How Is Shea Butter Used in Natural Beauty and Is It Sustainable?

Shea butter and nuts on a wooden board, copy space.
OlgaLarionova / Getty Images

Shea butter is an ivory-colored fat that is extracted from the nut of a shea tree, originally from the Sahel region of western Africa. You might recognize it as a common ingredient in your favorite moisturizers, hair conditioners, masks, and other natural beauty treatments.

What exactly are the beauty benefits of this natural extract and is its widely popular usage sustainable and ethical?

How Can Shea Butter Be Used in Beauty Products?

Perhaps most commonly used in skin care, shea butter offers a number of benefits when used topically in beauty routines thanks to its moisturizing properties and abundance of vitamins.

For starters, this oil is recognized for its deep anti-inflammatory properties, which can help calm red or inflamed skin. The vitamins and nutrients in shea butter also make it quite useful to help reduce the appearance of scars and soothe burns, insect bites, and peeling skin, among other skin ailments.

Thanks to the antioxidants present in shea butter, it has also gained popularity as an ingredient that helps keep skin looking fresh and youthful.

Due to its moisturizing properties, shea butter is a fantastic base for lotions and creams. The rich tree nut oils that are found in shea butter are absorbed by the skin, creating a soft barrier that seals in moisture. This moisturizing effect can last for several hours, leaving your hands, feet, and entire body feeling soft and silky throughout the day.

The best part? Shea is deeply moisturizing without clogging your pores, which is an unfortunate side effect of other natural oils like coconut oil.

Shea butter can also be used in hair products, including conditioning treatments for dry hair. Rich in essential fatty acids and vitamins A and E, shea butter is very nourishing for some types of hair. When used as part of your regular hair care routine, shea can help seal in moisture, leading to soft, shiny locks that are less likely to break.

This nut butter also helps prevent frizz and split ends. Shea butter is particularly useful for curly hair. For those with thinner hair that is prone to grease, shea butter might be too heavy and best avoided.

Products Containing Shea Butter

  • Body lotions and butters
  • Facial creams
  • Salves
  • Hair conditioners
  • Lip balms
  • Natural deodorant
  • After-shave moisturizers

How Is Shea Butter Made?

Senufo women prepairing shea butter in a traditional karité factory, Savanes district, Tcheregnimin, Ivory Coast...

Corbis / Getty Images

Shea butter is made from the oil that is extracted from nuts that grow on the shea tree. This tree is found in tropical Central and West Africa, abundant in countries including Uganda, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Kenya.

There is a multi-step process involved in getting a soothing butter from the original nut that grows on the tree. The process starts with boiling nuts in order to make the shells easier to break. Once the nuts are cooled, they are removed from their shells. Typically done by hand, this extraction can be a time-consuming process.

The seeds are cracked and roasted and then beaten with water, which helps the seeds release their rich, nourishing fats. The extracts from the seeds are boiled, skimmed, and cooled, which results in the shea butter that the world is familiar with and loves.

Treehugger Tip

When buying shea butter on its own, make sure to choose raw, unrefined butter. This is the highest quality shea butter that offers the most benefits as it is still rich in all of its original nutrients.

Can Shea Butter Be Sourced Ethically?

Shea seeds in the hands
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Sometimes referred to as "women's gold" due to its golden color and the economic opportunities it provides, shea butter plays an important role in local economies in West Africa. According to the Global Shea Alliance, 16 million women in rural communities are in charge of collecting 800,000 tons of shea fruit and kernels for processing.

A number of fair trade organizations have stepped in to create models that guarantee a minimum price to producers. For example, the Global Shea Alliance (GSA) was established in an effort to promote equality and ethics in the ever-growing shea industry.

Worldwide Shea Craze

The shea market has increased over 600% over the last 20 years. About 90% of the product is used by the food industry, while the cosmetics and beauty industry accounts for 10% of shea consumption.

Cooperatives are also being formed in local communities as a way to organize labor. As there is a middle man working between the cooperatives and the international market, knowledge and education programs are imperative to ensure women have all the necessary information that will enable their negotiation power to gain fair prices for their goods.

Environmental Impact of Shea Butter

Shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) with fruit

Florian Kopp / Getty Images

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describes the shea value chain as a "key pro-poor carbon-fixing engine in West Africa." According to the organization's research, non-wood forest products including shea "play a fundamental role in ensuring social equality and cultural stability."

Shea trees grow naturally in agroforestry landscapes, coexisting harmoniously with crops on small farms and parklands across 21 African nations. Traditional hand-harvesting techniques do not harm the tree or the surrounding ecosystem, and with a lifespan of 200 to 300 years, shea forests are quite effective carbon sinks.

According to FAO research, "preliminary assessment results found that shea has an enormous potential to mitigate climate change in West Africa. At present, the shea value chain fixes 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 every year. Relative to production volumes, every ton of shea kernels produced has a negative carbon footprint of 1.04 tonnes of CO2."

How to Buy Ethically Sourced Shea Butter

When purchasing shea products around the world, look for fair trade certified beauty brands and goods to ensure you are contributing to positive employment and fair distribution of income.

The Global Shea Alliance incorporates 560 members in 35 countries committed to respectful and fair business practices in the shea industry. The list of affiliated brands and organizations can be found in GSA's membership database.

Fair trade certifications offer some assurance to customers that the shea butter in their beauty products has undergone evaluations that guarantee fair trade standards. Search for specific brands and companies using the different organizations' membership lists and directories:

Supporting ethical production and fair payment cooperatives encourages transparency and equity in a major industry that also helps ensure your beauty routines don't come at the cost of others' livelihoods.

View Article Sources
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  2. Lin, Tzu-Kai et al. "Anti-Inflammatory And Skin Barrier Repair Effects Of Topical Application Of Some Plant Oils." International Journal Of Molecular Sciences, vol 19, no. 1, 2017, p. 70, doi:10.3390/ijms19010070

  3. Maanikuu, Patrick Muotono Izideen and Kenan Peker. “Medicinal and Nutritional Benefits from the Shea Tree- (Vitellaria Paradoxa).” Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Healthcare, vol. 7, no. 22, 2017, pp. 51-57.

  4. "Industry Overview." Global Shea Alliance.

  5. Bockel, L., Veyrier, M., Gopal, P., Adu, A. and Ouedraogo, A. "Shea value chain as a key pro-poor carbon fixing engine in West Africa." Accra, 2020, FAO and Global Shea Alliance.