By Terez Howard
Shea butter, oftentimes referred to as “African women’s gold” because it is one of the few economic commodities that women are able to control, has been known for centuries for its ability to condition, moisturize and soften skin and hair. According to the book Going Natural: How to Fall in Love With Nappy Hair, the cosmetic use of shea butter has been referenced as early as the times of Cleopatra of Egypt.
Made from the Karite (or Mangifolia) tree’s shea nuts of western and central Africa, this vegetable butter is an excellent emollient, or softener, in hair care, making strands more pliable. It takes fragile, dry, natural hair and forms a protective barrier. Refined shea butter and unrefined shea butter have their advantages and disadvantages. First, let’s examine what’s in shea butter.
Properties of Shea Butter
Shea butter is rich in vitamins A and E and demonstrates anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It protects the hair from free radical and environmental damage.
The majority of seed oils are made up of two fractions, the fraction with moisturizing properties and the fraction with healing properties. The properties of shea butter are set apart from other seed oils because it contains a large percentage of healing properties. Most seed oils are 1 percent or less, while shea butter is 5 to 17 percent. That is why shea butter has been known to restructure dry hair.
Shea butter protects strands from root to tip from weather conditions and brittleness. It absorbs quickly to the scalp without clogging the pores, making a wonderful moisturizer to natural hair and a dry scalp.
Unrefined Shea Butter
One hundred percent unrefined shea butter retains all of its natural vitamins. It is a very, very thick, yellowy butter, and a little goes a long way. So, even though the cost might be high, it can last easily for years.
If you use it as part of your natural hair care routine, make sure your hair is wet when you apply it. Also, you can melt it in the microwave or on the stove for easier application. A sign that you’ve used too much are when little white flakes appear in your hair. That means, you’ve used too much for your hair to absorb.
What some don’t like about unrefined shea butter is the scent. I personally own unrefined shea butter and would describe the smell as nutty butter, not peanut butter, but a mix between nuts and actual butter. Personally, I don’t mind the smell. If you don’t like the scent, I recommend spritzing the hair with a water and essential oil (lavendar, rosemary, tea tree) mix. This can produce a more pleasant scent on your hair.
Refined Shea Butter
This type of shea butter, which can be refined or even ultra-refined, has a better scent, consistency and color. Many naturals prefer this shea butter over unrefined because it is easier to handle and smells pleasantly.
On the other hand, the vitamin potency is diminished because it has been refined. When shea butter is extracted from the nut, its impurities, color, scent and other things people do not like are removed. With that goes many of its healing properties.
Remember This About Shea Butter…
Not all shea butter is the same. Some product might tout being “natural” or “organic.” But realize that companies can use this terminology if just one organic or natural component is included in the product.
Also, make sure you are not allergic to shea butter. While it has many benefits, shea butter can cause more harm than good if it is an allergen to you.