Shea butter, sourced from the African subcontinent, is one of the most beloved natural moisturisers for keeping the skin moist and supple. If you’re somebody who shuns commercial moisturisers due to the red and blotchy acne they cause, then you’ve probably heard of shea butter.
First of all, shea butter easily beats coconut oil and cocoa butter as a natural moisturiser. It has the standout property of a comedogenic rating of 0 out of 5.
That means that there’s almost no chance that this natural oil will clog your pores, little chance that you’ll accidently give p.acnes bacteria a whole new estate of homes free of charge.
Cocoa butter and coconut oil both score 4 out of 5 and despite their lauric acid and vitamin E, that’s why I recommend against them. Shea butter even beats jojoba oil and grapeseed oil, which each have a score of 2 out of 5.
Shea butter has one trick up its sleeve already, but that isn’t sufficient reason to recommend it for acne. If it doesn’t work, then the lack of comedogenicity is irrelevant.
Therefore our next questions are 1) whether shea butter actually moisturises human skin, and 2) whether it has any less known side effects related to acne.
Africa’s favourite moisturiser
Shea butter is the fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tea. It has an ivory colour, a unique nutty aroma, and is solid at room temperature.
It’s used as a cosmetics ingredient in Western counties, particularly in high end moisturisers and soaps. It’s also used as substitute for cocoa butter in chocolate whenever the prices get too high, providing a similar but subtly different taste.
However, shea butter originated from Africa, and that’s where it has always been most popular. Shea butter appears in almost all African historical records. One Ancient Egyptian text discusses how Cleopatra used it; another mentions caravans bearing clay jars of shea butter for cosmetic use. Ancient African kings were buried in coffins made of wood from the shea tree.
Today, shea butter remains rampantly popular as a homemade moisturiser. Shea butter is the staple ingredient of soap produced in local communities. In Northeast Ghana, pregnant women traditionally apply shea butter to their stomachs in order to prevent stretch marks. Shea butter is used to moisturise new born babies once they’re born; it’s also applied to the umbilical stump of the baby to minimise bacterial infections and prevent infant mortality.
Over in Togo, shea butter is a staple of every aspect of life. In the Fulani tribe, every bride is made to apply shea butter to her face and arms for at least three months before the wedding day, to enrich her skin tone.
The groom gets to enjoy the shea butter as well, but in a slightly less pleasant way. For 3 months before the wedding day the bride’s parents whip his chest 30 times a day, to establish exactly how much he loves their daughter. Luckily, a mixture of shea butter and wild honey is on hand to heal the pain.
The entire shea tree is utilised. The red liquid remaining after the butter extraction is used in bricks to build houses; it’s said to keep termites away effectively. The liquid is also used as a cheap red colouring for local art. Even the most deprived Togan gets to use shea butter as a moisturiser. The average Togan will have shea butter applied to his or her body almost every day, from being a new-born baby to a wise old village elder.
All in all, shea butter is perhaps the most popular moisturizer in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the West, everybody is every obsessed with Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine remedies. Nobody cares about the likes of crocodile oil (maybe they’re scared of a real crocodile bursting out of the bottle).
Shea butter, however, is one skincare remedy which has finally left the shores of Africa. It might be so effective that it cannot be ignored.
Confirmed – the moisturising powers of shea butter
Visiting scientists in the 1940s confirmed that the occurrence of skin diseases in populations using shea butter was very low. These were casual observations; another factor could have been at play. Black skin is very different to white skin as well. It’s even possible that the scientists were unaccustomed to analysing black skin compared to white skin and failed to reach a judgement properly.
Does shea butter really have any moisturising powers? Even without proper data, I’d deem shea butter to be very promising just because of its thousand year track record of usage.
Nevertheless, one study was conducted on 10 humans. A cream consisting of 5% shea butter was compared to a placebo cream; both were applied to the forearms of patients. The shea butter worked excellently as a short term moisturiser. The improvements peaked after 1 hour and persisted for up to 8 hours. With daily application, the shea butter effectively hydrated the outermost layers of the skin in all participants.
A separate study analysed the effect of shea butter on trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL), the quantity of water vapour lost in the outer layers of the skin. Shea butter decreased trans-epidermal water loss far more effectively than the mineral oil it was compared to.
Scientists deliberately damaged the skin of participants by washing it in ethanol. The shea butter completely reversed the TEWL increase in just 2 hours.
Shea butter has been shown to decrease skin dryness in patients with both eczema and dermatitis. In the eczema study it was compared to Vaseline, a petroleum jelly commonly used in commercial moisturiser products.
A scale was devised whereby 5 indicated severe eczema and 0 indicated clear skin. Shea butter reduced the average eczema score from 3 to 1, whereas the widely used Vaseline decreased it from 3 to 2.
Like any good moisturiser, shea butter has some photo protection properties as well; it can increase the resistance of the skin to UV radiation.
Depending on what you read, shea butter has a sun protection factor of between 3 and 4 or between 3 and 6. We can safely say that shea butter scores at least 3, and the SPF determines the amount of extra minutes you can spend in the sun without inflaming your skin and acne. A score of 3 indicates 30 extra minutes for every ten minutes.
Some of the main bioactive compounds in shea butter are cinnamic acid esters. These compounds are known to strongly absorb UV radiation in the wavelength range of 250-300nm. The range in sunlight which generates free radicals is 290-320nm.
In fact, one of the major reasons why shea butter was imported into the Ancient Egyptian deserts in the first place was believed to be protection against the harsh wind and sunlight.
Soldiers roaming around the desert were in serious need of a natural sunscreen before the dawn of pharmacists; the same goes for conquering Roman solders hundreds of years later, whose paler skin was even less adapted.
The other acne powers reviewed
For acne specifically, shea butter has several plant compounds with promising anti-inflammatory properties. One study found that shea butter could reduce the irritation from common chemical skin irritants.
The two triterpene compounds a-amyrin and beta-amyrin found in shea butter have been shown to reduce inflammatory swelling in mice, inhibiting pro-inflammatory chemicals such as COX-2 and interleukin 1-beta.
However, the most promising power for acne which is completely proven is an ability to increase collagen formation.
Collagen strengthens the skin and reductions are responsible for ageing; keeping collagen levels high can prevent wrinkles and thinner skin. It all started with a study on dry, delicate and ageing skin. 49 human volunteers were instructed to apply shea butter twice daily; shea butter reduced all the above problems. A separate study involved 30 human volunteers, and shea butter was shown to reduce various signs of ageing.
In both studies, an increase in collagen formation was observed. The most interesting aspect of shea butter is the mechanisms it uses. Shea butter contains a-amyrin and another compound called lupeol. Both of these have been proven to inhibit the enzyme collagenase on the skin’s surface.
You might be familiar with the key digestive enzymes manufactured by the human body. You have lipase which digests fats, amylase which digests carbohydrates, and phytase which breaks down phytic acid. Humans also produce protease, which breaks down proteins.
Perhaps you can work out where this is going. Collagenase is an enzyme that breaks down collagen supplies, in order to prevent an overgrowth or break down old tissue. The a-amyrin and lupeol found in shea butter deactivate that collagenase and increase your overall collagen levels.
That’s a unique power among topical treatments. It isn’t found in the likes of jojoba oil or grapeseed oil. For example, cinnamon increases collagen formation when applied topically, but it works by enhancing insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) activity.
Overall, shea butter is mildly beneficial for acne itself, but it moisturises and strengthens your skin from every angle.
Shea butter hydrates human skin, defends it against sunlight, and can prevent ageing and wrinkles by increasing collagen levels.
Buy West African shea butter
One of the most notable characteristics of shea butter is the significant variation in its nutritional composition between different varieties from across Africa.
For example, shea butter from Burkina Faso is much harder and has a higher melting point than butter from Uganda. Two trees growing right next to each other can produce nut butter with wildly varying vitamin A levels.
It is this variation which produces the only threat to your skin – the high oleic acid content of some shea butters.
Shea butter is a fat, a natural plant oil – it is referred to as a “butter” because it is solid at room temperature. The fatty acid breakdown of the butter is as follows:
Stearic acid – mean content 41.5%, range between 25.6% and 50.2%.
Palmitic acid – mean content 4.0%, range between 2.6% and 8.4%.
Oleic acid – mean content 46.4%, range between 37.1% and 62.1%.
Linoleic acid – mean content 6.6%, range between 0.6% and 10.8%.
Arachidic acid – mean content 1.3%, range between 0% and 3.6%.
The average shea butter contains most of its fat as oleic acid, and if you’ve read many of the older articles on this website, you’ll know that oleic acid can be inflammatory when applied topically.
Pure oleic acid significantly increases trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) according to this study, study, study and this study. Oleic acid also damages protective waxy fat molecules in the skin called ceramides.
Shea butter is almost completely safe in general, but outbreaks of acne or irritation have been reported. One person “had a significant allergic reaction to it within a few hours” while another reported that shea butter “causes some breakouts if I use it frequently”. It’s very likely that these unlucky people stumbled across a high oleic acid variety and payed the price.
Compared to olive oil the percentages in shea butter are low; olive oil consists of 70% oleic acid. The scientific studies didn’t reveal the detrimental effects that you would expect from oleic acid. The decrease in TEWL was one of the biggest reported benefits.
However, 62.1% is a high concentration and that’s what some acne patients could have been applying. Most acne patients report in with no downsides and perhaps they were luckier and/or smarter.
Stearic acid, on the other hand, is very important to the human skin barrier and doesn’t lead to inflammation. The other fatty acids are found in too low quantities to affect anything.
Where do we stand? Your task is to buy a shea butter brand from West Africa.
The further West in Africa you travel, the harder and more stearic acid-rich your shea butter will become.
That’s why shea butter from Gambia and Burkina Faso is harder; stearic acid is a saturated fat with a higher melting point. The ideal shea butter will have close to even concentrations of oleic acid and stearic acid, to balance each other out.
The best shea butter product for acne
Keep your nose open for subtle differences in the aroma and flavour. If you’re an experimentation maniac then you could try a high oleic variety from Uganda or Cameroon as well. Different shea butters are varied enough to become like a completely new topical treatment.
Overall, a great product is this Out of Africa Raw Shea Butter, 8 Ounce.
It’s cold pressed and hence contains all the beneficial compounds which increase collagen levels. It’s sourced from the West African countries of Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Benin, all of which produce the high-stearic shea butter you want.
Using shea butter could not be simpler. Rub it into your skin as you would with any grocery store moisturiser. The difference compared to commercial brands is the lack of red and blotchy acne, which you’ve surely noticed. In fact, shea butter will calm your skin.
Free from side effects
The news from elsewhere on the side effect front is excellent; this study found that “shea butter… does not appear to exhibit allergenicity after topical or systemic exposure”. Shea butter is free from any rogue plant toxins that might derail things, like the psolaren in lemon juice.
In this review, scientists were mildly fearful of an allergy due to the shea nut’s relation to the Brazil nut, a common allergen. However they reported that shea butter is safe for use even in individuals with nut allergies.
The only real side effects occur when you eat shea butter. This relates to the collagen boosting powers; frying meats or cooking bean cakes with shea butter like the Africans do can inhibit protein digestion by altering your protease enzymes.
Additionally, same saponin compounds in shea butter can bind to amino acids and form saponin-protein complexes in the intestine, preventing your body from utilising them.
Luckily, there are few advantages to cooking with shea butter anyway. It has its role in the world of acne – it works best as a topical treatment.
If you want a purely natural moisturiser, a way to improve acne mildly but above all improve your skin tone and hydration, then shea butter is hard to beat.
It’s much better than jojoba oil, which is slightly more comedogenic. Jojoba oil was shown to moisturise the skin’s outer layers for approximately 24 hours. However, shea butter has a far more storied history across countless countries in Africa.
Its specific powers are more interesting, particularly the inhibition of collagenase. Jojoba oil is swirling with clouds of hype but it’s a pretty basic oil in reality.
A smart strategy for skin tone would be to use shea butter as your daily moisturiser, and a combination of cinnamon and aloe vera gel as your acne-killing cleanser. Cinnamon increases collagen by enhancing the activity of IGF-1, while aloe vera increases collagen because of two plant growth hormones called gibberellin and glucomannan.
If your ultimate goal is to keep your skin youthful and firm, this would be a killer combination, especially if combined with dietary collagen strategies such as eating vitamin C.
Again the best product is this Out of Africa Raw Shea Butter, 8 Ounce.
If you’ve previously used coconut oil or cocoa butter, but grown demoralised due to the resulting clogged pores, shea butter is a dramatically superior option.
Thanks for reading!