If you have dry skin, you probably know that shea butter is one of the top moisturizing ingredients to use. But that's just one reason why shea (pronounced shay) is frequently used in skin and hair care products. As an ingredient for skincare, especially in its natural and pure form, it has multiple benefits—from reducing premature facial lines and wrinkles to soothing skin conditions like eczema. We consulted experts for a full picture of the ingredient. Below you'll find more information on shea butter's many benefits, as well as several homemade beauty recipes you can make using the miracle ingredient.
Type of ingredient: Hydrator
Main benefits: Hydrating, antioxidant, soothes irritation
Who should use it: In general, anyone with dry skin
How often can you use it: As much as you want, if you don't have an allergy.
Works well with: Other oils, cocoa butter
Don't use with: There are no ingredients known to interfere with shea butter
What Is Shea Butter?
"Shea butter is a plant lipid that comes from African shea tree nuts and is rich in fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins," explains Chang. Wong calls it "essentially a solid oil." Shea butter also contains five essential fatty acids (a major amount coming from stearic and oleic acids), phytosterols, vitamins E and D, allantoin (good for healing skin irritations), and vitamin A.
Benefits of Shea Butter for Skin
- Hydrating: "Shea Butter is great for hydration and calms the skin. It goes into the skin well and protects the face from extreme temperatures," says Joanna Vargas, celebrity facialist and founder of Joanna Vargas Spas and Skin Care.
- Plumps skin: "Shea butter is used to help moisturize, nourish, and soothe the skin," says Chang. "It is great for dry skin and can create softer, hydrated, plumper skin, especially during the dry winter months. Shea butter is also found in many lip balms to help with chapped lips as well as moisturizers that help prevent stretch marks."
- Helps fade scars both from acne and non-acne-related causes in addition to healing sunburned, cracked, and peeling skin. It soothes skin allergies like poison ivy and insect bites, as well as skin conditions like contact dermatitis and psoriasis. Some users have even reported that shea butter eases the symptoms of rheumatism (although this claim isn't proven, nor is it backed by our experts). Short of an allergic reaction, shea butter is also extremely safe—the Environmental Working Group classifies it as non-toxic.
The combination of components in shea butter also helps neutralize free radical damage, which may help reduce signs of aging.
Raw vs. Refined Shea Butter
When you shop for shea butter products, you'll notice that some are marked "raw," while others are marked "refined." Refined is another word for processed, so expect those products to be less potent, with fewer vitamins and minerals. The colors may also differ, as the raw products are more likely to be yellow in hue (versus the refined shea butters, which are most often white).
Meet the Expert
- Y. Claire Chang, MD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at UnionDerm in New York City.
- Alicia Zalka, MD, is a dermatologist and the founder of Surface Deep.
- Michelle Wong is a science educator and content creator behind LabMuffin.
Shea Butter vs. Cocoa Butter
Like shea butter, cocoa butter is an emollient, so it's ultra-moisturizing on the skin. But while cocoa butter is full of vitamin A, shea butter offers more vitamin E and fatty acids. The fragrance also differs, as cocoa butter—which comes from cacao—smells of chocolate.
How to Use It
Shea butter can be used on its own, but it's just as commonly used as an ingredient in cosmetics, so it's up to you how you use it. Although, Wong makes sure to note that "Shea butter is best incorporated into a moisturizer with other ingredients so it's easier to spread since it's usually a thick solid at room temperature."
If you're looking to use it on its own or make your own products, your best option will probably be buying it in bulk online from a wholesaler. Raw shea butter is meant to be rubbed on the skin as a method of moisturizing it and protecting the skin barrier. Refined shea butter included in something else (lipsticks, lip balms, body creams, body butters) is used as a moisturizing ingredient in those as well.
Moisturizing Shea Butter Balm
- 1/4 cup grated shea butter
- 2 tablespoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon avocado oil
- 1 tablespoon grated beeswax or soy wax
Combine the ingredients in a microwave-safe glass container or measuring cup. Microwave to gently heat up the shea butter and beeswax. Pour into a 4- to 5-ounce glass jar and let cool. Stir again. Use on dry areas. It's great for the knees, elbows, and is even sometimes used to treat and prevent chapped lips.
Moisturizing Hand Cream
Heat two teaspoons of coconut oil, one teaspoon of almond oil, one teaspoon of cocoa butter, and one teaspoon of shea butter in a microwave-safe bowl or container on low. You should only heat them for about two to three seconds until the ingredients are melted, but not at all boiling. Stir them together, and massage them into your hands. It's a great moisturizing hand treatment to use during the winter months.
Melt three teaspoons of grated beeswax and three teaspoons of castor oil in a microwave or double boiler. Stir and remove from heat. Add six to ten drops of the essential oil of your choice along with a teaspoon of honey. If you want to add a little color, shave off a little of your favorite lipstick into the mixture. Pour into lip balm tins, a small glass cosmetic jar, or even into a lipstick tube. Let the balm cool uncovered for about 20 minutes.
Side Effects of Shea Butter
"Many acne-prone patients are worried about excessive moisturizing, fearing it will clog the pores," notes Chang. "Shea butter is non-comedogenic and should not clog the pores." Also, explains Zalka, "Shea butter may be best avoided if you have an allergy to tree nuts."
The Best Products with Shea Butter
EOS is a brand almost synonymous with hydration, so who better to make a hand cream ($3) out of shea butter? The formula is non-greasy, and we love the scents. The best part of this product, though, is the price point.
Herbivore's Moon Fruit Superfruit Night Treatment ($54) was one of their earliest products, but don't let that deter you. Its formula is anything but outdated. Thanks to papaya, shea butter, and goji berry, it promises to exfoliate, hydrate, and fight free radicals all at once—without even a hint of irritation. Sensitive skin? No problem.
As the brand people go for when they're looking for the purest simple ingredients, of course, Sun Potion is going to have a fantastic and cost effective tub of shea butter ($20) available. Thanks to a unique blend of minerals, proteins, and essential fatty acids meant to help balance pH, this skin food is just what the doctor ordered.
Shea butter isn't just moisturizing for your skin; many also swear by it for hair. Christophe Robin's Anti-Frizz Rescue Milk with Shea Butter ($20) is weightless and keeps looking neat and put together without flattening it. Shea butter and moringa extract promise to nourish and tame hair.
Can shea butter lighten skin?
Shea butter can lighten marks such as hyperpigmentation and acne scars. As previously mentioned, It can help fade scars both from acne and non-acne-related causes.
Does shea butter clog pores?
"Many acne-prone patients are worried about excessive moisturizing, fearing it will clog the pores," notes Chang. "Shea butter is non-comedogenic and should not clog the pores."
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