Shea Butter For Hair: The 5 Best Uses, Products + DIY
Maintaining strong, healthy hair—especially for those of us with normally parched strands—takes work. You want to make sure you're not exposing delicate hair to too much physical activity or heat. You want to keep a fresh, clean, and hydrated scalp so hair can thrive and grow freely. You want to seal in moisture, without coating hair too thickly.
It's a lot to think about. That's why we love a multi-use, nutrient-dense ingredient like shea butter. The butter is made from the fat extracted from the nuts of the Shea Tree, a plant native to West Africa (almost all of the shea butter used today still comes from this region). It, of course, has long been a staple for those with curly, coily, and kinky hair as it has tons of uses (not to mention: It's a great body hydrator, too). So what are some of the best ways to use this star ingredient, in case you're curious or want some more hair care inspo?
Well, we went to experts to find out:
"Shea butter is great for adding moisture to the hair as it's infused with vitamins and fatty acids that keep hair strong," says hairstylist Miko Branch, founder of Miss Jessie's. Just taking a quick peek at the nutrient profile of the butter will show you just how healing it is: It contains several types of fatty acids that are naturally found to balance skin like linoleic, palmitic, stearic, and oleic fatty acids; it also contains vitamin E, a potent and oil-soluble antioxidant that can help fight free-radical damage; and triglycerides, which are known to help condition both skin and hair.
This is why it makes for a great conditioner or hair treatment, like a mask. There are several hair treatments that use shea as their star ingredient (see our favorites below), or you can warm up some of the butter in your hands working it through your hair, root to tip. How dry your hair or scalp is will tell you how close to the root to get and how long you keep it on:
- For those with oily scalps or thin hair, stop at about mid-shaft.
- If you have denser hair and tend to have an itchy scalp, you can work the ingredient all the way up to the root—even working it in the skin (for more information on shea's use on the scalp, see point 3).
- You can leave the mask on for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before rinsing the butter out.
- For deep hydration, wrap your hair in a plastic cap and let it sit overnight.
Split end mender
With time, split ends come for us all. The pesky frays and damage work their way up the shaft, splintering your strands, causing frizz, and hindering overall health. The major bummer is that once your hairs split, there's no going back. You cannot fully "heal" damaged hair, but you can improve the appearance of tattered ends and protect it from further damage.
"In its natural form, you can apply it directly to the ends of hair, as it acts like a conditioner and can help prevent split ends and reduce breakage," says Branch. Essentially, the butter will wrap around the hair, infusing the strands with nutrients while also adding a coat of protection against further splitting. And when the ingredient coats the already frayed ends, it temporarily improves the look of them in the meantime before your next trim.
You've heard it here before: Your scalp is your skin. Thus, things that tend to be good for skin can also usually be beneficial for your scalp. (Not always—as you have the hair to worry about, too—but in the case of shea butter, it definitely holds true.)
"When applied at the scalp, shea butter can aid in reducing any redness and dryness, which can minimize flakes," says Branch. One way to effortlessly apply it is to give yourself a scalp massage. Simply warm your shea butter in your hands and, using the pads of your fingers, work your scalp with gentle circular motions for five minutes.
Natural heat protector
If you are one to use hot tools, like curling wands, straighteners, or dryers, you should always use a heat protector. Heat protectors create a physical barrier around the hairs, creating a buffer for the potentially damaging temperatures. "Shea butter can also lightly protect hair from any heat damage," Branch agrees. Apply a thin layer of the ingredient on your hair when damp before taking a blow dryer or diffuser to your strands.
Post-wash, you'll want to make sure to trap some of that much-needed hydration in your strands before it evaporates away. The best way to do this is through ingredients that have some occlusive properties, like shea butter. Occlusive materials are those that create some sort of barrier, meaning water cannot get out. So when you apply shea-based products, like curl creams, it will help your strands stay hydrated for longer. It can also help lay the cuticle flat, thus reducing frizz later on.
Can every hair type use it?
We've said this before, and we'll say it again: Not every ingredient or hair care tip is correct for everyone, all of the time, or in the same way. Many hair types can tolerate thicker oils, while others' hair will fall flat; likewise, many hair textures drink up certain products, while others may find it not enough. Same with shea butter.
See, what makes the ingredient so appealing to many with dry, thick, or coarse hair also makes it not ideal for others. What do we mean by this? The thick, dense texture. "Since shea butter is very rich, if applied at the root on thin hair, it can leave hair appearing greasy and flat," says Branch. "Instead, apply a small amount to just the ends to reap the moisturizing benefits without the weight."
Bonus: It's great for the body too.
Like most natural oils and butters, shea butter is a tried-and-true multitasker. In fact, the ingredient is likely formulated into many of your favorite skin and body care items already. Shea butter is an excellent emollient, meaning it can soften the skin and fill in microcracks; it's also been shown to seal moisture into the skin and protect the skin barrier. So, yes, feel free to use shea butter hair to toe.
DIY whipped shea butter
You can use shea butter in its natural state—you'll need to warm it in your hands to melt it into a liquid, much like you might do coconut oil—or you can DIY a whipped-up version. There are different methods you can try, but this is a good basic option for beginners:
- Take your raw shea butter (unrefined or refined are fine) like this option from Atharva. Place it in a medium metal bowl.
- In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Place your bowl of shea butter onto the pot so the shea is heated from the steam of the boiling water.
- Once melted, remove from the pot, and add a generous tablespoon scoop of coconut oil. You can play around with proportions.
- Using a stand mixer—yes like you might with cooking—begin whipping the mixture together. You can take this process 5 minutes at a time, checking the consistency throughout. Eventually, after about 15 to 20 minutes of this, you'll get a light, fluffy consistency.
- Store your butter in a cool dark place.
Products we love.
Not interested in going the DIY route? We get it—especially since there are so many excellent products that use the ingredient already. Here, a few for hair and body.
This popular hair ingredient has been widely used for good reason: The nutrient-dense profile is perfect for hair and skin. You can find it formulated into hair and body products, use the item raw, or whip up a DIY blend.
Heal Your Skin.
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Alexandra Engler is the Beauty Director at mindbodygreen. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She has worked at many top publications and brands including Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends and updates in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as travel, financial wellness, and parenting. She has reported on the intricacies of product formulations, the diversification of the beauty industry, and and in-depth look on how to treat acne from the inside, out (after a decade-long struggle with the skin condition herself). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.