"To make the oil, the ripe nuts are peeled and the contents dried in the sun, then cooked in cauldrons and the oil extracted. They use it for lighting and dip bread in it, and the women put it on their hair."

-- Ibn Battuta, from his travel memoirs, 14th century

What is shea butter?

Shea butter is a dense and emollient fat extracted from the nut of the shea tree. It is called a butter because it belongs to a class of fruit and nut fats that remain solid at room temperature, such as cocoa butter or mango butter, as opposed to a fat that is liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil or almond oil.

In raw form, shea butter is ivory colored and has a smoky, nutty scent that dissipates quickly as the butter ages and isn’t strong enough to be detected once applied to skin or hair.

Shea nuts and shea butter

Once processed, shea butter turns white/ivory and loses its scent, although it is sometimes then dyed back to a light yellow/orange. The shea tree is native to the dry savannah belt across the midpoint of Africa and has been extracted for both food (yes, it’s edible!) and cosmetic purposes for millennia.

Shea's cosmetic benefits

Moisturization of skin and hair occurs through one, or more, of three mechanisms, and moisturizers are classified based on which of these effects they have. An occlusive agent creates a barrier to prevent water loss; a humectant attracts and retains moisture; an emollient smooths by filling cracks between cells.

Shea butter does all three, making it a very heavy and potent moisturizer. While it can be used straight, it is often too heavy for this purpose, even though it is noncomedogenic (meaning it doesn’t block pores to create acne).

Shea is found most frequently in highly moisturizing skin and hair products, and in moisturizing soaps such as African black soap. When refined, it is also an emulsifier, meaning it bonds oil and water in an emulsion. All lotions, any water based products containing oils or oil soluble ingredients, and any oil based product contains water or water soluble ingredients are emulsions, making emulsifiers incredibly important.

As most commercial emulsifiers are non-natural chemicals called PEGs that are refined from petroleum (e.g. the petrochemicals that are also refined into oil, gasoline, or kerosene), effective, natural emulsifiers are hugely important to natural skin and hair care. We use shea in many of our formulations - frequently along with another natural emulsifier called lecithin - for its emulsifying and thickening properties.

Women's work and empire: shea butter's history

Shea trees have been cultivated, and shea nuts processed, for at least 1,900 years, but there is indirect evidence that shea was traded in Ancient Egypt for at least 4300 years. Wood from shea trees has been discovered, as have carvings featuring shea nuts, and, most interestingly, chemical analysis of hair has suggested that shea butter was used as a hair treatment.

It was also used from at least that time period to protect skin and hair from the highly damaging effects of strong sunlight and dry desert/savannah winds across the northern areas of Africa. The way shea butter can both hold moisture and create a barrier makes it particularly effective for these purposes.

Shea butter was also used in various traditional African medicine systems in the area shea grows as a treatment for rheumatism and other inflammatory ailments. Modern study has confirmed that in addition to anti-aging benefits shea butter actually is anti-inflammatory.

There is some record of shea butter in the Middle East and Europe by the Middle Ages, particularly in the accounts of Muslim and European travelers such as the 14th century scholar Ibn Battuta. However, shea butter was largely unknown outside of the regions where it was grown in Africa until the colonial period, when white Europeans seized control of the means of processing and trading the nuts, leaving the work of growing and harvesting in the hands of — mainly — African women.

It is only since the colonial era, and with dedicated work from members of the African diaspora that shea butter has become known, and revered, outside of Africa and strong efforts have been made to set up fair trade cooperatives to trade directly with the women producing shea butter.