By M. Pobeda and L .Sousselier*
For centuries, Shea
butter has been used traditionally on the African continent. Citing its
outstanding properties, cosmeticians, too, have utilized Shea butter for
decades. Ground-breaking data produced integrating the latest industry trends
now revives the interest of this amazing “ecologically correct”
Drenched in Culture
Shea butter is completely enmeshed with the history and culture of the wooded
Savannah between Senegal and Nigeria. It is the link between the gathering
civilization and agriculture: a product that grows and is harvested in the wild,
and is processed for yearlong conservation.
Africa's relationship with Shea butter is intimate in nature. The funeral
beds of late kings are carved in the noble wood of an old Shea tree.
Shea butter has always served as a staple of African pharmacology. It acts as
an effective decongestant, for example. Used for its draining and
anti-inflammatory properties, it is soothing in sprains and strains, and is a
widely used anti-arthritic treatment. This wonderful healing agent is also used
for accelerating the cicatrization of the umbilical cord and after a
Shea butter is exceptionally versatile, as expressed in the usage of its
by-products: for cooking (as a sauce or for frying), for lamp fuel, and as an
insulating material for housing..
Something to Write Home
Almost all historical references we have from pre-19th century Africa mention
Shea butter. Even as early as Cleopatra's Egypt, there is mention of caravans
bearing clay jars of the valuable Shea butter for cosmetic uses.
Many of history's great travelers recorded their observations about Africa's
culture and her use of Shea butter. Ibn Batouta was a 14th century historian and
ambassador entrusted by the Morocco sultan with a diplomatic mission at the
court of Mali. He traveled through West Africa in 1348 and reported the various
uses of Shea butter.
The first European to travel the Niger River was the Scot Mungo Park, who was
also the first to describe the botanical characteristics of the Shea tree, and
the various applications of the “butter” derived from
It is, however, mostly for skin care that Shea butter is hailed for its
protecting and emollient properties. Many local soap manufacturers use Shea
butter as a raw material. Protecting the skin and the hair from the harsh
African climate is vital, and this natural product does so beautifully. Newborn
babies are welcomed by a vigorous massage with Shea butter to protect them from
the extreme weather.
As early as 1940, many scientific observations verified that, among the
populations using Shea butter, the occurrence of skin diseases was scarce and
the population's skin was exceptionally supple and smooth.
GCI April 1999
A hardy tree not unlike the oak, the Shea tree (Butyrospermum parkii Kotsch.)
grows up to 15 to 20 meters high. It usually lives for a couple of centuries,
covering vast areas. The dark green foliage is dense during the rainy season.
The deciduous leaves are regenerated at the same time as they fall, so the Shea
tree never looks depleted. The bark resists quite well to the Savannah fires due
to its thickness.
Shea tree is the only Sapotacea on the dry soils of the African Savannah.
Odoriferous brownish flowers bloom from December to March. Shea fruit resembles
a small avocado with flavorful pulp. The central kernel yields the butter, which
represents half of its content. Each mature tree bears 15 to 20 kilos of
Shea tree has many names in Africa: it is called karité in Wolof, karé or
kolo in Peuhl and sé in Bambara (which gave shea in English).
Market for Change
For agricultural reasons, planting Shea trees in regions other than
continental Africa is not possible. Moreover, industrially, the market is
saturated with butters extracted by using the solvent hexane.
Today, however, “ecologically correct” products are highly attractive. The
demand for natural products and traditional methods modifies today's production
methods. Using Shea butter obtained by traditional craft methods or by
mechanical crushing without chemical solvents is no longer optional.
“Green Belt” is an NGO active in Western Africa for promoting
reforestation. It recognizes only environmentally sound products. Green Belt has
certified mechanically crushed Shea butter, making it the optimal choice among
all of today's Shea butters.
Cosmetic chemists have been using Shea butter for more than 20 years. Some
may consider it just as they consider many lipids: as a good emollient. We
believe it is much more.
SHEA BUTTER: EMOLLIENT OR ACTIVE
A thorough study has been published in a French Ph. D. thesis in pharmacy by
F. Renard. In it, 2 clinical studies are described:
A clinical study has been performed on 30 volunteers aged 29 to 82. Shea
butter was applied by a daily massage as a balm for 4 to 8 months.
Various skin conditions have shown major improvements: Epidermis
aspect: in a few weeks, the rough aspect of a dull - grayish complexion was
eliminated, giving way to a smoother, clearer skin.
“thinning” for better skin texture: a regenerating effect is observed
probably related to the action of the unsaponifiables that are known to
reactivate collagen synthesis.
Wrinkles from photoaging due to
prolonged sun exposure are visibly diminished in half of the
Shea butter proves to be a valuable active for diminishing various aging
Protecting and regenerating treatment
Another clinical study was performed for studying dry, delicate or aging
skin. 49 volunteers applied twice a day either 15% or pure shea butter. Both
products lead to similar results:
A cicatrizing action was observed in
70% of cases concerning hand dermatitis, sun burns and scars. A reduction in
wrinkles and an improvement of skin suppleness was obtained for 75%
of the volunteers.
Shea butter demonstrates regenerating properties that
target it towards photoaging prevention.
Other tests have been
performed for demonstrating additional benefits:
A cream containing 5% shea butter and a placebo cream are applied at the
beginning of the experiment (Poelman & al.) and reapplied on a daily basis
on the volar forearm of 10 volunteers. The results are the average of 10
measures of skin conductimetry differences between treated and untreated
Short-term moisturization is observed, it peaks after 1 hour and persists for
8 hours. For all subjects, a daily application maintains a very good
moisturization of the superficial layers of the
Shea butter is traditionally used for alleviating rheumatism, which suggest
an anti-inflammatory activity. This has been substantiated (Tella) in a study of
severe nasal congestion. Shea butter is tested on 33 volunteers against
conventional nasal drops containing xylomethazoline (as recommended in the
British Pharmacopoeia), a placebo and a control.
Nasal congestion is created by an edema that can be relieved by two
mechanisms: a vasoconstrictor or an anti-inflammatory. Only the second mechanism
applies for Shea butter that has never demonstrated any vasoconstricting
Efficient release of active ingredients
This study (Konning) has been conducted on ointments and demonstrates that
Shea butter releases faster salicylic acid crystals. 75º crystals of salicylic
acid are incorporated in the ointment (75 % shea butter -15% arachid oil and 10%
paraffin). A petri dish is filled with agar containing ferric chloride. A hole
is cut at the center and filled with the ointment. When salicylic acid diffuses
it gives a color reaction and the color zone diameter provides an easy
measurement of salicylic acid release. Incorporating active ingredients in Shea
butter may prove a valuable alternative for ensuring their efficient release on
What is shea butter?
It is a slightly ivory granulated butter consisting mostly of triglycerides
(which include a fair amount of linoleic acid) and unsaponifiables: mostly:
Karisterols (± spinasterol - î7 stigmastenol) - Parkeol - Lupeol -
Butyrospermol- Katitene and cinnamic esters.
Shea butter helps
-protect skin against climate and UV aggressions
-soothe irritated and chapped skin
-improve the release of polar active ingredients.
Due to its unique blend of unsaponifiables (with UV-B absorbing properties),
and essential fatty acid triglycerides, Shea butter is a prime active ingredient
for Cosmetics. It leaves a pleasant smooth feeling to the skin while improving
its softness. Shea butter is particularly recommended in oil free formulations,
it has a good spreadability and quick rub-in properties.
Shea butter is a versatile active ingredient bearing excellent anti-aging,
soothing, and moisturizing properties. Its qualities defy that of any
conventional lipid. Introducing environmentally sound Shea butter in a cosmetic
product maximizes its potential in the current “ecologically sensitive” market
and structures it for optimal growth.
F Renard: Thése de doctorat en Pharmacie - Bordeaux 1990 Poelman, Richard et
Machado : Les Nouvelles Dermatologiques 1988 7 (1) 78-79 A.Tella : Br. J. Clin.
Pharmac. 1979 7, 495- 497 GH. Konning, HC. Mittal : Journal of Pharmaceutical
sciences 1978 67 (3) 374-376