Read The Label: All Of Your Shea Butter Questions Answered

Looking for an all-natural way to keep your skin hydrated all day long? Here’s what you need to know about shea butter – skincare’s most underrated ingredient.
Written by Témi Adebowale
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Read The Label: All Of Your Shea Butter Questions AnsweredPixel-Shot/Shutterstock

Feel like you need a dictionary every time you look at the ingredient list of a beauty product? Still unsure of the difference between retinol and retinoids? What about the unique benefits of vitamins B, C, and E? Are alpha and beta hydroxy acids the same thing? The skincare aisle can be overwhelming, but you don’t need a PhD in cosmetic chemistry to navigate it. With expert help, The AEDITION is demystifying and simplifying the beauty industry — one label at a time.

When you think of treating dry skin, what skincare ingredients come to mind? If shea butter is at the top of your list, there's a good reason for it. The gentle yet deeply nourishing ingredient is found in many moisturizing creams and products thanks to its ability to tackle everything from skin conditions (think: eczema) to aesthetic concerns (i.e. uneven skin texture). Thanks to its versatility, shea butter is likely already in your vanity – but do you know just how beneficial the botanical really is? In order to learn more about the wonder ingredient, we’re asking skincare experts for their take.

What Is Shea Butter?

Shea butter is a fat that is extracted from the nut of the vitellaria paradoxa (a.k.a. karite or shea tree), which is found in many countries across the African continent, including Ghana, Benin, Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Uganda. It’s extracted from the nut of the tree through crushing, roasting, and grinding and then separated from the resulting paste by kneading and mixing with water.

Shea butter has been used for centuries as a medicine, lotion, cooking oil, decongestant, waterproofing wax, and wood treatment (to name a few). In today’s beauty and personal care, the butter is used in its natural state or as part of a larger formula. Finding the right shea butter product will depend on your preferences and skincare routine. Shea butter on its own takes the form of a rich, balm-like moisturizer. When formulated with other ingredients – often oils and butters like coconut, avocado, and cocoa – it can be found in creams, lotions, soaps, conditioners, and more.

The Benefits of Shea Butter in Skincare

Shea butter is so valuable to the skin because it’s “rich in triglycerides with multiple fatty acids, including oleic, stearic, linoleic, and palmitic fatty acids,” says Krupa Koestline, clean cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants. It’s also packed with vitamins (specifically, vitamin A, vitamin D, and vitamin E) and skin barrier-boosting allantoin.

Shea Butter Skincare Benefits Infographic

If you’re wondering why shea butter works so well as a moisturizer, Koestline points out that it is an emollient due to its high lipid content. “It helps add lipids back into your skin barrier, it has good water-binding properties, and it also absorbs rapidly into the skin,” she explains. “It helps keep the skin moisturized for a long time.” And, while you wouldn’t consider shea butter an ‘anti-aging’ ingredient, per say, the hydrating benefits can have a smoothing and plumping effect on crepey or wrinkled complexions. The antioxidant-rich butter can also improve skin tone and texture.

The Best Candidates for Shea Butter

Shea butter is a good idea for pretty much anyone who is looking for lasting moisture, but people with dry skin will benefit the most from the hydrator. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, Koestline says that shea butter can be used to treat or soothe certain skin conditions. “It’s shown to help improve eczema and help speed up wound healing — but only when it’s been refined,” she notes. During pregnancy, shea butter can be used to hydrate and relieve the itchiness that accompanies expanding skin, which, in turn, can help prevent stretch marks from forming.

Who isn’t a candidate for shea butter? People with oily skin may want to avoid using the botanical on the face and instead focus on the body. Furthermore, it is possible that those with tree nut allergies may have a reaction to products with shea butter. In such cases, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before introducing the ingredient. A patch test may also be helpful.

How to Add Shea Butter To Your Skincare Routine

Shea butter isn’t known to negatively interact with any other ingredients, and it doesn’t affect sun sensitivity (although you should be wearing sunscreen regardless!). This means that you can slide shea butter into any part of your skincare or body care routine.

If you choose to try shea butter in its natural form, it should be used as your final moisturizing step. RA Cosmetics has a 100 percent natural, unrefined shea product from Ghana that I personally vouch for, while Bulk Apothecary offers refined versions. Shea butter is also found in moisturizers like the SheaMoisture Raw Shea Butter Body Lotion, Karité Hand Cream, Nessa Body Saviour, and Paula’s Choice Skin Restoring Moisturizer with SPF 50.

You can also look to products like the Kopari Super Suds Soap Bar for your shea butter fix, as it works especially well for those who deal with dryness from head to toe and want to cleanse without further stripping their skin. Tata Harper’s Bio-Barrier Serum, meanwhile, uses shea butter, evening primrose oil, and squalane to smooth skin and minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. There are also a number of lip balms (hi, Public Goods) and even deodorants (here’s looking at you, Hello) that contain shea butter.

The world is really your oyster here!

The Takeaway

Whether you use it alone or as part of a larger formula, shea butter is one of the most nourishing ingredients around. It has many historical uses that are still in practice today (think: treating wood, protecting cuts, and as a cooking oil), but it’s most commonly used as a moisturizer thanks to its high lipid and fatty acid content. Shea butter plays well with others, which means it can be added to any part of your routine during which you wish to banish dry skin.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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TÉMI ADEBOWALEis an editor at AEDIT.

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