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.