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These days shea butter is all the rage. You have probably spotted shea butter as a key ingredient in many types of shampoo, conditioners, hot oil treatments, soaps, lotions and creams. This article explores shea, what it is, where it comes from and how curly topped people can reap the benefits of this unique African product.

The Origin of Shea

The shea tree is a member of the Sapotaceae family Vitellaria parasoxa C.F. Gaertin., formerly called Butryrosperum paradoxum. Shea trees are found exclusively in the African Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara Desert. Shea tree is native to Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Togo and Uganda where it is distributed in parklands, dry savannas and forests. Shea trees grow between 150-200 years. The nut of Vitellaria pradoxa is almost 50% fat.

Shea butter is one of numerous non-timber forest products that make significant contributions to rural African societies. Shea butter, known locally as 'karite' in the Dioula language, is also called Women’s Gold because it brings women significant income. Shea butter has been traded as a commodity at least as early as the 14th century. Today shea butter is the third highest export product in Burkina Faso. It is one of few economic commodities under women’s control in Sahelian Africa. The trees have been tenderly cared for by women farmers and their children for hundreds of years, yet with the steady rise in popularity of shea butter in international markets some concerns have arisen. Agroforestry and environmental organizations fear over-harvesting of shea nuts could contribute to land degradation, eventually leading to desertification. This is one of the reasons I also advocate use of alternative butters such as mango butter, which is almost identical in efficacy and usage.

While in the west we utilize shea almost exclusively in cosmetics, in Africa it has diverse uses. For the Mossi people of Burkina Faso, shea butter is the sole source of dietary fat. Groups in Burkina Faso and elsewhere use shea to make soap, healing balms, cosmetics, candles, lamp oil and waterproofing putty for housing. Shea wood is used for creating tools, flooring, joinery, chairs, utensils and mortar and pestles. The wood also creates a fierce heat and can be prepared as a substitute for kerosene, yet the trees' destruction for fuel is discouraged because of its more prominent medicinal uses and economic contribution to African villages. The root and bark are used medicinally.
Many types of imported chocolates contain shea. Shea butter is exported to Japan and Europe to enhance pastry dough pliability and to enrich chocolate recipes. (Shea tastes buttery and nutty just like it smells, sort of like almond paste. Shea doesn't have a lingering taste and takes on the flavor of other ingredients that is why it is probably so popular as a food additive.)

In Africa and around the world shea butter is utilized for its ability to soothe children’s skin, soften rough skin, protect against sunburn, chapping, irritation, ulcers and rheumatism.

The Making of Shea Butter

Creating shea butter from nuts is a monumental, labor-intensive task, involving huge amounts of water and wood, as it is made on an open wood fire. Along with the assistance of their children, West African women almost exclusively run the production of shea butter processing. Manufacture takes place during the rainy season. Preparation takes several days. Nuts are collected; boiled; sun dried; hand shelled; roasted and then crushed with a mortar and pestle. Water is added and a paste is formed. Several women knead and beat the paste in a pot until a skim floats to the surface. The fat is cleansed repeatedly, yielding white foam. The foam is boiled for several hours. The top layer is skimmed once more and this yields the white shea butter we commonly use.

Golden Shea is called ‘women’s gold’ because of the economic benefits woman’s harvesting work brings communities. Recently, I had the opportunity to try a lovely shea with a golden color imported by African Shea Butter Company (Terra Organics). I enjoy the golden shea butter immensely because it retains the smells of the open wood fires on which it is created in Africa.

A huge drawback to botanical products and natural cosmetics is the connection to people across the globe through plants. Shea butter is a way that all of us can make connections to our sisters in Africa, possibly making a positive impact on certain aspects of village life. Delving into a jar of golden shea can spiritually transport the user back to the African village in which shea butter was processed.

Using Shea Butter

Shea butter is remarkably high in unsaponifiables—up to 11% (this varies), giving natural UV protection. This is one of the reasons it is beloved by Africans whose skin and hair is almost constantly exposed to sunny and sometimes harsh weather conditions. The UV protection is useful elsewhere as well. Having some UV protection enables our hair to retain its natural vibrancy, color treatments and softness.

The emollient, (softening) quality of shea butter makes it useful for hair and body care, as it is easily and quickly absorbed when applied topically. Shea butter is very dense and may be too heavy for oily or certain types of hair. Hair that is thin yet curly or wavy hair may become weighed down from shea. For those enthralled by its benefits who would still like to try it even though they have a lighter-textured hair I recommend using the shea butter as a hot oil treatment (see below) followed by an astringent rinse of 1 part apple cider vinegar to 3 parts water. People who wear their hair in locs and use shea as a pomade will also find periodic astringent cleansing useful if they want to avoid oily build up that may occur. Oily build-up on locs weighs them down and makes them attract unsightly lint, dust and dirt. For locs, perform the astringent rinse monthly or bi-monthly depending on how frequently you are using shea.

Hot Shea Butter Hair Treatment

Still, for most types of hair, shea is a good hot oil treatment, wherein it is melted, cooled slightly, then applied warm to the ends of hair where split ends occur and to the scalp. Using a clean (art) paintbrush is a handy way to apply the warmed oil to scalp. Part hair in sections as you work. Work quickly, before the shea solidifies. Put on a plastic cap; sit out in the sun, if possible, or under a dryer for at least 30 minutes. Alternatively, cover head with a bath towel to retain heat. After a half hour shampoo thoroughly and rinse. Shea adds shine and softens.

Hair Pomade

Africans have been using shea butter as a hair dressing for hundreds of years. This application is highly recommended for super thick, curly, kinky or dry hair. * Pomades are useful for those with naturally curly or wavy hair who want to smooth their hair for an elegant up-do like a chignon or French twist -- this works especially well on freshly shampooed, wet hair.

Scoop out about a teaspoon of shea butter in the palm of hands (use less for short hair and more for longer hair). Place your palms together. Rub gently, using your body heat to melt the shea butter. Once shea transforms from solid to liquid, rub on your hair. Then style as usual. This is fine as a weekly hair dressing pomade for gloss and shine.

Socio-economic Implications of Shea Butter

African Shea Butter Company (whose name is changing to Shea Terra Organics) and L’Occitane en Provenece make two of my favorite shea products lines. These two companies' products are created using a unique approach that not only improves the hair and skin but also impacts some rural African village economies. UNIFEM, an organization that helps women in developing countries, helped broker a deal between L’Occitane and a co-op run by African women. L’Occitane buys much of its shea butter directly from Union des groupements Kiswendsida (UGK) a large network of over one hundred shea producers. Without middlemen, all of the profit returns to the villages from which shea butter is harvested and manufactured. L’Occitane offers a full line of products featuring shea butter. These products are expensive, but the rich formulas allow the products to stretch a long way, making a smart beauty investment. The L’Occitane hair care line includes the Ultra Rich Hair Mask, which I have found to be very effective for helping damaged ends and dry hair. Milk Shampoo is moisturizing, useful for all hair types, particularly in winter or summer with the extremes of temperature experienced in many zones. Shea Hair Conditioner is good for normal hair and though there is heavy emphasis placed on ‘damaged’ hair, plenty of naturally curly tops have normal hair that does not need ‘intensive’ treatment. Then there is the Pure Shea Butter that makes an excellent hair pomade, end treatment and hot oil treatment. These products are available all over the country and internationally by mail order. Learn more here, including the story of the collaboration between the company and African women’s shea co-ops. African Shea Butter Company (Shea Terra Organics) is a woman-owned and operated mail order firm. I interviewed Tammie Umbel, founder and sole proprietor of this company. It is apparent that Umbel’s company’s main object is helping African people, through trade, using traditional methods, materials and indigenous plants. Umbel contracts with African soapmakers; wraps her soap line in traditionally dyed African fabric and indigenous papers. African Shea Butter Company sells a variety of high-grade shea butter products that will appeal to the do-it-yourself type as well as though who prefer to purchase prepared products for resale or personal use.Umbel is now reaching out to other women’s cooperatives that harvest and manufacture baobab and black seed oil, lemon grass and bourbon geranium essential oil. Quite impressively as well, the CEO is also the mother of ten children. Dealing with natural oils from Africa is her way of contributing to the well-being of not only her clientele but also of her very large and still growing family. This shop has a website.

In CurlMart

We're pleased to announce we've just added African Shea Butter Company's great shea butter to our collection.

Benefits of using shea butter

  • Prevents dryness of the skin & hair
  • Protects hair and skin from the sun
  • Soothes burns
  • Highly moisturizing for skin and hair
  • Improve skin softness and suppleness
  • Ideal for dry or sensitive skin
  • Prevents and treats scalp dryness
  • Provides good lubrication for the hair resulting in improved brilliance and manageability
  • Soothing, moisturizing and protecting effects
  • Anti-aging & anti-wrinkling properties

Making Your Own

To find more ways to use bulk shea, such as creating your own shampoo, conditioners and treatments, type in “shea” on the search engine of Donna Marie’s Hand Made Beauty Network or visit Makeyourowncosmetics.com. There are a plethora of suppliers and companies making shea butter products. Have fun exploring the numerous ways to enrich your curls using shea, a golden botanical that is also women’s gold.