What is Shea Butter?

One common thread in the majority of products found in our formulary is shea butter; the reason for this is the phenomenal benefit shea butter provides to the skin.{{more}} Here we use shea in all of our soaps, lotions, and more. Besides being the most common thread in our products, it is also the ingredient most inquired about: what is it, where does it come from, what are the benefits?

Shea butter is made from the nut of the Karite tree which grows in East and West Africa. The making of shea butter is done by hand, mostly by women of Africa. The fruit of the tree is picked, the hard kernel, or nuts, are extracted from the fruit, cracked, grilled and pounded to extract the shea butter, which is then boiled. During boiling the shea butter rises to the top of the pot and is then scooped out and laid out to cool. The result is pure, unrefined shea butter. The color of this pure shea ranges from creamy white to yellow. As it cools it becomes somewhat hard, but creamy. This is shea at its finest; pure, unrefined, with a subtle “nutty” aroma.

The benefits of shea butter on the skin are enormous; it is known to improve serious skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, also helps to diminish scars and is a natural anti-free radical agent improving scars, wrinkles, rashes, over exposure to the sun and skin blemishes. Applying shea butter to the skin hydrates, soothes and protects dry and chapped skin.

So what should you look for in products that contain shea butter? First and foremost, the shea butter should be “unrefined.” The refining of shea butter is usually done with a chemical called hexane. Hexane dissolves the shea nut making it easier to get at the “butter.” During this process the shea butter loses many natural vitamins and minerals. At this point fragrance is also often added to counter the “earthy” or “nutty” aroma of the natural shea, in an effort to make it more appealing to consumers. Adding fragrance and other additives to the refined shea decreases the amount of actual shea in the final product thereby making it less expensive for the manufacturer and, unfortunately, less beneficial to the consumer.

Another important element to look for in shea butter is that it has been obtained through the practice of Fair Trade. What is Fair Trade? “Fair Trade is an alternative system of trade which counteracts the system of international free trade, corporate control and global policies by giving the farmers and workers a living wage for their work, which can sustain them and also create opportunities for social and economic development.” (http://www.worldcentric.org)

So when reading ingredients, words of importance regarding shea butter are “unrefined” and “Fair Trade.”

Sabrina is co-owner with her husband, Ernie, of Sunflower Farm and Connecticut Natural Soapworks, a beekeeper, Reiki Master, and market master of the Milford Downtown Farmers’ Market. www.sunflowerfarm.com.