Shea Butter

The shea tree Butryospermum paradoxa with common name Vitellaria paradoxa belongs to the family of sapotaceae.  Shea butter is native to the African continent, typically in the savannah and naturally stretches over Africa in the Northern hemisphere from Southeastern Senegal to Ethiopia and Uganda. It grows in  a swath of the continent, some
5,000km long and 400 – 750km wide.  The shea tree which is also known as the karate tree grows in 21 African countries namely Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Ethiopia Uganda just to name a few. The name shea actually comes from the word is which is the trees name in Bambara. Shea tree is very popular in northern Ghana and it is considered community property and cannot be owned privately even when it grows in tour private property since it grows naturally.

 There are two subspecies of the tree, one of which   V. paradoxa subsp. paradoxa is found in West and Central Africa  while V. paradoxa subsp. nilotica is common in East Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Republic Democratic of Congo) 


shea-butter-natural-living-supplies. shea-butter-history

History of Shea Butter and Origins

In the ancient time shea butter was used for a variety of things especially beauty purposes. In ancient Egypt, shea butter dates back to the time of Cleopatra. She used shea butter for skin and hair care as we are told that the butter was carried in large clay pots to her. Also, Queen Sheba appears to have used shea butter as well. The country from which Shea first originated    is not well known due to vegetation changes and ongoing semi-domestication.

in 2016, Excavations by University of Oregon anthropologists  at Burkina Faso turned up fragments of shea nut shells  used in households , found to date back as far as 100 CE. 

The earliest  shea butter commerce can be tracked in ancient Egyptian trade during the reign of King Merenre, approximately 4300 years ago, We can also track the trade in shea butter through records taken by explorers Ibn Battuta, during his 1352–1353 travels  and Mungo Park recorded its widespread trade as he tracked the Niger River 1795–1797.

The shea tree was used to make coffins for the early African kings. The tree was also considered sacred. The people from northern Nigeria used shea butter to cook their food by mixing it with palm oil. This means that apart from using shea butter topically it can be ingested as well.

The Botany of Shea Trees

Shea  nuts and butter are  important multipurpose commodity , which play important ecological and socio-economic role, and it is the principal source of income for local population in the Sahel region.  The shea tree is a big tree, 10 – 15m tall that can reach 25m. It is a decidous tree with simple leaves grouped 20 – 30 leaves at the end of each branch. Despite the abundance of flowers, only 3 – 5 fruits per inflorence become ripe. Shea trees do not reach maturity until 45 years and after getting mature, and can continuously produce shea nuts for up to 200 years. Compared to other trees grown as plantation crops, shea trees take much longer time to reach maturity, which have discouraged the commercial plantation. The yield per tree is an average of 15 – 20kg of fruits or 3 – 4 kg dry nuts annually, the fruit weighs from 10 to 57 g. Some trees in suitable environment can yield up to 50 – 100 kg per annum. The fruits are harvested around May until September, coinciding with the rainy season.

The Extraction Processes.

Shea butter-making process begins when the shea tree bears its fruits. This corresponds with the end of the dry season and continues for several months into the rains. Women and children collect the fallen fruits. the nuts can be processed according to one of the three distinct  methods 

  1.  manual (traditional boiling),
  2. semimechanized, mechanical (pressing/expeller),
  3. and solvent extraction.  
Traditional method of extracting Shea butter 

Traditional processing of shea butter involves many time consuming stages.  After drying the fruit underground (sometimes for 12 days) and  pulping the fruits to remove the nut. A kneading process using a polished stone takes place to break up oil cell and ease oil extraction.The nuts are .crushed and boiled  in water. The paste is then mixed with water to separate the remaining oil. The shea butter is skimmed from the surface where it collects. The  butter processed from traditional method is unsuitable for export and is therefore sold and consumed locally. The processing method is laborious, of low quality. and low yield 20%.

The Mechanised Method of Extracting Shea Butter

The mechanical processing technology is usually referred to as the Cold Press Extraction method.  It is a less time consuming method  because it does not involve the various different heating stages of the traditional procedure. The processing of shea butter by this technique is carried out in a plant comprising of a boiler, mechanical press system and a filter press system.  The process has only three stages;

stage 1 

The kernels are pounded to a fine powder, and heated to a temperature in the boiler.

stage 2 

The mechanical hand or  hydraulic press applies a great deal of pressure to the pulverised boiled seed  to turn out more shea butter from the process 

stage 3 

The fat, which is obtained, is cleared of all other residues by boiling with Okro, Lemon, Juice and water.  yield  of 35 to 40%.

Solvent Extraction of Shea Butter

The process the use organic solvents such as hexane.

Identifying the type of shea butter

From the production process of shea butter, it is how you identify whether the shea butter is raw, unrefined, refined or ultra-refined. After the shea butter has been scooped from the boiling process, it can used directly from that point or undergo other processes to add other properties, remove impurities and the smell or change the colour.

Types of shea butter.

Raw shea butter is shea butter that has not undergone any production process after the extraction. It can contain impurities most probably of the nuts.it usually has a deep yellow colour.

Unrefined shea butter is raw shea butter that is filtered but does not alter the properties of the shea butter. Only pure, unrefined shea butter has the true healing and moisturizing properties of shea butter


Refined shea butter is shea butter that has undergone processing to remove the smell and some times change its properties. It may contain some additives like fragrances or preservatives. It usually has a smooth consistency with a whitish colour and not the deep ivory yellow colour.

Ultra-refined shea butter has undergone a number of filtering processes and it has also undergone some alterations for the mass production in cosmetics. The consistency varies depending on the cosmetic being made for example a lip balm, lip-gloss or hair conditioner. It usually has a really white colour.

Raw Shea Butter

In its raw form shea butter contains a lot of properties which make it the best kind of shea butter to treat a lot of skin conditions. In its raw form, shea butter can be unbearable to use due to its odour and consistency making it the reason why people prefer to use the refined ones because they are easy to use.

Shea Oil vs Shea Butter

The most obvious difference is Shea Nut Oil is a liquid oil and Shea Butter is a thick butter,  but the main important difference is  in their chemical composition, most notably their Stearic Acid content, which  happens to be one of the  main fatty acids responsible for Shea butter’s thick texture. A process called fractionation separates the oil (oleic) and butter (stearic).

Shea oil is  fractionated  (seperated) from Shea butter. As the Oleic oil melts at a lower temperature it is removed from the more solid shea  butter and  contains less than Stearic fatty acid  that gives shea butter the solid, waxy consistency,   Shea Oil loses some of the potency of the specific Vitamins, Amino Acids and essential Fatty Acids during the separation process and is therefore not as nutritious as shea butter.  Solvent-based fractionation is also used to produce shea oil.


history of shea butter- shea oil A process called fractionation separates the oil (olein) and butter (stearin). This can be done locally and allows for the extraction of the liquid oil – which is much more valuable to West Africans because of its nutritional content – by a process involving the heating and kneading of the crushed kernels and straining the resultant oily mass.PROPERTIES OF SHEA BUTTER.


  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antiaging
  • Emollient and moisturizing properties
  • Antioxidant
  • Healing
  • Contains vitamins A, E and F.
  • Contains the sun protecting factor of 6 due to the cinnamic acid in it.
  • Antibacterial

Benefits of Shea butter for Skin


Shea-butter-for-skin-natural-living-supplies Shea butter history

Reduces skin inflammation.                                                         

 Shea butter has got anti-inflammatory properties which help the skin feel relieved from irritation or any skin infection. The properties help to soothe the skin from sunburns, eczema, psoriasis any kind of swelling or any infection in the body as well. Maintains the elasticity of the skin and reduces aging process.             

Shea butter improves the production of collagen found in the skin hence maintain the skin’s elasticity. This will reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles hence lowering the skin’s aging process.

Reduces stretch marks.                                               

Shea butter is used to reduce the appearance of stretch marks by restoring the elasticity of the skin and enhancing the production of collagen. Consistent application of the butter to the affected area will show great results as the butter is a natural emollient. Shea butter has also been used for soothing and accelerating healing after circumcision, and for preventing stretch marks in African pregnant women

Provides UV protection.

Shea butter is a natural sunscreen because it contains cinnamic acid which has the sun protecting factor of 6 to 10 depending on the quality of the butter. Since the SPF is low, it is recommended to use another sunscreen on top of shea butter for more protection against the sun rays.

Treats dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema. 

These conditions tend to make the skin really dry, patchy, flaky and sometimes itchy. As shea butter contains inflammatory properties and also moisturizing, it is highly recommended to people with this condition. It will soothe the itchiness of the skin, lessen swelling and act as a humectant hence prevent dryness.

history of shea butter and origins Shea nut is processed primarily through traditional methods. It is an activity of women in the growing areas. They however also engage in other major economic activities such as farming and trading.

Sacred cream organic shea

Soothes the skin and diaper rash in babies.

Shea butter with its amazing properties is great for baby skin and sensitive skin in general because it is soft and smooth on the skin.  

Moisturizes dry skin and lips.

Shea butter is easily absorbed to the skin and provides extra moisture to the skin especially when it feels really dry. Its fat content makes its have great emollient and humectant properties. It is also good for lip care as it will treat chapped lips

It reduces razor irritation and bumps.

One can apply shea butter prior shaving to prevent the occurrence of bumps and irritation as the shaving process will become easy and smoother. This will also soothe the skin to prevent it from getting irritated.

Treats acne and blemishes

Heals wounds. Shea butter with its moisturizing properties is accompanied by healing properties as well. The butter is absorbed deep into the skin providing the skin with cell repairing qualities to heal wound, cuts and abrasions.

Benefits of Shea butter for Hair.

  • Repairs dry hair
  • Soothes dry itchy scalp
  • Tames frizzy hair.
  • Treats split ends
  • Prevents hair loss and hair breakage
  • Conditions the hair
  • Seals in moisture in the hair.
  • Shea Butter has a small amount of SPF, which can protect hair from the harmful rays of the sun

Apart from hair and skin benefits, shea butter also offers benefits to our health by: soothing muscle aches, relieves joint pain, inflammation and swelling, helps reduces arthritis pain, lowers cholesterol by using shea butter to cook food, helps treat diarrhoea and provides relief from nasal congestion and inflammation.

Disadvantages of Shea butter for hair. 
  • Because shea butter is thick , it can leave a waxy film on hair that’s difficult to completely wash off 

How to use shea butter for skin and hair care.

As a body butter.

You will need shea butter an essential oil of your choice (frankincense and vitamin e oil) and a carrier oil of your choice as well (olive oil or coconut oil). Melt the shea butter in a double boiler then wait for it to cool down. Add a few drops of the essential oil such as frankincense depending on the measurement of the shea butter then add a few table spoons of the carrier oil. Mix the ingredients well and let the shea butter turn back to solid for easier whipping. Whip the butter to the consistency of your choice then store well.


As a balm.

You will need shea butter and an oil of your choice essential oil or a carrier oil. Melt the butter and wait for it to cool down then add the other oils, mix them well then let the oils solidify or you can freeze the balm. It is ready for use.

As a hair conditioner.

You will need shea butter, aloe Vera gel or rose water or hydrasol , an essential oil and an avocado or papaya fruit or milk and honey (your choice). Melt the butter and mix the ingredients together with the cooled down butter then apply to slightly wet hair. Leave for 30 to 60 minutes all covered in a plastic bag or shower cap then wash your hair normally.


Tips on buying ad storing shea butter.

When buying shea butter look out for raw or unrefined shea butter so that you can b e able to reap lots of its benefits.

Look for a good reliable source or brand that sells shea butter.

Check the smell of shea butter. A plastic like smell tells you that it is not raw shea butter.

Store shea butter in an airtight container in a cool environment away from direct sunlight because the sun can alter its composition.

Shea butter has an average shelf life of two years depending on the brand and quality.

Did you know that shea butter is also known as ‘women’s gold’?

This is because many African women earn their daily livelihood through shea butter.

By Eila Oketch.