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Shea butter in a small tin for cosmetic use.

Shea butter is a slightly yellowish or ivory colored natural fat extracted from the seed of the African shea tree by crushing and boiling. It is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer and salve. Shea butter is edible and may be used in food preparation, or sometimes in the chocolate industry as a substitute for cocoa butter.

The English name "shea" comes from , the tree's name in the Bamana languages of Mali. The French name "karité" comes from ghariti, its equivalent in the Wolof language of Senegal.


Butter extraction and refining

To obtain shea butter, first the outer pulp of the fruit is removed, then the shea nut is shelled. Traditionally shelling is done by mortar and pestle or by crushing the shell with stones; nowadays a mechanical sheller such as the Universal Nut Sheller may be used. The shelled seed is then roasted and either ground down or pressed to extract the oils that make shea butter.

The refined butter may be extracted with chemicals such as hexane, or by clay filtering.

Composition and properties

Shea butter extract is a complex fat that contains many non-saponifiable components (substances that cannot be fully converted into soap by treatment with alkali.)

Shea butter melts at body temperature and absorbs rapidly into the skin without leaving a greasy feeling.


Shea butter has several traditional uses in Africa but only recently has been exported to other continents.


In Africa, shea butter is used as a cooking lard, as a water proofing wax, for hairdressing and for candle-making; and also as an ingredient of medicinal ointments.

It is also used by makers of traditional African percussion instruments to increase the durability of wood (such as that of carved djembe husks and gourds) and leather binds.


The main industrial use of shea butter outside Africa is in cosmetics, such as moisturizer creams and emulsion, and hair conditioners for dry and brittle hair.

It is also used by soapmakers, typically in small amounts (5-7% of the oils in the recipe), because of its property of leaving a small amount of oil in the soap.

Shea butter is also used as an ingredient in chocolate fillings.

Commercial shea butter is now classified 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. Grade A retains the most natural vitamins, especially vitamin A and vitamin E, which are partially lost in the other grades.


Shea butter is used as a base for medicinal ointments, and has been claimed to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Shea butter has been claimed to be effective treatment for the following conditions: fading scars, eczema, burns, rashes, severely dry skin, dark spots, skin discolorations, chapped lips, stretchmarks, wrinkles, and in lessening the irritation of psoriasis.

Shea butter has been used as a sunblocking lotion, although the level of protection against the sun's ultraviolet radiation is extremely variable, ranging from nothing to approximately SPF 6.

In Nigeria, shea butter is used for the management of sinusitis and relief of nasal congestion.[1] This is due to its hydrating properties which helps in relaxing the tension in the face skin thus easing respiration.


Scarcity of supply led to erratic market prices in 2005.


  1. ^ Tella, A, Br (1979) "Preliminary studies on nasal decongestant activity from the seed of the shea butter tree, Butyrospermum parkii", J Clin Pharmacol, May;7(5):495-7.

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