Also know as Byttyrospermum vittaleria or Vitalleria paradoxa, the shea tree occurs naturally in a wide band across Africa, south of the Sahara desert. It grows freely in the savannahs of half a dozen countries and is predominant in Ghana and Burkina Faso.
It is a tall tree that takes 40 years to reach maturity and a height of 20m. It produces fruits the size of a large plum, formed of an outer skin, a thin fleshy layer and a kernel that hold 3 to 4 seeds.
The oil or butter, also know as Karite butter, has been produced and used for centuries by the local populations who have recognised its beneficial and soothing effects on the skin.
The fruits are first picked and peeled revealing the seeds that are cracked and pounded. The resulting paste is boiled in water until the oil comes up to the surface. It is then scooped into containers and left to cool down when it turns into a butter like consistency.
There are various grades of butters. The unrefined butter is a brownish cream in colour with a strong nutty aroma. Like coconut, it is solid a room temperature and will turn into a thick paste as the temperature rises. The melting point of Shea butter is about 33C.
- An emollient: the butter is firstly well known for its amazing softening and emollient qualities. It penetrates the skin easily leaving it soft and supple without any feeling of grease. It is beneficial for very dry skin, chapped or burnt skin; to prevent wrinkles, stretch marks; as a hair oil to treat devitalised, dry hair and scalp; to soothe and calm rashes, eczema, dermatitis. It can be used as the main ingredient for a balm or simply on its own.
- Anti-inflammatory: Use shea butter as a base for an ointment to help with sprains and rheumatism. It is known by the African people to have anti-inflammatory properties and they have traditionally used it to cure inflammations.
- UV protection: Shea butter is known to have an active role in screening UV rays from the sun due to its cinnamic acid content. The level of protection can go up to SPF6, although this may vary depending on the origin and quality of the oil. Shea butter can be used in any sun product recipes. It is nevertheless not sufficient to offer full UV protection.