A 2015 pediatric study demonstrated an eczema cream with shea butter to perform just as well as the standard ceramide products. In addition, it had a high compliance rate which means that the kids didn’t mind using it.

I’ve only ever used it externally. Ask a doctor or dermatologist before using, especially if you or your family have any underlying skin conditions.

Additionally, those with nut allergies should avoid or check with an allergist. Heating it does not remove the allergic risk.

What Are Some Good Uses for Shea Butter?

Here’s one you may not expect: some nationalities cook with/eat shea butter! (I have not tried it, but if you have, let me know in the comments!) I’ve even seen it in some chocolate recipes.

There are differing opinions on whether or not it’s healthy to eat. Since some studies suggest that ingesting shea butter may interfere with the digestion of other proteins, I use it externally only.

There are so many other uses for it externally. You can use shea alone or easily combined with other natural care products and ingredients.

Shea butter is one of the most versatile natural beauty ingredients, and I use it daily in some form. For years, I’ve used it in everything from my homemade lotion bars and original magnesium body butter to homemade lip balms and healing salves.

It has many hydrating benefits, and not just for the skin! You’ll also find shea butter in many hair products.

Shea Butter for Hair

Unless you have thick beautiful curls, pure shea butter by itself will weigh down your hair, but it’s lovely mixed into natural hair care. You won’t see it as the first ingredient—it’s usually further down. Sometimes, ingredients list it as “Butyrospermum Parkii” with shea in parentheses.

For years, I searched for a natural shampoo and conditioner that actually worked without having harsh or toxic ingredients. When I could not find it, I made my own skin and hair care line, Wellnesse.

Shea butter works well on both the hair and scalp. That’s why we use it as one of the main ingredients in my Wellnesse Curly Conditioner.

It helps seal cuticles for healthy and bouncy curls. It may help prevent breakage due to its high fatty acid content and mild UV protection.

If you struggle with dandruff, shea may help your scalp.

Shea Butter for Skin

I also love to use shea on my skin, both by itself and combined with other ingredients. It’s so easy to add to my skincare routine. Even though it feels thick, it melts right into my skin when I rub it.

So what does shea butter do for skin? Some of my favorite skincare uses are:

  • By itself for face and body as a natural moisturizer
  • Before sun or beach exposure to replenish skin
  • After sunburns to hydrate the skin
  • To ward off stretch marks
  • As a natural nail and cuticle cream
  • To plump up the delicate tissue and fine lines around the eyes
  • On sore and raw noses during a cold or flu
  • On scars to naturally help collagen production (I used it on my c-section scar!)
  • By itself for low-grade sun protection
  • To soothe dry and cracked feet and hands
  • As a natural baby-care product
  • By itself on the lips
  • On the eyelids before applying makeup to make it last longer
  • To improve skin elasticity (some even say it helps with cellulite)
  • To lighten skin and reduce dark spots
  • As a method to reduce acne blemishes and acne scars
  • To prevent insect bites

In addition to using it by itself, it works well in many DIY personal care recipes.

DIY Recipes

In my homemade products, I like to mix shea with essential oils. I use it to help with dryness and anti-aging in all of these DIY recipes:

You can also emulsify it with other oils using the technique in my lotion recipe to get the most health benefits out of it.

What Kind Is Better?

There is a vast variation in the quality of shea butter, depending on the manufacturer and source. A 2010 study found that Eastern African shea tree nuts had significantly higher fat and oleic acid contents than Western countries. On the other hand, Western African shea butter is higher in stearic acid.

If you’ve tried shea butter before and haven’t liked it, try a different brand or check the expiration date. Shea butter may go rancid after 2-3 years, especially if it’s been exposed to heat or sunlight.

The American Shea Butter Institute warns that one of the main healing components in shea butter, cinnamic acid, is less present in inferior brands. They have issued classifications of different quality grades, and the best with the highest cinnamic acid content is Grade A.

I only use raw, unrefined, Grade A shea butter. Many refined ones are odor-free and bleached to be white. The refining process removes some of the beneficial properties like antioxidants and vitamins. I also don’t want to put bleach on my skin if I can help it.

If you have a container of it laying around, I’d still finish that up and then be sure to buy some Grade A when you run out.

To get the most antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory power, here is what to buy.

The Best Shea Butter to Buy

I order this raw shea butter and have had great results, but you can also find good shea butter brands at many local health food stores. When it comes to choosing a better raw shea butter, just look for one that is:

  • raw/unrefined
  • unbleached
  • organic
  • Grade A

Choosing a shea butter with these claims will help you avoid solvents and other toxic chemicals sometimes used during the extraction process.

(If you have a Thrive Market membership, their brand is also fair trade.)

Caution: Before Using

If you get unrefined shea butter, that means it has not been filtered and may contain trace particles of the shea nut, hull, or kernels. To prevent irritated skin, you’ll want to strain it. The tiny pieces can be rough, even if you don’t feel them.

I often gently heat mine until it just melts (around 110?) and then pour through a cheesecloth or strainer to remove any particles. Once strained, I dump it into these (or any) silicone molds in pre-measured amounts (tablespoons, ¼ cup, etc.) to be ready for natural beauty recipes.

Tips for Using and Storing Shea Butter

  • Store it out of direct light or heat. Several sources suggest it may go rancid or expire within 12-24 months, but I never have a jar of it that long since it has so many uses.
  • If your shea butter gets crumbly, it may be a little cold. Holding it between your hands to warm it will help it soak in well.
  • TIP for use in DIY: If the shea butter is too thick, hard, or crumbly for what you’re trying to do, hold it in your hands for a moment to warm it. If needed, melt it over low heat (about 110 degrees) and then use. Do not let it get close to boiling, or you may lose some of the most beneficial healing properties.

The benefits of shea butter are vast! It’s an excellent part of your natural skincare routine arsenal. How will you and your family use it? Leave it out on your bathroom counter and watch it disappear!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

Have you ever used shea butter? How did it work for you? 

Sources:
  1. Oh, M. J., et al. (2017). Novel phytoceramides containing fatty acids of diverse chain lengths are better than a single C18-ceramide N-stearoyl phytosphingosine to improve the physiological properties of human stratum corneum. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 10, 363–371.
  2. Maranz, S., Wiesman, Z., & Garti, N. (2003). Phenolic constituents of shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) kernels. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 51(21), 6268–6273.
  3. Ugwu-Dike, P., & Nambudiri, V. E. (2021). A review of ethnomedicinal uses of shea butter for dermatoses in Sub-Saharan Africa. Dermatologic therapy, e14786. Advance online publication.
  4. Kao JH, Lin SH, Lai CF, Lin YC, Kong ZL, Wong CS. Shea Nut Oil Triterpene Concentrate Attenuates Knee Osteoarthritis Development in Rats: Evidence from Knee Joint Histology. PLoS One. 2016;11(9):e0162022. Published 2016 Sep 1.
  5. Hon, K. L., et al. (2015). Patient acceptability, efficacy, and skin biophysiology of a cream and cleanser containing lipid complex with shea butter extract versus a ceramide product for eczema. Hong Kong medical journal = Xianggang yi xue za zhi, 21(5), 417–425.
  6. Honfo, F. G., et al. (2014). Nutritional composition of shea products and chemical properties of shea butter: a review. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 54(5), 673–686.
  7. Sarruf, F. D., et al. (2020). Butyrospermum parkii butter increased the photostability and in vivo SPF of a molded sunscreen system. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 19(12), 3296–3301.
  8. Davrieux, F., et al. (2010). Near infrared spectroscopy for high-throughput characterization of Shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) nut fat profiles. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 58(13), 7811–7819.
  9. Di Vincenzo, et al. (2005). Regional variation in shea butter lipid and triterpene composition in four African countries. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 53(19), 7473–7479.