Shea butter

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Shea butter (/ˈʃ/ or /ˈʃ.ə/) is an off- white or ivory-colored fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa).[1] Shea butter is a triglyceride (fat) derived mainly from stearic acid and oleic acid. It is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer, salve or lotion. Shea butter is edible and is used in food preparation in Africa.[2] Occasionally the chocolate industry uses shea butter mixed with other oils as a substitute for cocoa butter, although the taste is noticeably different.[3][4]

The English word "shea" comes from s’í, the tree's name in the Bambara language of Mali.[5] It is also known as karité in the Wolof language of Senegal.[6] In some parts of West Africa, shea butter is referred to as Ori.[7][8]

Shea butter is a triglyceride (fat) derived mainly from stearic acid and oleic acid.


Accounts from as early as Cleopatra's Egypt speak of caravan bearing clay jars of valuable shea butter for cosmetic use. The funeral beds of early kings were carved in wood of shea trees. Shea butter's skin care and healing properties were first harnessed thousands of years ago. The history of shea as a precious commodity can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, where shea butter was and continues to be used to protect the hair and skin against the fierce sun and the hot dry winds of African deserts and savannah.[9]

Butter extraction and refining[edit]

The traditional method of preparing unrefined shea butter consists of the following steps:[10]

Industrially, a mechanical sheller such as the Universal Nut Sheller may be used. The refined butter may be extracted with chemicals such as hexane, or by clay filtering.

Composition and properties[edit]

Shea butter extract is a complex fat that in addition to many nonsaponifiable components (substances that cannot be fully converted into soap by treatment with alkali) contains the following fatty acids:oleic acid (40-60%), stearic acid (20-50%), linoleic acid (3-11%), palmitic acid (2-9%), linolenic acid (<1%) and arachidic acid (<1%).[11]

Shea butter melts at body temperature. Proponents of its use for skin care maintain that it absorbs rapidly into the skin, acts as a "refatting" agent, and has good water-binding properties.[12]


Shea butter soap.

Shea butter is mainly used in the cosmetics industry for skin and hair related products (lip gloss, skin moisturizer creams and emulsions, and hair conditioners for dry and brittle hair).[citation needed] It is also used by soap makers, typically in small amounts (5-7% of the oils in the recipe), because it has plenty of unsaponifiables.[citation needed]

In some African countries such as Benin, shea butter is used for cooking oil, as a waterproofing wax, for hairdressing, for candle-making, and also as an ingredient in medicinal ointments. It is also used by makers of traditional African percussion instruments to increase the durability of wood (such as carved djembe shells), dried calabash gourds, and leather tuning straps.[citation needed]


Shea butter is sometimes used as a base for medicinal ointments. Some of the isolated chemical constituents are reported to have anti-inflammatory, emollient and humectant properties.[13] Shea butter has been used as a sunblocking lotion and has a limited capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation.[3]

In Ghana, shea butter, locally known as nkuto (Akan) or nku (Ga) is applied as lotion to protect the skin during the dry Harmattan season.[6]:p.8

In Nigeria shea butter is used for the management of sinusitis and relief of nasal congestion.[14] It is also massaged into joints and other parts of the body where pain is experienced.[citation needed]


The United States Agency for International Development, Gassel Consulting, and many other companies[15] have suggested a classification system for shea butter separating it into five grades: A (raw or unrefined, extracted using water), B (refined), C (highly refined and extracted with solvents such as hexane), D (lowest uncontaminated grade), E (with contaminants). Commercial grades are A, B, C. The color of raw (grade A) butter ranges from cream (like whipped butter) to grayish yellow, and it has a nutty aroma which is removed in the other grades. Grade C is pure white[citation needed] While the level of vitamin content can be affected by refining, up to 95% of vitamin content can be removed from refined grades (i.e. grade C) of shea butter while reducing contamination levels to non-detectable levels.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alfred Thomas (2002). "Fats and Fatty Oils". Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. doi:10.1002/14356007.a10_173. 
  2. ^ National Research Council. Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables (2006). ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6. 
  3. ^ a b E. T. Masters, J. A. Yidana and P. N. Lovett. "Reinforcing sound management through trade: shea tree products in Africa". 
  4. ^ Fold, N. 2000. "A matter of good taste? Quality and the construction of standards for chocolate in the European Union. Cahiers d’Economie et Sociologie Rurales, 55/56: 92–110". 
  5. ^ " Dictionary Entry". Retrieved 25 August 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Goreja, W. G. (2004). "Chapter 2". Shea Butter: The Nourishing Properties of Africa's Best-Kept Natural Beauty Secret. TNC International. p. 5. ISBN 9780974296258. 
  7. ^ "Shea Butter". Retrieved March 7, 2013. 
  8. ^ "Ori Shea Butter". Retrieved March 7, 2013. 
  9. ^ W.G. Goreja (2004). Shea Butter: The Nourishing Properties of Africa's Best-Kept Natural Beauty. Amazing Herbs Press. p. 41. ISBN 0-9742962-5-2. 
  10. ^ Yézouma Coulibaly, Stéphane Ouédraogo and Nathalie Niculescu. "Experimental Study of Shea Butter Extraction Efficiency Using A Centrifugal Process". Asian Research Publishing Network. 
  11. ^ Davrieux, F., Allal, F., Piombo, G., Kelly, B., Okulo, J. B., Thiam, M., Diallo, O. B. & Bouvet, J.-M. (2010). "Near Infrared Spectroscopy for High-Throughput Characterization of Shea Tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) Nut Fat Profiles. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 58, 7811-7819.". 
  12. ^ Hemat, R. A. S. (2003). Principles of Orthomolecularism. Urotext. p. 160. ISBN 9781903737057. 
  13. ^ Akihisa, T; Kojima, N; Kikuchi, T; Yasukawa, K; Tokuda, H; t Masters, E; Manosroi, A; Manosroi, J (2010). "Anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive effects of triterpene cinnamates and acetates from shea fat". Journal of Oleo Science 59 (6): 273–80. doi:10.5650/jos.59.273. PMID 20484832. 
  14. ^ Tella, A, Br (1979). "Preliminary studies on nasal decongestant activity from the seed of the shea butter tree, Butyrospermum parkii". J Clin Pharmacol 7 (5): 495–497. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.1979.tb00992.x. 
  15. ^ United States Agency For International Development, October 2006. "Buying and Selling Shea Butter: A Marketing Manual for West Africa".