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Understand Shea Butter

Raw shea butter chunks

We all have heard the benefits of African Shea Butter for decades. Centuries. And it has rightfully earned its place at the apex of nut butters. But what is it, where does it come from and is it for everyone?

What is Shea Butter? 

Shea butter is the fat that has been extracted from the nuts of the Shea Nut tree which is native to Africa and specifically Ghana. This fat contains palmitic, stearic, oleic and arachidic non-saponifiable fatty acids that are beneficial to both skin and hair. Shea butter is solid at warm temperatures and is a natural golden yellow or off-white color, depending on its individual mineral and vitamin content and level of processing.

When shea butter is initially extracted, the fat is usually a yellow-gold color and during the refining process, vitamins and minerals are removed, its natural scent is removed, and the butter becomes pearly white. Some people prefer raw unrefined shea butter, some prefer refined shea butter. It all depends on what you want your final product or use to be like, smell like and feel like.

The fat content in shea butter is what penetrates the skin, makes it soft, maintains a moisture level and protects it from the drying effects of weather.

It does the same thing to hair. It protects, moisturizes, smooths and softens hair. Its oil content seals moisture in and creates a barrier between your hair strands and the elements while still allowing skin to breathe.

Raw vs Refined vs Ultra-Refined 

Did you know there are 3 versions of shea butter? Raw, Refined and Ultra Refined.

Raw shea butter is unrefined. It is usually yellow/gold in color and firm.It needs to be warmed before being blended with other ingredients because it is solid at room temperature. It will melt with body heat.

The refining process removes minerals and vitamins from the raw butter. How much is removed depends on the process. The basic equation is the more refined, the "purer" the butter. Purity is not necessarily better but the refining process makes the shea butter more pliable with a lower melting point.

If shea butter is to be refined chemically, the butter will have first been extracted from the shea kernels using petroleum-based solvents and chemicals such as hexane. Then, during the refining process, most of the effective agents contained in the raw butter are removed by boiling the melted shea into oil to eliminate the toxic solvents, then it is refined, bleached and deodorized by heating it to over 400F with the use harsh chemicals, such as sodium hydroxide.

Natural refined shea butter starts with the raw shea nuts being ground to expel the oil and butters. The butter is then heated to 190 – 210F (80-90C) under high pressure which will remove impurities, cooled then forced through a cloth filter. Then to remove the color, the butter is then passed through a carbon/ clay filter before undergoing high temperature 400F (200C) vacuum distillation process to remove any remaining high melting point fatty acids and neutralizing any scent.

Ultra-refined takes this one step further and provides a light, pure white and completely odorless shea, useful in product where you want no scent at all. This shea has a lower melting point than raw or refined and is easier to whip.

Different companies use different refining techniques so what I state here may differ from your supplier's methods. I strongly suggest that befor ebuying any product you ask about how the refined product is manufactured.

Can I Use Too Much Shea Butter? 

Yes,you can use too much shea butter, especially in its raw form when it contains all its insoluble fat.

I have found people overusing shea butter like it is the holy fix-all of natural hair. Yes, shea butter is beneficial for hair AND skin and offers so much protection and moisture, but it should be used in moderation in its pure form, especially on your hair if you are using it daily as a leave-in. Just follow the directions of the hair product you are using.

If you do experience problems like this, reduce your use of shea butter, and when you do use it, do not combine with other, separate leave-in products that are meant to retain moisture, contain high amounts of glycerin or heavy oils like olive oil. Usually, products with the main ingredient of shea butter, that are designed to be moisture-retaining leave-in thick products, contain a balance of oils and butters on their own so you do not have to add anything to your leave-in routine.

Can Shea Butter Cause Rashes?

Yes, shea butter can cause rashes if you are sensitive to it. Using too much of it on your hair and repeating the application over and over without washing it out will weigh your hair down and clog your skin, especially at the hairline. You may experience bumps, breakouts or sensitivity, especially if you combine shea butter with a separate castor oil-based product.

But if you are using a shea butter product which contains other additives, it may not be the shea butter but one of the other ingredients. If you want to find out, find some pure, raw shea butter and apply it to your inner arm or elbow and wait 24hrs. (sometimes not that long). If you develop a rash, then you are sensitive to the shea butter. If not, then the rash is probably being caused by something else in the product.

In conclusion, Shea Butter is a wonderful product and buying responsibly helps women across the African continent feed their families and generate income. I encourage you to ask suppliers where their shea butter is sourced. Let's keep our African sisters in our hearts and minds.

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