Shea butter or Shea nut butter is a slightly yellowish or ivory-colored natural fat extracted from fruit of the shea tree by crushing and boiling. Shea butter is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer and an emollient. Shea butter is also edible. It is used as a cooking oil in West Africa, as well as sometimes being used in the chocolate industry as a substitute for cocoa butter.
The shea or karite tree, formerly Butyrospermum paradoxum, is now called Vitellaria paradoxa. It produces its first fruit (which resemble large plums) when it is about 20 years old and reaches its full production when the tree is about 45 years old. It produces nuts for up to 200 years after reaching maturity.
Many vernacular names are used for Vitellaria, which is a reflection of its extensive range of occurrence—nearly 5,000km from Senegal (west) to Uganda (east) across the African continent. The nomenclature history and synonymy of the shea tree followed a very tortuous evolution since the oldest recorded specimen collected by a European—Scottish explorer Mungo Park—dated May 26, 1797. It eventually arrived at the name vitellaria with subspecies paradoxa and nilotica. It usually grows to an average height of about 15m with profuse branches and a thick waxy and deeply fissured bark that makes it fire resistant.
The shea tree grows naturally in the wild in the dry savannah belt of West Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. It occurs in 19 countries across the African continent, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Zaire and Guinea.
Distribution of shea trees
In Ghana (FAO, 1988a), it occurs extensively in the Guinea savannah and less abundantly in the Sudan Savannah. The shea tree occurs over almost the entire area of Northern Ghana, over about 77,670 square kilometers in Western Dagomba, Southern Mamprusi, Western Gonja, Lawra, Tumu, Wa and Nanumba with Eastern Gonja having the densest stands. There is sparse shea tree cover found in Brong-Ahafo, Ashanti, and the Eastern and Volta regions in the south of the country.
Shea butter is known especially for its cosmetic properties as a moisturizer and emollient. It is also a known anti-inflammatory agent.Shea butter is marketed as being effective at treating the following conditions: fading scars, eczema, burns, rashes, acne, severely dry skin, blemishes, dark spots, skin discolorations, chapped lips, stretchmarks, wrinkles, and in lessening the irritation of psoriasis. Shea butter provides natural ultraviolet sun protection, although the level of protection is extremely variable, ranging from none at all to approximately SPF 6. Shea butter absorbs rapidly into the skin without leaving a greasy feeling. In Nigeria, it is known to be very effective in the management of sinusitis and relief of nasal congestion. This is due to it's emollient properties which helps in relaxing the tension in the face skin thus easing respiration. All you need do if you have sinus problems or congestion is rub a considerable amount of the butter in and around the nostrils.
Shea butter is comparatively richer than other emollients but scarcity of supply results in an erratic market price.
Shea butter can be found in many high end moisturizing skin products. Shea butter is known for its skin softening effect. It is also used in hair conditioners to add and maintain moisture in dry brittle hair, in addition to revitalizing and preventing breakage.
Shea butter is used in some indigenous ceremonies. Followers of the Holy Spirit Movement rebel group of Uganda smeared their bodies with shea butter in the belief that it would stop bullets.
Handcrafted shea butter is used in Togo, West Africa for ceremonies among the Fulani ethnic group.
Many carvers of djembe shells and other African drum shells use shea butter to condition the wood. Shea butter is also used to condition the goat or cow skin heads of these drums.