Shea Lotion Basics

Beauty treatment. Shea butter (skin cream made from african shea nuts) in bamboo wooden bowl
Unusual Skin Care Ingredients Image Gallery Shea butter is an emollient and anti-inflammatory that contains fatty acids and vitamins A, E and K. See more pictures of unusual skin care ingredients.
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Shea butter can be used as a hair conditioner or to fight dandruff. It can be used as a daily moisturizer, and it can be used to soothe burns and minimize scarring. It's even edible -- it's often used in chocolate as a substitute for cocoa butter [source: Karité]. Shea -- whether called a butter or lotion -- is often touted as a miracle ingredient in cosmetics and lotions. Its use in cosmetics worldwide is relatively new, but shea butter has been widely used in parts of Africa for centuries -- for moisturizing, healing and cooking [source: Cherry].

Shea butter comes from a tree that's indigenous to sub-Saharan West Africa. It's an excellent emollient and anti-inflammatory that's rich in fatty acids and vitamins A, E and K [source: Elias]. These vitamins and nutrients are essential to healthy skin because they do the following:


  • Vitamin A: Studies show that vitamin A reduces lines and wrinkles, controls acne and provides some psoriasis relief.
  • Vitamin E: Applying vitamin E to skin helps repair sun damage, reduce wrinkles and improve skin texture.
  • Vitamin K: Topical vitamin K reduces bruises, spider veins and wrinkles.
  • Fatty acids: If your skin is dry, inflamed or prone to whiteheads and blackheads, your skin may lack essential fatty acids. Without an adequate supply of these nutrients, skin can produce a more irritating form of sebum, or oil, that can cause acne and skin irritation [source: Bouchez].

Shea butter creation is a process that's been passed down from one generation of African women to the next. Read on to learn more about this demanding work.


What Is Shea Butter?

Shea butter is a vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the shea tree, a tree native to 18 countries in West Africa that's difficult to cultivate [source: Karité]. Natural shea butter is a caramel color, and it has a smooth texture and a unique scent.

The shea tree doesn't bear fruit until it's 15 to 20 years old, and the tree can live up to 200 years [source: Worldwide Gourmet]. Harvesting and processing the tree's fruit is challenging, both in terms of physical demands and the time necessary to process the fruit. It takes one woman working eight to 10 hours to convert about 22 pounds of shea nuts into butter. While it's possible to process shea through mechanical or chemical methods, shea butter is often made in the traditional manner [source: Elias].


Between June and September, women gather fruit that's fallen to the ground and carry it to their homes in baskets on their heads. The pulp is removed and the nuts are boiled or left to dry in the sun so they don't germinate. The next steps are to roast, crush and pound the seeds, usually with a mortar and pestle. The women then add water to the seeds and knead and beat the mixture into a paste. As foam floats to the surface, it's washed several times to get rid of impurities, and it becomes progressively lighter with each washing. Finally, the concoction is boiled and the top is skimmed off -- this top layer is the prized shea butter [source: 10,000 Villages].

Read on to learn more about shea butter and its uses.


Using Shea Lotion

Shea butter is often used as an emollient and an anti-inflammatory in a variety of skin care products. It's uses include:

  • Relief from minor burns and wounds: Shea butter soothes damaged skin and helps prevent it from drying and flaking [source: Karité].
  • Prevention of stretch marks: Doctors recommend moisturizing the breasts, hips, stomach and thighs with shea butter three to four times a day to help prevent stretch marks during pregnancy. Keeping skin moisturized allows it to be pliant and more easily stretched [source: Robertson].
  • Conditioning hair and scalp: Shampoos and conditioners that contain shea butter are especially moisturizing for dry hair and scalps, and it can help treat dandruff [source: Goins].
  • Moisturizing skin and minimizing scars and wrinkles: While shea butter can't reverse sun damage or increase collagen production, it can make skin appear plumper and more youthful because of its intensive moisturizing properties [source: Boucehz].

For more information on shea lotion and its uses, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bouchez, Colette. "Anti-aging Treatments for Your Hands." (Accessed 10/9/09)
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Nutrients for Healthy Skin: Inside and Out." (Accessed 10/9/09)
  • Cherry, Robin. "In a Nutshell." Lexus Magazine. 10/2007. (Accessed 9/10/09)
  • Elias, Marlene, and Judith Carney. "African Shea Butter: A Feminized Subsidy From Nature." Africa. Winter 2007 (Accessed 9/09/09);col1
  • Elias, Marlene, and Judith Carney. "African Women, Shea Butter, and Globalization." UCLA African Studies Center. 2009. (Accessed 9/10/09)
  • Goins, Liesa. "Shampoo, Shampoo Everywhere -- But Which One's Right For Your Hair?" (Accessed 10/9/09)
  • Karité. Center for International Studies and Cooperation. (Accessed 9/10/09)
  • Robertson, Annabelle. "Stretch Marks Getting Under Your Skin?" (Accessed 10/9/09)
  • Worldwide Gourmet. "Shea Butter." (Accessed on 9/10/09)
  • Wasserman, Susan, M.D. and Dr. Wade Watson. "Ask the Allergists." Allergic Living. 6/23/09. (Accessed 9/10/09)
  • "Women's Gold": The Making of Shea Butter." Ten Thousand Villages. (Accessed 9/10/09)