Our Ingredients: Shea Butter

In this series, we'll explore the history, common usage, and modern applications of each plant based ingredient in the Cardiff line.

What is shea butter?

Shea butter is a fat that’s been extracted from the African shea tree, or Vitellaria paradoxa formally. Although you may be accustomed to seeing shea butter as yellow, the fat is actually very pale in its raw state, dyed with palm oil or borututu root after processing. This raw shea butter is primarily extracted through traditional methods, from the fruit’s kernel, but can also be obtained through mechanical, enzymatic and chemical methods

Shea butter extract is considered a complex fat composed of many nonsaponifiable components and fatty acids including: oleic acid, stearic acid, linoleic acid, palmitic acid, linolenic acid and arachidic acid. With considerations to composition, the fat typically melts at body temperature — around 97-99 degrees Fahrenheit — and absorbs into the skin quickly. Shea butter is also known for possessing decent water-binding properties that help make it a popular ingredient for skin care and maintenance


The shea tree is known to naturally grow wild in the savanna belt of West Africa, from Senegal to Sudan and even the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. Findings at the site of a medieval Saouga village suggest the production of shea butter by just the 14th century.

Speaking more broadly, shea butter has grown from these traditional practices into the more mainstream. Like its historical origins, shea butter currently finds a home in the crux of cosmetics and medicine. Where it was once massaged into the joints and other painful areas of the body, shea butter is still largely used for the treatment of skin. However, with more refined practices, the plant has snuck into everything from lip gloss and hair conditioner, to medicinal ointments and sunblock

Shea butter has always found a place in African and African-American cosmetics and self-care, but has more recently been considered a go-to for anyone looking to add some moisture and gloss. A slow adoption of these more specialized — yet not exclusive products — like that of Shea Moisture, have helped bring the potential benefits of shea butter into the mainstream and onto store shelves. 

Current use

As previously touched on, shea butter is currently used in tons of skin and hair-related products. In the United States specifically, shea butter is considered more of a moisturizing ingredient, often found in lotions, soaps and hair conditioners. And, with more people wondering, “What does shea butter do for your skin?”, the ingredient seems to be a staple in many new skincare products. 

Shea butter can currently be found in a variety of products including:

  • Facial moisturizers 
  • Body lotions / butters
  • Muscle salves
  • Conditioners
  • Hair masks
  • Heat protectants
  • Acne treatments
  • Anti-wrinkle / aging treatments

Shea butter benefits

Unsurprisingly, shea butter produces its best results when it’s used where it’s actually needed. Dry and cracking skin — try a lotion, frizzy hair and split ends — try a deep conditioner, etc. To truly get the best results and full benefits of shea butter, you should be conscientious of what your needs are first. However, the natural fat has gained an extraordinary list of benefits over the course of its existence and use in self-care. 

Most predominantly, shea butter has been shown to provide the best and most effective results in the realm of skincare. Full of vitamin A and E, shea butter softens and protects the skin against the elements, while preventing any internal moisture from getting lost. Due to these rich, fatty properties, shea butter is also often paired alongside essential oils that can enhance the experience of its different uses. 

With a growing interest in naturopathy, many have also started to appreciate shea butter for its healing properties. Raw, unrefined butters can soothe and help repair skin rashes, scars, stretch marks, frostbite, and athlete’s foot, just to name a few. The vitamins and antioxidants in raw shea butter are also enjoyed for their anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties

So, how long does it take for shea butter to work? The short answer is, it depends. You must establish your purpose for use, assess where / how you’re using the shea butter and also understand your current state versus your end-goal state (e.g. raging skin rash to completely soothed). Self-assessment is most necessary for this type of product testing, but many find quick relief with consistent use. 

The soothing properties of shea butter are largely beneficial thanks to its nutritional make-up. Full of vitamins, antioxidants and fatty acids, it acts as a natural moisturizer and conditioner ideal for preventing moisture loss of relatively any type. When it comes to such a naturally rich product, the less modified or altered, the better. Those in the savanna belt of West Africa probably still know best when it comes to the purity of shea butter and its unmatched benefits.