When it comes to our beauty philosophy—and life philosophy, for that matter—we believe in keeping it simple. That can include everything from makeup techniques to nail designs to fitness routines—even the number of products we keep in our beauty arsenal. Of course, as beauty editors, we have a tendency to accumulate more and more products (only to distress about the lack of storage space thereafter). However, we've discovered that there's a way to do more without necessarily having more: Using versatile beauty ingredients like shea butter.
Chances are shea butter has made an appearance in your skincare routine at one time or another but have you ever considered using it for your hair? Its strength lies in its moisturizing properties for both skin and hair. To learn more about the latter, we tapped experts Robin Groover, Stacy Chimento, and Shab Reslan.
Meet the Expert
Keep reading to see what they have to say about the benefits of using shea butter for hair.
What Is Shea Butter?
Shea butter is a fat derived from the nuts of the shea tree, native to Africa. Thanks to its hydrating properties, it is a popular ingredient in skincare and haircare products.
Shea Butter for Hair
- Type of ingredient: Hydrator
- Main benefits: Moisturizes, softens, and protects hair
- Who should use it: Those with thick, coarse, dry, and/or damaged hair
- How often can you use it: Weekly
- Works well with: Other hair oils
- Don’t use with: There are no ingredients known to interfere with shea butter.
Benefits of Shea Butter for Hair
If you've never used shea butter on your hair before, let's just say you're missing out. The nourishing ingredient pulls out all the stops for improving hair and scalp health. That includes both reversing damage done to once-upon-a-time-healthy strands and also helping to prevent said damage from happening in the first place. Here's how:
- Moisturizes: "My favorite benefits are the sealing properties, added moisture, and softening for hydrated, easy styling," says Groover. Reslan agrees: For reducing friction and locking in moisture in your hair, shea oil is an ideal derivative of the shea tree nut as it provides better coverage on the hair and is more lightweight."
- Revitalizes: Dull, dry hair got you down? Reach for some shea butter. "Since shea butter is filled with vitamins A and E and essential fatty acids, it can reduce dryness and prevent split ends while increasing shine and lessening frizz," comments Chimento.
- Reduces inflammation and irritation: If you're dealing with scalp irritation, Groover says the nourishing benefits of shea butter can reduce inflammation and irritation on the scalp—without clogging pores, notes Chimento. "Its antioxidant properties can protect the scalp from sun damage and fight dandruff," she adds.
- Protects: We know we need to shield our skin from environmental damage, but the same goes for our hair and scalp. And according to Groover, shea butter can protect hair follicles from environmental toxins and sun damage. (Of course, it's still important to protect your scalp with SPF—shea butter is not a substitute.)
Hair Type Considerations
Shea butter is ace as a styling and conditioning product for most—but not all—hair types and textures. "If your hair is too thin, shea butter can weigh it down if you use too much," says Chimento. In general, those with medium-to-coarse hair that is prone to frizz and dryness would reap the most benefits from using it. "Shea butter is good for natural hair," says Groover. For styling, she advises, "Consider the hair density, porosity, and texture to determine the amount of butter needed."
If you're dealing with scalp irritation, try oiling your scalp with shea butter a couple of days before your wash day as a pre-poo.
How to Use Shea Butter for Hair
How to Make Whipped Shea Butter
More often than not, when using shea butter on your hair, less is more. Sure, that theory might sound easy enough but when put in practice, challenges may arise. "It’s easy to overuse hair products that contain shea butter, as it does not spread as easily as an oil would," notes Chimento. Apart from not overdoing it, she also recommends performing a patch test with shea butter first to see whether it's right for you. If all looks good, then the doors are open to adding it to your hair care routine:
- Buy a shea-butter styling product: To protect hair from breakage and trap in moisture, Reslan suggests shopping for a styling product formulated with shea butter (FYI: Her picks can be found further below).
- Combine it with other products: Looking for a customized hair treatment without a lot of effort? Then simply add shea butter to one of your conditioning products. "Shea butter mixed in conditioners and masks smooth the hair, eliminating frizz, tangles, and dullness," says Groover.
- Use it as a hair mask: For a quick, easy, and mess-free, application method, Reslan tells us, "Shea butter can be used as a weekly hair mask in the shower to be rinsed out." Chimento agrees, adding that you should wash it out using a mild shampoo. She advises, "When using shea butter, you should make sure to wash your hair with products that can help deep clean your scalp, rather than sulfate-free co-washes to avoid build-up."
- Whip it: In its natural form, shea butter is a bit firm; however, whipping it makes it easier to get out of the container and apply to the hair. You can mix whipped shea butter with a number of carrier ingredients like coconut oil to keep it from re-hardening. Once whipped, you'll have a fluffy, ultra-moisturizing natural product that will give your hair a healthy sheen. Below, Groover shares her step-by-step guide on DIYing whipped shea butter. It's a variation of the double-boiler method (perfect for those of us who don't own double-boilers!).
- 2 oz. shea butter
- 1 tbsp. coconut oil
- Scoop out shea butter from its jar or container and place it in a glass or metal bowl.
- Place a small amount of water in a pot and boil it. Once it's boiling, remove from heat and place the bowl of shea butter over the pot. It will melt very quickly, which is why you need to remove the pot from the heat. Alternatively, you can also microwave shea butter in a microwave-safe bowl, but you may lose some of the nutrients this way.
- Remove the bowl from the pot and add coconut oil to the melted shea butter. Mix well. (Note: It's fine if the shea butter isn't melted into a complete liquid. The whipping process will break down any chunks of butter).
- Use a regular hand-held mixer to begin whipping your shea butter/coconut oil combination on medium-to-fast speed for approximately 20 minutes (You can take short breaks between mixing if needed).
- After about 20 minutes of whipping (if you have a large amount of shea butter, it will take longer), your mixture should be light, fluffy and thick, almost meringue-like. Store your shea butter in a cool, dark place in a glass or plastic container; the refrigerator is not recommended because it may become grainy. Natural shea butter mixed with coconut oil or jojoba oil may last approximately six months to one year.
Whipping shea butter will increase the volume by two to three times, so having a container on hand to hold all of it is essential.
The Best Products With Shea Butter
It only seems appropriate that we kick off our shea butter product list with none other than shea butter powerhouse, SheaMoisture. The brand's shea butter-centric product formulations—including this nutrient-rich hair mask—are handcrafted by women in Africa and feature the nourishing fat in its pure raw state.
If you haven't jumped on the hair oil bandwagon yet, what are you waiting for This shea oil with jojoba oil mixed in is one of Reslan's faves—especially for fine-haired friends. "When it comes to oily and/or thin hair, shea butter can be heavy and make your hair greasier or flat," says Chimento. "If you have a looser hair texture, you should consider using shea oil in small portions rather than butter."
Not only is this nourishing hair mask a beast at repairing damaged tresses but it's also Jennifer Lopez-approved (need we say more?). Formulated with a blend of oils and butters, you can use it as a mask or replace it with your conditioner. It combats frizz, enhances shine, and will more likely than not, turn you into a hair narcissist.
Reslan recommends this deep conditioner for color-treated, dry, and/or damaged hair that could use some revitalizing. Organic ingredients like honey hibiscus flower extract, aloe, and (duh) shea butter are the driving force behind its benefits: intense moisturization and protection. Sure, it's a bit pricey but we think it pays off—in the form of guaranteed head turns, at least.
Feeling luxurious? Beverly Hills-based brand Rare Elements will put the "chic" back into your hair care routine. Reslan recommends this shampoo of theirs for its nutrient-rich formula of oils and butters that cleanses and moisturizes. It's safe for all hair types, too: virgin, color-treated, and even chemically processed.
Reslan says this conditioner (perfect for co-washing) is a gamechanger for sad, stringy strands. And with its laundry list of organic plant-derived ingredients—shea butter, green tea, lavender, and rahua oil (aka what Amazonian women use to strengthen their hair)— it's not hard to see why.
Is shea butter good for a dry scalp?
"Shea butter is good for a flaky and irritated scalp, as its anti-inflammatory properties reduce dryness and treat potential scalp damage. This will add moisture and shine to your hair, especially if your hair is more coarse, dry, and even frizzy," explains Chimento.
Can shea butter clog hair follicles?
"If you use too much, shea butter can potentially clog your hair follicles, as it is a heavy product," says Chimento. "However, for the most part, it doesn’t clog hair follicles and allows for hair growth to thrive."
Should I use shea butter if I have an oily scalp?
According to Chimento, "Shea butter can also be beneficial for an oily scalp as it doesn’t necessarily clog your pores but should be used lightly as excess oil in your hair can put more oil on your face and lead to breakouts."
Can I use shea butter for my fine, thin hair?
Although using too much shea butter can weigh down fine hair, using less and combining it with other products and ingredients might be the solution for you. "Don't worry about the butter being too thick as the consistency can be altered with creams and oils for deeper penetration and easier spreading throughout the hair," notes Groover.
Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Dec 27;19(1):70. doi: 10.3390/ijms19010070