Shea Butter in Skin Care
Shea butter is the extracted fat of the Butyrospermum Parkii plant native to sub-Saharan Africa. (9)
It has been used in regional holistic medical practices for centuries in across Africa for its anti-inflammatory and soothing properties. (1,4)
The kernels of the tree are roasted, then mashed with water before being filtered and cooled for cosmetic use. (6)
Read below to find out all about shea butter's compounds, benefits, and risks in skin care!
What is shea butter?
Shea butter is called "butter" because of its thick, smooth, creamy feel. It is an oil.
It has a creamy texture because it is primarily composed of saturated fatty acids.
It is a plant based oil, but it is too thick to be considered an essential oil.
Instead, it is considered a carrier oil, used in fragrances and cosmetics as a base for other ingredients to bind to.
What are the active compounds?
Shea kernels are mostly made of fats, it is rich in beneficial fatty acids like: (in order of concentration)
Besides fatty acids, shea butter is rich in antioxidant phenolic compounds like quercetin, trans-cinnamic acid, and dozens of other compounds, many of which are also found in green teas.
The specific phenolic composition of shea butter varies based on the region the kernel was harvested, among other variables like weather. (3) (natural, plant based ingredients always have compound variability.)
The most common active antioxidant phenolic compound in shea butter is gallic acid. (3)
Studies have found that the pulp of the shea fruit contains a very appreciable amount of vitamin C. (6)
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a known effective antioxidant ingredient skin care, and contributes to the antimicrobial qualities of shea butter.
The concentration of compounds can also vary drastically between processed and unprocessed shea butters.
Refined vs unrefined shea butter
Unrefined shea butter is thick, yellow, and has a similar texture to dairy butter.
Unrefined shea butter is very comedogenic, but is extremely rich in beneficial, hydrating fatty acids and antioxidants.
Refined shea butter is repeatedly boiled or roasted, and pressed into a slightly more fluid, and much whiter product than unrefined shea butter.
As might be evident from the loss of color, there are fewer active compounds in refined shea butter, but it is less comedogenic.
Either form of shea butter can be used in skin care based on the particular skin condition a product is designed to treat.
Handmade vs machine processed
Unrefined shea butter still undergoes some processing to get from kernel to cream.
Without the help of machinery, shea butter can actually deteriorate in quality if processed too slowly.(11)
For that reason, processed shea butter often has a higher concentration of beneficial compounds than unprocessed shea butter.
Synthetic chemicals are not typically used in the processing of shea butter, meaning none of the natural compounds are destroyed chemically.
Shea kernels undergoing "by-hand" processing are more likely to denature over time in the elements.
Since machine processing results in less time between harvesting the kernel to finished oil, it is actually the preferred method of production for skin care quality shea butter.
There are many interesting benefits associated with the active compounds in shea butter, such as antimicrobial, moisturizing, UV protecting, and keloid treating qualities.(2)
Stearic acid, the most common fatty acid in shea butter, is great in barrier repair moisturizers and helps prevent trans-epidermal water loss. Although shea butter has oleic acid that creates tiny perforations in the skin, the fact that it has more stearic acid than oleic acid makes it a superior barrier repair oil for the treatment of eczema and dry skin.
It is also a soothing oil because it contains anti-inflammatory compounds like linoleic acid.
Antioxidant phenolic compounds provide antiaging benefits. These phenolic compounds give products a longer shelf life by preventing oxidation of lipids.
Some studies have even found shea butter to be anti-carcinogenic, meaning it might help treat and prevent some kinds of cancer. (4) That being said, more evidence based testing is always needed on cancer treatments.
It also contains a high concentration of oleic acid, which some dry skin types find irritating on the skin, but this is counteracted by the even higher amount of stearic acid.
If you are sensitive to oleic acid, you might experience mild inflammation on applied areas.
Is it safe?
Shea butter is a safe ingredient in skin care.
The EWG safety rating for shea butter is "1," which means there are no common concerns associated with use of shea butter in skin care.
If you are pregnant (or a baby), shea butter is considered non-toxic and safe for use as well.
The only hazard associated with using shea butter is that it is a tree nut.
If you have a tree nut allergy, consult your allergist or primary care physician about whether shea butter is safe for you.
Shea butter is considered a clean ingredient.
Shea butter is increasingly popular every year in skin care products as more research comes out to support its significant hydrating and antioxidant properties.
It can be found in a number of products targeted towards dry skin care, hair care, stretch mark prevention creams, and sun protection.
Shea butter contains comedogenic fatty acids, meaning it can clog the pores of sensitive skin types.
Shea butter is not the best oil to choose when you have acne-prone skin.
There is also a notable concentration of oleic acid in shea butter, which helps other ingredients permeate into the skin which can increase the risk of irritation from acne medications like retinoids and benzoyl peroxide. If you are particularly prone to acne and worried about comedogenic ingredients, here are some of the best acne treatments for you to consider.
Shea butter can be found in dozens of moisturizers designed for dry skin because of its occlusive and hydrating properties.
It is anti-inflammatory, which means it soothes redness or irritation.
Even though shea butter contains oleic acid which is often irritating on extremely dry skin, its other active compounds negate those effects in many cases.
The fatty acids and antioxidants in shea butter are very healthy for hair follicles and strands.
Shea butter is a creamy, heavier oil so it should be used in modest applications to avoid weighing down your natural hair texture.
It has a similar texture to coconut oil.
It is a comedogenic product, so if you are prone to acne on your hairline, shea butter might not be right for your hair.
Shea butter is largely composed of unsaturated fatty acids and antioxidant compounds, but it does not treat dark spots.
While it may not be great for treating hyperpigmentation, it is a good ingredient at absorbing UV radiation.
There are better oils than shea butter to use in moisturizers to lighten dark spots.
This ingredient absorbs UV radiation from the sun, which means it helps prevent light-based skin aging, but should always be combined with SPF.
Which products contain shea butter?
Once you've read up on shea butter and take the skin type questionnaire, you'll have all the tools you need to find the best shea butter products for your skin type!
Here are some of our favorite skin care products containing shea butter:
Here are some links and references to some of the best sources on shea butter in skin care:
- J Complement Integr Med. 2012;9:Article 4
- Wounds. 2011;23(4):97-106).
- J Agric Food Chem. 2003;51(21):6268-73).
- J Oleo Sci. 2010;59(6):273-80).
- Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(5):673-86).
Honfo, F. G., Akissoe, N., Linnemann, A. R., Soumanou, M., & Van Boekel, M. A. (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.
- Goreja, W. G. (2004). Shea butter: the nourishing properties of Africa's best-kept natural beauty secret. TNC International Inc.
- Belibi, S. E., Stechschulte, D., & Olson, N. (2009). The use of shea butter as an emollient for eczema. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 123(2), S41.
- Adeleye, O. A., Babalola, C. O., Femi-Oyewo, M. N., & Balogun, G. Y. (2019). Antimicrobial activity and stability of Andrographis paniculata cream containing shea butter. Nigerian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, 15(1), 9-18.
- Israel, M. O. (2014). Effects of topical and dietary use of shea butter on animals. Am J Life Sci, 2(5), 303-307.
Gallo RL, Bucay VW, Shamban AT, Lima-Maribona J, Lewis AB, Ditre CM, et al. The potential role of topically applied heparan sulfate in the treatment of photodamage. J Drugs Dermatol. 2015;14(7):669-74
Pigatto P, Bigardi A, Caputo R, Angelini G, Foti C, Grandolfo M, et al. An evaluation of the allergic contact dermatitis potential of colloidal grain suspensions. Am J Contact Dermat. 1997;8(4):207-9.
Vié K, Cours-Darne S, Vienne MP, Boyer F, Fabre B, Dupuy P. Modulating effects of oatmeal extracts in the sodium lauryl sulfate skin irritancy model. Skin Pharmacol Appl Skin Physiol. 2002;15(2):120-4.
Thioune O, Ahodikpe D, Dieng M, Diop AB, Ngom S, Lo I. Inflammatory ointment from shea butter and hydro-alcoholic extract of Khaya senegalensis barks (Cailcederat). Dakar Med. 2002;45(2):113-6.
- Lodén M, Andersson AC. Effect of topically applied lipids on surfactant-irritated skin. Br J Dermatol. 1996;134(2):215-20.
- Moharram, H., Ray, J., Ozbas, S., Juliani, H., & Simon, J. (2006). Shea butter: Chemistry, quality, and new market potentials.