Shea butter (// or //) is an off- white or ivory-colored fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). Shea butter is a triglyceride (fat) derived mainly from stearic acid and oleic acid. It is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer, salve or lotion. Shea butter is edible and is used in food preparation in Africa. Occasionally the chocolate industry uses shea butter mixed with other oils as a substitute for cocoa butter, although the taste is noticeably different.
The English word "shea" comes from s’í, the tree's name in the Bambara language of Mali. The French name karité comes from ghariti, its equivalent in the Wolof language of Senegal.  In some parts of West Africa, shea butter is referred to as Ori.
Accounts from as early as Cleopatra's Egypt speak of caravan bearing clay jars of valuable shea butter for cosmetic use. The funeral beds of early kings were carved in wood of shea trees. Shea butter's amazing skin care and healing properties were first harnessed thousands of years ago. The history of shea as a precious commodity can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, where shea butter was and continues to be used to protect the hair and skin against the fierce sun and the hot dry winds of African deserts and savannah.
Butter extraction and refining
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The traditional method of preparing unrefined shea butter consists of the following steps:
- Separating/cracking: The outer pulp of the fruit is removed. When dry, the nut, which is the source of shea butter, must be separated from the outer shell. This is a social activity, traditionally done by Women Elders and young girls who sit on the ground and break the shells with small rocks.
- Crushing: To make the shea nuts into butter, they must be crushed. Traditionally, this is done with mortars and pestles. It requires lifting the pestles and grinding the nuts into the mortars to crush the nuts so they can be roasted.
- Roasting: The crushed nuts are then roasted in huge pots over open, wood fires. The pots must be stirred constantly with wooden paddles so the butter does not burn. The butter is heavy and stirring it is hot, smoky work, done under the sun. This is where the slight smoky smell of traditional shea butter originates.
- Grinding: The roasted shea nuts are ground into a smoother paste, water is gradually added and the paste is mixed well by hand.
- Separating the oils: The paste is kneaded by hand in large basins and water is gradually added to help separate out the butter oils. As they float to the top, the butter oils, which are in a curd state, are removed and excess water squeezed out. The butter oil curds are then melted in large open pots over slow fires. A period of slow boiling will remove any remaining water, by evaporation.
- Collecting and shaping: The shea butter, which is creamy or golden yellow at this point, is ladled from the top of the pots and put in cool places to harden. Then it is formed into balls.
Composition and properties
Shea butter extract is a complex fat that in addition to many nonsaponifiable components (substances that cannot be fully converted into soap by treatment with alkali) contains the following fatty acids:oleic acid (40-60%), stearic acid (20-50%), linoleic acid (3-11%), palmitic acid (2-9%), linolenic acid (<1%) and arachidic acid (<1%).
Shea butter melts at body temperature. Proponents of its use for skin care maintain that it absorbs rapidly into the skin, acts as a "refatting" agent, and has good water-binding properties.
Shea butter is mainly used in the cosmetics industry for skin and hair related products (lip gloss, skin moisturizer creams and emulsions, and hair conditioners for dry and brittle hair). It is also used by soap makers, typically in small amounts (5-7% of the oils in the recipe), because it has plenty of unsaponifiables.
In some African countries such as Benin, shea butter is used for cooking oil, as a waterproofing wax, for hairdressing, for candle-making, and also as an ingredient in medicinal ointments. It is also used by makers of traditional African percussion instruments to increase the durability of wood (such as carved djembe shells), dried calabash gourds, and leather tuning straps.
Shea butter is sometimes used as a base for medicinal ointments. Some of the isolated chemical constituents are reported to have anti-inflammatory, emollient and humectant properties. Shea butter has been used as a sunblocking lotion and has a limited capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation.
In Nigeria shea butter is used for the management of sinusitis and relief of nasal congestion. It is also massaged into joints and other parts of the body where pain is experienced.
The United States Agency for International Development, Gassel Consulting, and many other companies have suggested a classification system for shea butter separating it into five grades: A (raw or unrefined, extracted using water), B (refined), C (highly refined and extracted with solvents such as hexane), D (lowest uncontaminated grade), E (with contaminants). Commercial grades are A, B, C. The color of raw (grade A) butter ranges from cream (like whipped butter) to grayish yellow, and it has a nutty aroma which is removed in the other grades. Grade C is pure white While the level of vitamin content can be affected by refining, up to 95% of vitamin content can be removed from refined grades (i.e. grade C) of shea butter while reducing contamination levels to non-detectable levels.
- Shea nut and butter production in Burkina Faso
- Shea Yeleen, a social enterprise that empowers and trains women-owned shea butter cooperatives
- List of butters
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