The Karite, or Shea, tree (Vitellaria paradoxa,) grows wild throughout West Africa and produces plum like fruits when it reaches about 25 years of age. The edible Karite nut inside the fruit houses 1-3 seeds from which the creamy Shea Butter is produced. Traditionally used in cooking, for medicinal purposes and for babies and the elderly, Shea Butter is known as “women’s gold” in Africa pharmacology.
Raw, unrefined Shea Butter is yellow to ivory in colour with a slight nutty smell. It is solid at room temperature but liquefies on contact with the skin. Shea Butter is a remarkably complex oil with high levels of stearic and oleic fatty acids as well as lesser quantities of linoleic and palmitic acids, with a smidgen of linolenic and arachidic acids. Shea Butter is unique in that the non-saponifiable component, where the biological healing properties lie, is unusually large. The non-saponifiable fraction of other vegetable oils is less than 1% but in Shea Butter it can range from 5 – 17% in the unrefined state. Refined Shea Butter, however, is lacking in valuable nutrients.
Shea Butter contains a number of phenols including gallic acid, catechin, epicatechin, epicatechin gallate, gallocatechin and epigallocatechin gallate as well as quercetin and trans-cinnamic acid. It also contains keratin, allantoin, resinous esters, vitamins A, E and F and an array of healing phytonutrients and antioxidants.
Shea Butter is anti-inflammatory, disinfecting and antimicrobial. It is thought that the cinnamates in Shea butter inhibit enzymes that contribute to the inflammatory response. It is highly moisturising, nourishing and healing to skin, helping to balance uneven skin tone and quench free radicals. The non-saponifiable fatty acids in Shea Butter promote cellular growth, helping to restore damaged skin by rejuvenating skin cells. It also resembles vernix, the naturally occurring biofilm covering the skin of new-borns. It is emollient and humectant and the keratin helps maintain elasticity of hair and skin.
Shea Butter helps restore hair’s natural shine and improves its manageability and can protect it from heat and chemical damage.
Used therapeutically, Shea Butter prevents and or heals dry, cracking skin, bed sores, burns, sun burn, frost bite, rashes, stretch marks, allergies, insect bites, psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, superficial wounds and rough or irritated skin, especially on the feet and elbows. In massage, it has great “slip” and penetration and is soothing for painful joints and muscles so good for arthritis and rheumatism.
It is not only useful for softening and firming aging skin by reducing wrinkles and fine lines, but it is also good for other skin types, including the delicate skin of infants and invalids and of those with skin sensitivities. Shea Butter is wonderful for dry, brittle hair and for dry scalps and is an ingredient in conditioners, moisturisers, lip balms and medicinal ointments. Warm Shea Butter can ease a sore throat.
African women use Shea Butter for cooking but its use in the rest of the world seems confined to topical uses in recipes for soaps, scrubs, creams and cosmetics.