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Shea Butter –The Facts May Surprise You

There are definitely facts that may surprise you when it comes to shea butter. The facts can mean the difference in using a shea butter product that is useful or not. The purpose in this post is to clarify and put the truth behind the claims you will read online.

What is Shea Butter?

Shea (Pronounced “Shee”) butter comes from the kernel of the shea tree fruit which grows wild in equatorial regions of central Africa. Due to the widespread growth of the tree covering many areas of East and West Africa, the tree is also known as Karité, Nku and the Bambuk Butter tree. The trees from West Africa are formally classified as Vitellaria paradoxa, Butyrospermum parkii and Butyrospermum paradoxa. The East African varieties are classified Vitellaria nilotica. Though similar in therapeutic properties, there are considerable differences between V. paradoxa and V. nilotica which we’ll discuss below.

The shea tree begins bearing fruit after 10 – 15 years and is maturity at around 20 years when it is in full fruit production.  Shea trees are deciduous and live up to 200 years and grow 15 meters or 49.2 feet tall. The fruit resembles a plum and is nutritious. Inside the fruit is the kernel which is similar in size to a pecan. The nut is extracted from the kernel to produce shea butter.

Most shea butters range in color from cream to medium yellow. They usually have a smokey nutty aroma. If the shea nuts have been allowed to ferment prior to processing, the odor may be quite pungent. The shelf life of shea butter is from 12 to 18 months. Be sure and check the expiration date, if it exists on any shea butter you buy. If there isn’t an expiration date, take a whiff. If it smells off, don’t buy it. You can extend the shelf life by refrigerating.

I think you will be awed at just how much effort goes into the process of making shea butter. I sure was. If you want to see for yourself, check out “Making Shea Butter. [1]

Difference between East and West African Shea butter

Unrefined grade A shea butter has an offensive odor to some people, others find it pleasant. The scent of shea butter coming from East Africa, primarily Uganda, has a milder scent. East African Shea butter also has a silkier texture and melts at a lower temperature. Some vendors state that the East African Shea butter has a much higher concentration of phytonutrients. However, the evidence indicates the phytonutrients are only “slightly” higher than West African shea butter.  East African shea butter is also considerably more expensive than that from West Africa.

What are the active ingredients?

There are two fractions associated with Shea butter: the healing or non-saponifiable fraction and the moisturizing or saponifiable fraction.

The non-saponifiable fraction includes vitamin A, vitamin E, cinnamic acid, phytosterols, tryterpenes and latex. Stigmasterol, a phytosterol, is also found in Shea butter that gives it the ability to relieve stiff sore muscles.

The saponifiable, or moisturizing fraction includes triglycerides, diglycerides and monoglycerides. These make up roughly 90% of Shea butter composition and include the fatty acids: oleic acid (40-60%), stearic acid (20-50%), linoleic acid (3-11%), palmitic acid (2-9%), linolenic acid (<1%) and arachidic acid (<1%).

Uses for Shea Butter

All Shea butter is useful as a moisturizer, but to achieve the additional benefits listed below, you will want to purchase Grade A Shea Butter. Grade A has been tested to contain at least a 5% concentration of phytonutrients and will always be unrefined.

The following uses are listed for bioactive shea butter based on the one and only scientific study I was able to find:

Note: you will need to use Shea butter for 4 to 6 weeks to attain these results.

Purported skin conditions effectively treated with shea butter:

Culinary uses for Shea butter

Substitute for butter, margarine and lard

Substitute for recipes calling for cocoa butter

Warnings: Shea butter is well tolerated by most people, however if you are allergic to nuts, do a patch test before using it on your skin and avoid using as a food source.


To reap the maximum benefits from shea butter, make certain you’re buying a grade A product. SpaFromScratch has partnered with AAA Sheabutter Company. Are they the only company to sell quality shea butter? No. However, they were the only company we found that double tested their shea butter for purity. It’s first tested and graded by the Shea Institute and then tested again by AAA Sheabutter [2]. Plus, the prices are reasonable. After all, we think our goddesses deserve the best products at the best prices.

Regardless of where you purchase your shea butter, if it’s grade A, you are not the only one to benefit. You will also be helping our African sisters who support their families by making shea butter. I like that in a product, don’t you?

Now go have fun and relax.