From department stores to discount and drug stores, shea butter lotions, creams, lip balms, soap, conditioners and moisturizers are becoming more familiar to us. On television, a commercial announcer boasts of a brand name moisturizer containing shea butter, when the fact is that the butyrspermum parkii, the Latin name for this ingredient, is listed near the end of a long list of fillers, petroleum castoffs, and preservatives.
What Is Shea Butter?
With its growing reputation we are enticed to try this “new” and wonderful sounding ‘butter’ which is not a dairy product. Technically, shea butter is a nut fat, as it is derived from the crushed nuts of the karite tree that grows wild in the African savannah, an area that comprises more than a dozen countries and is approximately the size of America. To a person from Ghana or Burkina Faso, two of the largest exporting countries of shea butter, they are quite accustomed to the benefits of shea butter. They massage it on their skin and hair; they cook with it, and it’s known to help people of all ages with accelerating the healing of minor cuts, burns, and scrapes. Those who try natural shea butter are amazed to discover that applying all natural shea butter onto their skin, a thin protective layer forms, that is non-greasy!
Shea [Karite] Trees Grow In The Wild
Shea butter comes from karite trees, which live for hundreds of years and only begin providing fruit by the time they are about 25-30 years of age. Most wild [as opposed to cultivated which is very small scale at this time], karite trees are pollinated by small fruit bats, which help to ensure the continued existence for this ‘tree of life’ as those whose livelihood depends on these fruitful trees oftentimes refer to it as. The shea nuts aren’t picked from the trees as they must first mature and fall from the trees where they are then collected. Women are responsible for the gathering and production of shea nuts and helping cultivate them into valuable shea butter. The process of harvesting the shea fruit is time consuming, but the results are well worth the amount of effort that goes into each batch of natural shea butter. While the ripe green, fleshy fruit is rich in ascorbic acid as well as vitamin B; it’s the kernels inside the nut that comprises the shea butter.
Making Shea Butter
The nuts are first sorted and parboiled, and then left to dry in the hot sunshine for up to one week. When the shea nuts are completely dehydrated, they can either be stored for several weeks or months, or they go to the next step of shea butter production.
Crushing the dried nuts, either with a wooden pestle, or, in more sophisticated operations, a special press, causes the nuts and the kernels to be separated. Next, the kernels are roasted in large metal pots and processed through a grinder, which results in a brown colored paste. This paste is processed a second time. The labor-intensive procedure continues with the mixing and kneading of the kernels after some water has been added. While this step of the shea butter making production goes on for several hours, it’s a vital step as this is what creates the shea butter itself. It’s still unrefined, but many people prefer the natural shea butter to the more refined versions. Also, there are places in Africa that have various types of shea refining machinery, allowing the shea extracting process to remain easier for all parties involved. For instance, the shea butter is filtered by a natural cold process method that strains the shea butter of any debris such as gourd pieces, di!
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This type of shea butter has a wide range of colors and some differences in textures. Generally, unrefined shea butter is that which has been filtered [hopefully] and possibly refined at least once in the most natural cold process method. Beige, light or dark green, gray or dark tan are the colors that unrefined shea butter can end up. The green colors come from shea nuts that are less mature than the beige colors. Shea colors are also dependent upon the time of year the nuts are harvested and processed, along with the region in which the shea nuts are selected from.
While most unrefined shea butter maintains all the vitamins, especially vitamin A and E, and minerals, it also retains its aroma. The scent of unrefined shea is what discourages a lot of people from trying this healing butter, as it can be a rather earthy combination of smoky and nutty. The aroma, while being somewhat strong, depending upon the shea butter and your sense of smell, does disappear after it has been applied to your skin within a matter of minutes. Unrefined shea butter’s texture can vary from smooth and creamy; think commercial smooth peanut butter, to hard, waxy and/or chunky, such as a crunchy peanut butter. Those of you who have never been around shea butter before would be understandably put off if, upon opening a jar, you found a smelly and crunchy looking product! But after an experimental dab or two, you will discover that shea butter does leave your skin looking and certainly feeling smoother and softer than it did pre application.
Refined Shea Butter
Actually there are two categories here: Ultra-Refined and Refined. The first type is usually white to cream colored, has no discernable nutty/smoky scent, and is smooth and creamy. The difficulty with ultra or even refined shea butter, is in knowing whether that product has been commercially refined to remove its minerals and vitamins with a hexane solvent. Also, shea butter can be bleached to make it appear even lighter. One way to determine a shea butter’s authenticity is to see if it has been cold-pressed, sometimes called cold-processed or expeller-pressed.
The Refined shea, which ranges in color from white to beige, is sometimes referred to as gently refined, has had some of its vitamin/mineral properties removed in the process of refining, but it does retain a bit of a beige or light tan color and nutty aroma. The texture can be either creamy or chunky.
The ideal shea butter would feel creamy and smooth and be absorbed into your skin quickly. Also, the nutty and/or smoky scent should be lighter. Shea butter can be mixed with fragrances and essential oils to completely change the aroma, making it sweet, spicy, fruity, floral, herbal, etc.
While shea butter is added to a myriad of bath & body products, the best way to sample the delights of this African butter is to buy a small jar and try it for yourself to learn what is so great about shea butter.
Shea Butter’s Benefits
Many web sites will sell shea butter in various sizes, containers, prices, and types. They might have some information about shea butter on the site, or you may have to do some online research to discover more about this product. Either way, be informed before purchasing shea butter. If a site tells of wonderful things happening after just one application, other than the fact that it soothes skin, please use your own judgment. Like any “new” product out there, a lot of hype can be attached to it. Shea butter, as you’ve just read, is a skin soothing nut fat that may be very beneficial and here are some reasons:
Shea butter can be used as an all-natural hair conditioner.
Shea butter promotes quicker healing of small wounds, burns, cuts and scrapes.
Shea butter is an efficient natural makeup remover.
Shea butter is safe to use on babies, children and adults.
Shea butter helps prevent and soothe sunburns.
Shea butter is high in vitamins A and E.
Shea butter helps moisturize dry skin.
Shea butter soothes sore, overworked muscles.
Shea butter is recommended for conditioning animal’s coats.
Shea butter makes an excellent natural lip balm.
Shea butter helps restore elasticity of aging skin.
Does shea butter cure serious skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis? There have been some testimonials to that effect, yes. But in actuality, if you were to have a somewhat serious or persistent skin problem, you should consult with a healthcare practitioner or dermatologist. Shea butter is not recommended for people with nut or latex allergies. Or you could find out by trying shea butter. Whenever considering trying a natural remedy, you should be responsible and do your research both on and off-line. The choice to use a “new” product is always up to each individual.
© 2005 Lisa Maliga