There are ingredients in the beauty space that are so beloved and used with such frequency, their stature as super actives is almost sacrosanct. Shea butter is certainly just that. Not only is it incredibly effective at its intended purpose—that being hydrating and nurturing the body hair to toe—but it's such a lavish experience to apply that many have endeared themselves to the ingredient as simply a joy to use.
Well, we love it too. So much so we decided to provide a breakdown of all the benefits, DIY uses, and info about the ingredient.
What is shea butter?
Shea 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). Historically, it's been used by the people of the region for ages—both topically and as a cooking butter (food-grade shea butter is still used for cooking today). And currently, it's most famous for its use in beauty, be it homemade options, hair care items, or skin care products.
Why is it so popular in beauty? Well, the nutrient profile will give you an idea: It's rich in triglycerides, fatty acids, and vitamins—all components of effective skin care items. Used topically, shea butter is an excellent emollient and skin soother and can help skin reduce moisture loss. It's so popular, we wager it will likely show up on the ingredient list of your favorite body lotion, hand cream, and more—it reads Butyrospermum Parkii on the list, in case you're having trouble finding it.
Shea butter benefits for skin.
Without further delay, here's everything you can expect from adding in shea butter to your skin care regimen—or what you're getting already if it's already in it:
- It's hydrating and plumping. The most obvious benefit, of course, is the moisturizing properties. Ask anyone who's smoothed the ingredient on their skin, and they'll tell you: It's a game-changer. Its moisturizing qualities are tied to the high fatty acid content—and thanks to the types of fatty acids it contains (namely linoleic acid and oleic acid), it tends to be nongreasy and easily absorbed.
- Protects the skin barrier. 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 barrier1. One study even suggests it has similar topical effects as ceramides2—or the polar lipids naturally found in your epidermis that are responsible for sealing your skin barrier. In fact, board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., told us that she recommends it as an ingredient to help support your microbiome, which is a vital component to barrier protection.
- Anti-inflammatory. Shea butter extract has also been shown to be anti-inflammatory3, in large part due to its skin-barrier-protecting properties—but also because it's notably high in vitamin E, a potent and oil-soluble antioxidant that can help fight free-radical damage and oxidative stress.
- Aids in wound-healing. Repairing skin, be it from flare-ups, acne lesions, or the like, can be a long process. (Some scars never truly go away, either.) But adding in topicals that aid in barrier support and have antioxidant properties can help. In fact, in one study researchers found that topical shea butter can improve skin's appearance, immune response, and healing time.
- Supports skin health as you age. Likely due to a combination of all the effects above, but studies have shown that it improves the look of aging skin.
Bonus: It's great for hair, too.
While we're just discussing skin benefits here, it's an equally beloved hair care ingredient as well—especially those with kinky, coily, or curly strands, as it's deeply moisturizing. "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. And there are several ways you can use the ingredient for the hair from DIY mask and split-end mender to scalp soother and heat protector.
Shea butter skin care ideas.
Shea butter is a star ingredient for DIY—and can make any at-home project simply sing:
Body, foot, and hand cream
An at-home body lotion probably sounds pretty complex to make—but with the right ratio of bases, it's actually quite easy. In fact, as we learned here in this tutorial, you just want to make sure you have the right blend of an oil-based ingredient, a water-based one, and additional thickening and occlusive agents (from there, you can have fun with it and add in essential oils or the like.) And a base option that makes for a fabulous DIY? Shea butter.
But also: Why fuss with something so impressive on its own? You can simply get pure shea butter, warm it up in your hands, and apply it evenly on the skin for a luxe one-ingredient body lotion. However, it does tend to be thick—so if you're using it on its own, many people tend to focus on dry, coarser skin (like hands and feet) rather than all over.
Finally, it's a very popular addition to many body care products, from body butters and lotions to hand creams. If you're afraid of at-home kitchen action, you can probably find a formula that already has the ingredient in the lineup.
Plenty of the most popular lip balms on the market already are infused with shea butter. That's because to make a balm, you typically need an oil, wax, and butter—and well, shea just happens to be one of the most popular. (Cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat Ron Robinson notes that it's so in-demand thanks to being high in fatty acids, like oleic and stearic acids.) Check out these easy lip balm recipes for more info.
Body scrubs are actually some of the easiest to tackle, as you really only need two ingredients: a physical exfoliator and a base. From there, there are tons of variety that comes into play, as you can opt for something more abrasive (which basically means you use more exfoliant than hydrating base), or you can make something more moisturizing (which means you use a thicker, creamer base). Shea butter, being so dense, definitely helps you pull off the latter type of scrub. In fact, there's a hydrating body scrub option in this DIY scrub guide.
How to make 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.
There's a good reason this product is so loved in the beauty space—by experts and consumers alike. Its long history of use not only accounts for its effectiveness, but it has the research to back it up. If your parched skin needs some help, this is for you.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at 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 in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.