What is shea butter
Shea butter is a fat, which is obtained from a tree in Africa, known as the African Shea Tree. Oleic acid and stearic acid are the two fats from which shea butter is extracted. Some common uses of shea butter includes its use as a lotion and moisturizer. In Africa, it is commonly used in different dishes. Sometimes, shea butter is also used in place of cocoa butter.
‘Si’ is the word from which shea is derived from. It is the name of the tree in Bambara language. ‘Karite’ and ‘Ori’ are the other names of shea. These name are usually used in the West Africa and some other places. The age of the shea tree is about 200 years and it can grow up to 60 feet in height. For extracting shea butter, the nuts are boiled and crushed. Due to the growth of its popularity, it is commonly used all over the world. One of the major uses of shea butter in the deserts of Savannah is its use as a sun blocker for protecting the skin against dehydration and sunlight. Different skin problems, like cuts and burns can also be healed by the use of shea butter. It was rumored that the most beautiful Queen in the history of Egypt Nefertiti, used shea butter. Shea butter is also a source of employment for the African people. It is popularly known as ‘women’s gold’ in Africa. The cutting of shea tree in Africa is banned, because it is a good source of medicine, income and food for the general public.
Composition of shea butter
Shea butter is composed of different types of fatty acids like stearic acid (15 to 25%), linolenic acid (5 to 15%), palmitic acid (2 to 6%), linoleic acid (less than 1%). Other than this, antioxidants emoliente and original unsaponifiable fraction are also present in shea butter. Some compounds like cinnamic acid (absorbs ultraviolent radiations), lupeol (slowing the aging process) and triterpene alcohol (reduces inflammation) are found in shea butter. By controlling the production of structural proteins, shea butter protects the skin.
Shea butter is found in nature, in two varieties, which are Vitellaria Nilotica (East African) and Butyrospermum Parkii (West African). Vitellaria Nilotica is mostly found in Sudan and Uganda, whereas Butyrospermum Parkii is only found in West Africa. The West African butter is a bit harder than the East African Butter. East African butter is easy to apply for massaging purposes, as it is creamy. The therapeutic properties of East African butter are also higher. Moreover, it is sweeter as compared to West African Butter. However, East African Butter is rare these days.
Now let us look at the extraction process of shea butter. The shea butter is extracted from the shea nuts present on the shea trees. First of all, an oil is extracted from the nut. Expertise are required for the process of extraction and African women are experts at extracting shea butter. To reveal the fruit, the outer pulp is firstly removed.
The outer shell of the nut is then cracked. After that, with the help of mortars and pestles, the nut is crushed. Once the nuts are finely crushed, large pots are used to roast the nuts. The nuts are constantly stirred while being roasted, in order to avoid burning.
After that, water is added to grind the nut into a paste. To separate the oils, the paste is formed into a uniform mass by pressing, stretching and folding with hands. The oils then take the shape of curds, which are melted in order to remove excess water. From here, shea butter is removed and allowed to cool, to make it hard.
The above mentioned way is just one of the ways for extracting shea butter. There are other methods of shea butter extraction, too. One of these methods is known as ‘pressing’. In this method, the nuts from the shea tree are, first of all, crushed with the help of an expeller type press. A movement, which is similar to a meat grinder is used, in which nuts get pressed against metal. After that, with the help of pressure, the shea butter is obtained, which is in raw form.
This is the most commonly used method, especially these days in Africa, as it produces more better in comparatively less period of time (1, 2).
There are also no chemicals used in this method of extraction. Moreover, this method of extraction doesn’t sacrifice the quality of the shea butter, for time. This process is three hours quicker than the above mentioned traditional method of extraction.
Shea butter can also be extracted with the help of chemicals. The chemical used for the extraction is hexane. In this method, the shea nuts are dissolved in hexane at 56-65 degree of temperature. The downside of this method is that, sometimes, traces of solvent are present in the shea butter.
After the process of extraction is completed, the shea butter is passed through four main procedures, which are refining of shea butter; bleaching the butter; deodorization and degumming. Each of these processes, have been mentioned below:
- Refining – During the refining phase, shea butter is mixed with sodium hydroxide. Sometimes, a mixture of sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide, is added to the butter, for the removal of fatty acids. 74 degrees is the temperature of the refining process. Through the process of refining, proteins, lipids and phospholipids are removed.
- Bleaching – After refining, the butter is passed through the process of bleaching, in which important minerals are removed. The butter is passed through acid treated filter, where the temperature is kept at 110 degrees. The process of bleaching removes the natural smells.
- Deodorization – In the process of deodorization, a temperature of 240 to 270 degrees is kept. Steam is used to remove the minerals and vitamins, and the natural smell of the shea butter. Shea butter passes off in the refined form, as it doesn’t contain vitamins and minerals. This also happens because of applying external heat.
- Degumming – 60 degrees temperature is kept in the degumming process. The complex carbohydrates, protein compounds and natural gums are removed in this process. Some minerals like copper, magnesium, and calcium are also removed from shea butter.
Why to use shea butter as a hair care product?
Many people are concerned with their hair growth. When they come to know that their hair can’t grow any more, they get depressed.
When the hair stop growing, the health and texture of hair is also badly affected. Men and women, both are equally affected.
Thin hair, split ends, the feeling that the hair are falling at a faster rate than before, and that no new hair is coming to take the place of the previous hair, are some warning signs that you need to do something about your hair.
People with such conditions become quite concerned about their hair and use all kinds of "natural" shampoos and hair products.
After their constant use, they come to realize that such shampoos are not really beneficial for hair and try to use natural products like hemp oil or shea butter.
Let us look at how shea butter can be beneficial for your hair.
Benefits of shea butter for hair
While shea butter is quite beneficial for the scalp (skin covering the head) and hair you should not expect miracles.
There is virtually no scientific evidence that shea butter really improves quality of your hair and promotes its growth and the claims below are purely anecdotal.
Benefits and risks of shea butter use for hair
However some people have had very good experience while using shea butter so you may try it too to see if it really improves your hair health or not.
Shea butter improves hair growth
A major benefit of shea butter is that it may promote hair growth.
When applied regularly shea butter is said to restore hair follicles and the scalp, giving birth to healthy and fast growing hair.
Some people observed up to one inch (2.52 cm) hair growth after applying shea butter for just a few weeks.
Shea butter to strengthen your hair
Some people complain of baldness and ultra-thinning of hair.
Such kind of people should apply shea butter regularly on their hair. There are specific ingredients present in shea butter which lead to the improvement of scalp structure. Shea butter improves existing hair and gives birth to new hair.
When applying shea butter regularly for about a week you may experience a significant difference in your hair quality (your hair may become thicker and less damaged - e.g. no split ends).
Shea butter for a natural look of your hair
Shea butter can be applied on the hair to give it a natural look. It contains lipid complex, which has moisturizing properties.
Risks and precautions associated with shea butter
Shea butter seems to have lots of benefits for your hair, but there are also some risks associated with its use, one should be aware of. Here are the most common shea butter use risks.
Shea butter makes your hair dry
It may sound strange but shea butter may actually make your hair dry despite of its moisturizing properties and lipid content. Therefore you should be very careful when using shea butter and not use it for a long time. It is not a hair conditioner and therefore, doesn’t protect the hair from becoming dry.
So do not use shea butter as an only product on your hair (but always in combination with moisturizing agents or quality hair conditioners) and do not use shea butter on dry hair. Always apply it on wet (freshly washed) hair.
Shea butter quality concerns
Most people are concerned about the quality of shea butter, especially when applying it to the hair.
On the market, shea butter is available in different grades. The lower grades are the least expensive but also have the lowest quality.
You should go for the highest quality of shea butter, within your affordable range because remember, the higher the quality, the better the outcome (3).
Also, you should avoid using old shea butter, as it loses its beneficial properties with the passage of time.
You should also avoid processed and refined shea butter because, at times, shea butter is mixed with other substances, which lessens the overall benefits of shea butter.
You should also beware of products containing very small volume of shea butter in them (e.g. read the labels carefully and do not buy just any product with shea butter label on it).
Only buy shea butter from a well-known source.
How to use shea butter for hair
Shea butter may help your hair grow and promote its overall health. Here is a step by step technique how to apply shea butter on your health for maximum benefits:
- Apply leave in-conditioner or wet your hair by using your favorite moisturizer. By using different recipes from internet, you can make your own moisturizer too. Don’t be afraid to try out different kinds of things. Remember that the moisturizer that works for your hair may or may not work on another person’s hair.
- After you have wetted your hair, you should divide your hair into different sections, as it will make things easier for you.
- The next thing you need to do is to liquefy the butter. You can liquefy the butter by putting it in a microwave for about 30 - 60 seconds. You can also use hands for liquefying the butter. However, this needs some practice, therefore, it’s better to go with microwave.
- After applying butter, you need to tie your hair. More shea butter or coconut oil can be added during twisting.
- Until all your hair are filled with shea butter, keep on repeating these steps. After you have applied the butter, leave it for about half an hour. Then wash your hair with water and apply hair conditioner.
Other benefits of shea butter
Some other benefits of shea butter have been mentioned below (4, 5, 6):
Stearic acids and linolenic acids are present in shea butter, which give healing properties to shea butter. When these fatty acids come in contact with alkali, they don’t go through the process of saponification (production of soap from fats). As shea butter is non-saponifiable, therefore, it has the ability of healing the skin. Shea butter is helpful against different skin conditions like rashes, scars, tanning, burns, insect bites, arthritis, muscle fatigue and stings.
Cinnamic acid present in shea butter gives it anti-inflammatory properties. Tumors are also prevented by the use of shea butter. Due to the anti-inflammatory properties of shea butter, different skin conditions are prevented.
3. Protection against sunlight
Protection against ultraviolent radiations of the sun, is provided by shea butter. Due to the nutrients and moisture present in shea butter, shea butter is considered helpful against after sun and winter care.
Shea butter also has anti-ageing properties in it.
7 benefits of shea butter
Due to shea butter, the production of collagen (main protein of the connective tissues) is increased. Premature wrinkles are controlled by shea butter due to the presence of vitamin A and E. Shea butter also increases the tone and elasticity of the skin.
5. Used as a baby care product
Raw shea butter is a natural moisturizer. Due to this, it can be used on soft and gentle skin and as a baby care product. It can be used for diaper rash and healing eczema on the skin of babies.
6. As a lip care product
Shea butter contains the nutrients and moisturizer in it, which are helpful for summer and winter seasons. It is helpful against cold and dry lips.
7. For massaging purpose
Shea butter can be used as a masseur. For applying shea butter, put it in small amount on the troublesome area and rub it. The massage sets at once, because the butter is applied in its liquid form. It is quite beneficial to massage with shea butter in summer.
Side effects of shea butter
There are many benefits of shea butter. You might be surprised to know that by the use of unrefined African shea butter, you won’t face any side effects. Having said this, you need to know that every shea butter isn’t created equally. There are some side effects in the low quality shea butter. A skin care specialist, Lynne Killey says, “During its preparation, shea butter undergoes a refining process. Many nutrients present in shea butter are lost, and many other chemicals are added. Due to this, the ingredients of shea butter become different from the original nut.”
Unlike unrefined shea butter, refined shea butter goes through a cycle of refining processes. To speed up the production process of shea butter, it is passed through a process which kills the natural components of the nut. Hexane is the chemical which is usually used for extracting shea butter. The problem with this is that, after extraction, some amount of hexane is left in the butter.
Some side effects for the body, caused by the hexane present in refined shea butter, are headaches, nausea, weakness, dizziness, abdominal pain, and unconsciousness. Remember that you may face one or a combination of these side effects. A study showed, that when hexane polluted shea butter was administered to live stock animals, it caused anemia in them. Another thing is important to mention here and it is that hexane compounds are carcinogens (substances or radiations involved in causing cancer). Hexane is also harmful for the environment, as it causes pollution and damage to the ozone layer, during its recycling process.
Due to the presence of hexane, shea butter poses a threat to the health and environment. Other than hexane, other ingredients are also added during the refining process of shea butter. For example, sodium hydroxide and calcium carbonate are added to the shea butter, in order to minimize the nutty smell of the butter. Both of these compounds pose a threat to the health and general well-being. Shea butter is also passed through a chemical filter, where it undergoes the process of bleaching. Some carcinogens like BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) and BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) are added to the shea butter to enhance the overall life time of the butter.
So, the bottom line is that after the process of refining, important proteins, nutrients, minerals and fatty acids are removed from the shea butter, and harmful chemicals are added. So, the consumers should go for raw shea butter, rather than refined shea butter. Raw shea butter is richer in phyto-nutrients, vitamins and absorbing ultraviolent radiations. However, it takes effort to find purely raw shea butter. The American Shea Butter institute has this to say, “Most people prefer refined shea butter over raw shea butter, due to its cost effectiveness and better smell. These people don’t know what’s happening inside. Refined shea butter, although may look good on the surface, but it contains carcinogens and ultraviolent radiations in it, which make it harmful for the health. Moreover, after the process of refining, shea butter loses much of its healing properties. Consumers should, therefore, prefer raw shea butter over refined shea butter.”
Now the question arises that how does a person make sure whether the shea butter is raw. Raw shea butter has a nut-like smell and creamy texture. In case the shea butter you have has a fragrant smell or no smell at all, then it is refined shea butter. A major difference between refined shea butter and raw shea butter is that refined shea butter has the life of maximum two years, whereas raw shea butter has a longer life period.
How to store shea butter?
Now let us see how to store shea butter. You shouldn’t refrigerate shea butter. It might be difficult to use shea butter, once it is refrigerated. Shea butter maintains all its properties at room temperature, for about two to three years. However, after this time period, it might lose its touch. In general, shea butter should be kept at a cool and moist place.
Is shea butter good for your hair or not?
Shea butter is said to have various benefits for your hair. Not only it may make your hair grow faster, but it may also give it a nicer and healthier look.
In addition to hair benefits shea butter also has some anti-inflammatory properties and can be used in dermatology (for instance for treatment of eczema).
On the other hand you should understand that there is no real scientific evidence confirming the benefits of shea butter for hair and all the claims and benefits are purely anectodal.
There are also some risks associated with shea butter use in hair care, such as the risk of making your hair dry and risks associated with poor quality of shea butter (e.g. some products are better than others and you should really be careful and buy only proven and natural products). Also do not use old shea butter as the older the butter is the less effects if will have.
So you may try shea butter for your hair but do not expect miracles and never use it on dry hair.
And if you want to stay on the safe side, ask your doctor for advice.