Ingredient Spotlight: Shea Butter
What is Shea Butter?
Pronounced Shh-aye / Shay (rhymes with day).
INCI: Butyrospermum parkii
FDA labelling (U.S. only): Shea butter
Shea butter is considered a hard butter, although consistency is also considered semi-soft because it is solid at room temperature but melts on skin contact. Shea is also referred to as karité (karite) from French origin as well as Wolof and Dioula (meaning “life”), therefore gaining the name “The Tree of Life”. The tree can live over 400 years, and Shea butter was delivered by caravan to Cleopatra’s Egypt.
Shea butter is derived from a plant source: harvested by hand from the kernel of the tree’s fruit (some references call it a nut) of Vitellaria paradoxa, an African Shea tree grown in 21 African countries, specifically West Africa. The species was renamed from Butyrospermum parkii, but the INCI has not been updated. The tree begins producing fruit around 10 years age for 200 years.
Refined or Unrefined?
Unrefined Shea butter imparts a nutty scent which can be strong and unpleasant to some people, and it has a yellow tinge. Refined Shea butter removes the scent, leaves it off-white, and removes other plant parts such as shell and sediment. Shea butter for cosmetics is usually extracted by cold pressed/expeller pressed process. Filtering can remove impurities and plant parts without being refined; sometimes, clays (kaolin) are used to refine the butter.
Shea butter is sustainable, can be certified organic, fair trade, non-GMO, Kosher, and Halal.
Shea butter is not on the CA Prop 65 list of toxic chemicals, and is on the FDA's Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. In Europe, the kernel’s oil is extracted by an industrial process rather than by hand (extracts about 80 percent of the fat versus 36-40 percent), but it is not extracted for cosmetic usage.
Why is it used in skin care, cosmetics and soap?
Naturally high in Vitamins A & E, Shea butter is considered an emollient (skin softening). Shea butter speeds up trace (acceleration) in Cold Process (CP) soap making. It also contributes to hardness in soap, and can be used in formulations for a palm-free CP soap. Refined and natural Shea butter have an average melting point of 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.22 Celsius).
According to a blog post from Soap Queen, Shea butter contains four to nine percent unsaponifiables (fats and oils unable to convert into soap), so in cold process soap it leaves a conditioning or luxurious quality after use. However, in "17 Shea" the unsaponifiables are as high as 17 percent, but an average of eight percent. The two main fatty acids are oleic (unsaturated) and stearic (saturated), and the average fatty-acid composition is, "oleic, 40 to 55 percent; stearic, 35 to 45 percent; palmitic, 3 to 7 percent; linoleic, 3 to 8 percent; and linolenic, 1 percent."
Tempering butters is done to reduce grainy texture by regulating the re-solidification of the fatty acid chains by cooling rapidly. You may need to temper it (like they do for chocolate) by destroying the fatty acid chains holding the Shea butter at 175-180 degrees F (80- 82 degrees C) for about 20 minutes  (Soap Queen suggests an hour). Then, transfer to a heat and freezer safe container and place in fridge or freezer until solidified.
Also, cooling too slowly or heating it too quickly (and overheating) will allow crystals to form. If Shea butter is not melted, the grains can be avoided, but many people prefer to temper to prevent grains from forming in their finished product.
Jade Shutes wrote an article on tempering: "Shea butter: How to prevent shea from going grainy." Ina addition, visit this soapmakingforum post for anecdotal information on tempering Shea, cocoa, and mango butters.
Similar or substitutions
Shea butter and cocoa butter have similar fatty acid composition. Shea butter blends well with cocoa butter in formulations acting as complimentary ingredients.
“Whereas the fatty-acid composition of shea and cocoa butter are fairly similar, shea butter has a much higher content of unsaponifiable matter, up to 17 percent unsaponifiables (8 percent on average). This non-fat fraction is composed of phenols: tocopherols, triterpenes (alpha-amyrin, lupeol, butyrospermol, parkeol), steroids (campesterol, stigmasterol, beta-sitosterol, alpha-spinasterol, delta-7-avenasterol), and hydrocarbons (2-3 percent karitene). It also contains terpenic alcohols.”
All from the Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables 
- The Shea tree, as other trees in the family Sapotaceae, produces latex.
- The original source of chewing gum, sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), is in the same family as the Shea tree.
- Two members in the same Shea tree family grow in tropical America: Sapodilla and sapote (Pouteria sapota).
How to get it?
- Plant Therapy
- Mountain Rose Herbs (Refined Shea butter)
- Mountain Rose Herbs (Unrefined Shea butter)
- Shay and Company
- Bramble Berry
- Bulk Apothecary
- Wholesale Supplies Plus
- From Nature With Love
- Essential Depot
- Soaper's Choice
- Baraka Shea Butter
Shop Shea butter
What do you think of Shea butter? Do you use it in any DIY or ready-made cosmetics or formulations? Do you temper, and do you prefer it refined or natural? Let me know with a comment!
[1, 2, 4, 7, 11, 15, 16] National Research Council, "17 Shea," Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006. doi: 10.17226/11763.
 "The oily shea-butter tree, should it be Butyrospermum parkii or Vitellaria paradoxa?," Botanical Accuracy. Lena Struwe Botanical Accuracy, http://www.botanicalaccuracy.com/2013/09/the-oily-shea-butter-tree-should-it-be.html.
 "The Proposition 65 List," OEHHA. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/proposition-65-list (as of Jan 3, 2019).
 "PART 184—DIRECT FOOD SUBSTANCES AFFIRMED AS GENERALLY RECOGNIZED AS SAFE," Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Office of the Federal Register (OFR) and the Government Publishing Office, https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=e956d645a8b4e6b3e34e4e5d1b690209&mc=true&node=pt21.3.184&rgn=div5#se21.3.184_11702.
 Price, Annie. "Shea Butter Benefits for Skin Repair and Even Hair," Dr. Axe. Dr. Axe, https://draxe.com/nutrition/raw-shea-butter/.
[9, 10] "Sunday Night Spotlight: Shea Butter," Soap Queen. Bramble Berry, https://www.soapqueen.com/bramble-berry-news/sunday-night-spotlight-shea-butter/.
 "Shea Butter and Other Vegetable Butters: How to Avoid Crystallization/Graininess When Melting," From Nature With Love. Natural Sourcing, LLC, https://www.fromnaturewithlove.com/library/sheabutter.asp.
 "How to Create Lip Product Recipes," Soap Queen. Bramble Berry, http://www.soapqueen.com/bath-and-body-tutorials/lip-products/how-to-create-lip-product-recipes/.
 "Vitellaria paradoxa," World Agroforestry (ICRAF). World Agroforestry, http://old.worldagroforestry.org/treedb2/speciesprofile.php?Spid=394.
Suggested Further Reading
Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
Shea Butter Benefits for Skin Repair and Even Hair
What Is Shea Butter? 22 Reasons to Add It to Your Routine
Shea butter: How to prevent shea from going grainy
Shea Butter vs. Cocoa Butter: Which One Is Better for Your Skin?