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 actually has multiple benefits—from reducing premature facial lines and wrinkles, to soothing skin conditions like eczema. We consulted experts Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in Manhattan, New York; Alicia Zalka, M.D. and Founder of Surface Deep; and Michelle Wong, Science Educator and Content Creator behind LabMuffin for a full picture on 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.
Meet the Expert
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
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. Shea butter’s polyphenols—antioxidants—have anti-aging benefits and properties similar to those found in green tea. Dr. Wong calls it "essentially a solid oil." Shea butter also contains five essential fatty acids (a major amount coming from stearic and oleic acids), a category which includes phytosterols, vitamins E and D, allantoin (good for healing skin irritations), and vitamin A.
Benefits of Shea Butter for Skin
- It's 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 Salons and Skin Care. She's right—actually, shea butter’s healing skin care benefits are almost innumerable.
- It's plumping: "Shea butter is used to help moisturize, nourish, and soothe the skin," says Dr. 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."
- It 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 dermatologists). 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 reduces fine lines and wrinkles and fades age spots. It may also stimulate collagen production, too, so your skin will be working at reversing signs of aging from the outside in and the inside out.
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 moisturiser 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. If you want a small amount instead of bulk, though, Sun Potion has a great option for $20. 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 can even be used to treat and prevent chapped lips.
Moisturizing Hand Cream
Heat two teaspoons coconut oil, one teaspoon of almond oil, one teaspoon of cocoa butter, and one teaspoon 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 grated beeswax and three teaspoons 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 allergy to tree nuts."
The Best Products with Shea Butter
Lipsticks that promise to be hydrating are often, well, not. Least of all when they're liquid. Even if they don't dry out your lips, usually it's a good idea to put on a layer or two of a hydrating lip balm underneath any lipstick if you don't want to deal with flaky lips later. This isn't the case with Dior's Ultra Care line, which uses botanical oils and shea butter to prioritize your lips first, and color (in a very close) second.
By the name, you can probably tell that shea butter isn't the only hydrating ingredient in these cult-favorite balms. The main appeal is the cannabis sativa seed oil, aka hemp seed oil, which is meant to act as a humectant, drawing moisture from its environment. The balms also come in 5 shades including a clear one, so there's never an excuse to not have one in your bag.
Eos have a name almost synonymous with hydration, and what better to make a hand cream out of than 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 night treatment 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 exfoliates, hydrates, and fights 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 available.
Olio E Osso have been selling these balms for a long time—almost as long as the public eye has been on natural beauty—and they've consistently come recommended and rated highly by indie and natural beauty fanatics. They come in over 10 colors (including no color) to be used anywhere on your face, and pack a serious hydrating punch.
Shea butter isn't just moisturizing for your skin; it also translates those same properties to your hair. This leave-in conditioner is weightless and keeps looking neat and put-together without flattening it. Shea butter and moringa extract combine to nourish and tame hair.
Can shea butter lighten skin?
Shea butter, with its high concentration of vitamin E, can lighten skin. It helps 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."
What is the best way to use shea butter?
Wong says that "Shea butter is best incorporated into a moisturiser with other ingredients so it's easier to spread, since it's usually a thick solid at room temperature."
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