In Africa shea butter is not only used as a moisturizer, but for cooking as well.
Unrefined shea butter, also referred to as karite butter, is extracted from the karite tree found on the African continent. Karite trees do not produce fruit until they have at least 25 years of growth and have an average lifespan of 300 years. The shea butter is extracted from the seed kernel of the karite tree and is renowned for its healing and moisturizing properties.
There are two types of unrefined shea butter: West African and East African. West African shea butter is called Butyrospermum Parkii and is harder to the touch than East African shea butter. East African shea butter, or Vitellaria Nilotica, is the smoother, creamier shea butter soft to the touch. East African shea butter is preferred for use in moisturizing creams and beauty products. Because of civil conflict and low production levels, however, East African shea butter is less common than West African shea butter.
Both East and West African shea butter contain Vitamin A, cinnamic acid, phytosterols, triterpenes, karitene, fatty acids and phenolics. The most important of these properties are the fatty acids that create the high fat content of the butter. According to agbangakarite.com, shea butter contains five separate fats: palmitic, stearic, oleic, linoleic and arachidic. The stearic fatty acid creates the butter's solidity, and the oleic fatty acid gives the shea its softness.
The Cornell University Nanobiotechnology Center explains that shea butter contains natural latex and may cause a problem for those suffering from latex allergies.
According to research by the International Institute of the University of California Los Angeles, titled "African Women, Shea Butter and Globalization," the growing demand for shea butter in the West is evident in the West African country, Burkina Faso, where karit now ranks third in exports. Africans have long known the benefits of shea butter. It is the African woman's job to transform shea nuts into shea butter, which is extremely physically intensive work and can take many days to complete.
Beyond its use as a moisturizer, shea butter is an important component in the African diet. African women still use shea butter as cooking and lamp oil. It is used as a coca substitute in making chocolate. In Europe, shea butter is utilized in the manufacturing of medicinal drugs and cosmetics, including moisturizers.
Used in a number of hair and skincare products (moisturizers, lip balm, sunscreens, wrinkle creams, shampoo), unrefined shea butter soothes cracked skin, reduces skin irritations such as diaper rash and improves the general look and moisture of healthy skin. Massaged into the scalp to moisturize hair and used as a daily skin lubricant, unrefined shea butter is a natural product with numerous benefits. For centuries, African women have utilized the nut oil to protect their skin against the unforgiving African sun. The seed of the karite tree has a fat content of 50 percent, making it extremely rich and thick.
The properties of shea butter form a protective barrier on the skin, reducing the amount of water loss. Many pregnant women prefer shea butter to cocoa butter in the treatment of stretch marks.
According to the American Shea Butter Institute, there are a number of health conditions treatable or eased with the use of shea butter, including:
Shea butter contains both vitamins A and E. Vitamin A is known for its anti-aging properties and vitamin E is thought to improve the health of skin.
Because unrefined shea butter is extracted by hand and left in its natural state, it provides consumers the purest and highest quality of product. Refined shea butter still helps heal skin and skin afflictions but, due to the chemicals used in the refining process, can hardly be called natural. The refining process reduces the effects of the shea butter, diminishing natural nutrition content.
Refined shea butter is produced using the petroleum solvent hexane. Boiled to 400 degrees or more, the butter oil is then bleached and given an artificial scent. The process creates refined white and odorless shea butter, stripped of much of its natural benefits from the extreme heating.
Both refined and unrefined shea butter comes in a number of qualities. According to the ProKaritProject, shea butter comes in different qualities due to the inconsistent harvesting in different regions of the African continent. For consumers to understand the differences between the types of shea butter available on the market, a standard grading system had to be created. The highest grade of shea butter is unrefined grade A, which is also the most expensive. Lower grades are used to make candles and soaps. The lowest grade of shea butter on the market is F, which still has moisturizing properties but has very little to no healing benefit.