11 Ways to Use Raw Shea Butter

You can believe the hype. Shea butter is a wonderful all-around beauty balm.

flat lay of raw shea butter in bowls with grooming and hair tools on laminate wood table

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

According to the oracle known as the Internet, shea butter (pronounced shay) is a miracle ingredient, and if its uses were tallied up they’d number in the thousands. After using it for a while now, we have to say we agree.

There is no shortage of folk wisdom and testimonies singing its praises—and really, in a world of cosmetics laden with synthetic ingredients and odd extras like little plastic balls, the availability of a botanical body care ingredient pure enough to eat is a beautiful thing. Especially when it happens to be so effective.

What Is Shea Butter?

Shea butter is extracted from the nuts of African karite trees (Vitellaria paradoxa), a species that grows from Guinea and Senegal to Uganda and South Sudan. It has long been used for health and cooking in Africa and is also an ingredient in a number of confections, especially chocolate; but its latest role is as the new darling of the beauty and body care world.

Rich in vitamins E and A, among others, this plant lipid has unique properties that make it a standout in the nut oil family. The presence of fatty acids and plant sterols, like oleic, stearic, palmitic and linolenic acids add to shea butter’s notably high non-saponifiable fraction—meaning, it doesn’t convert to soap when introduced to an alkali, which offers greater healing potential for the skin.

It is great for hydrating, moisturizing, and smoothing, as the skin absorbs it well. Shea butter has many other awesome attributes as well, which makes it a wonderful ally to do any of the following.

1. Indulge Dry Skin

flat shot of dry hands rubbing in shea butter with wooden bowl nearby

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

According to the American Shea Butter Institute, the moisturizers in shea butter are the same ones that are produced by the skin’s sebaceous glands, making it one of the best matches for dry skin. You are essentially moisturizing your skin with the oils it likes best, which will result in better hydrated, smoother-looking skin, particularly during dry winter months.

2. Make Your Hair Happy

glass jar of raw shea butter with hair brush and comb on bamboo tray

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Shea butter is used in many a haircare product and with good reason. It is said to have a number of benefits, including sealing in moisture, defining curl, conditioning the scalp, alleviating dandruff and decreasing the dreaded frizz. Also, applied to just the roots when styling can add a bit of volume to fine hair.

3. Enhance Your Kisser

close shot of person rubbing raw shea butter on lips as diy lip balm

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Shea butter is said to protect and soothe the lips. Apply several times a day; smooch frequently to test its efficacy. You can blend it with beeswax and essential oils for a DIY lip balm if you prefer.

4. Calm Inflamed Skin

two hands rub shea butter into palm, with wooden bowl of raw shea butter in background

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Shea butter has several anti-inflammatory agents, including derivatives of cinnamic acid. In a study on shea butter and its anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive effects published in the Journal of Oleo Science, researchers concluded that “shea nuts and shea fat (shea butter) constitute a significant source of anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor promoting compounds.”

5. Fade Stretch Marks

woman rubs shea butter into legs to fade stretch marks

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

While authorities like the Mayo Clinic and Baby Center note that the only way to really diminish stretch marks is with Retin-A or laser treatments, there are many testimonies across the Web of people who swear by the power of shea butter for helping in this endeavor. Its abundance of vitamins and healing agents doesn’t make this seem like much a stretch, so to speak.

6. Ease Eczema and Acne

woman rubs shea butter into cheek to soothe eczema

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Both eczema and acne require delicate treatments as not to exacerbate the problems; and in both cases, a pure and natural product is favorable to one with synthetic ingredients and fragrances. According to reviews, shea butter's efficacy for eczema and acne is mixed. Some say that it doesn't work at all, but more seem to agree that shea butter does indeed help. Shea is non-comedogenic, meaning it will not block pores.

For eczema, users like to soak in a tub then apply shea butter while still damp to lock in the moisture; for acne, suggestions include applying a thin film after cleaning the face and then rinsing it off after a few hours. We can't guarantee these uses, but with shea's unique properties, it seems worth a try.

7. Repair Cracked Heels and Troublesome Cuticles

close shot of curled hand showing healthy cuticles and nails

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Many who suffer from painful cracked heels and dry cuticles claim that shea butter solves the problem. For heels that are particularly bad, apply shea butter before bed and slip into cotton socks for the night.

8. Give Skin an Antioxidant Boost

fingers dip into glass bowl of raw shea butter on bamboo tray

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Shea butter is high in vitamins A and E, as well as catechins and other significant plant antioxidants, which may protect skin from damage. There is evidence that suggests that cinnamic acid esters in shea fat also help to prevent damage from ultraviolet radiation.

9. Ditch the Itch From Insect Bites

hand rubs creamy shea butter on insect bite on inner wrist

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

With its anti-inflammatory magic, it makes sense that shea butter would quell the swelling of insect bites, but if crowds of people across the Web are correct, it also stops the irksome itch of insect bites pretty much on the spot.

10. Aid Your Shave

wooden bowl of raw shea butter with metal razor on bamboo tray

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

The jury is still out on this one—some like a shea shave because it’s so nice on the skin; others say that it doesn’t provide enough cushion for the razor since it doesn’t lather. If you like more of an “oil shave” than a sudsy one, shave with shea. And even if you use a lather to shave with, applying shea post-shave can soothe irritation.

11. Clear Nasal Congestion

close shot of just woman's mouth and nose in 3/4 profile

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

A study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that shea butter was potentially more efficacious in treating nasal congestion than nasal drops. Subjects with congestion (mostly associated with seasonal allergy) were given 2-4 grams of shea butter applied to the interior of the nostril “by means of the subject’s right index finger.” (Which is to say, you can try this at home!) The airways of those using the shea butter (opposed to those using nasal drops or petroleum jelly) became clear within 30 to 90 seconds of application, and remained so for 5 to 8 hours, besting the other treatment methods.

What to Look For When Buying

When shopping, raw unrefined shea butter or grade A is preferred, as the product diminishes the more refined it is and the more additives it has. Also, know that unrefined shea butter is not like a smooth, creamy lotion; it’s a little harder and greasier (but in a good way) and softens when warmed. It ranges in color from creamy off-white to yellow; very white shea butter has most likely been highly refined.

There are many women’s cooperatives working to produce shea butter—the U.N.notes that shea butter provides employment and income to millions of women across Africa—and many come with third-party fair-trade and sustainability certification. Look to buy yours from a company that supports social and environmental issues.

Also, although shea nuts appear to be safe for those who are allergic, if you have tree nut allergies please consult with your physician before using shea.

View Article Sources
  1. "What is Shea Butter?" American Shea Butter Institute.

  2. Akihisa, Toshihiro, et al. "Anti-Inflammatory and Chemopreventive Effects of Triterpene Cinnamates and Acetates from Shea Fat." J Oleo Sci, vol. 59, iss. 6, 2010, pp. 273-280., doi:10.5650/jos.59.273

  3. "Stretch Marks." Mayo Clinic.

  4. Nunes, Alesandra R., et al. "Use of Flavonoids and Cinnamates, the Main Photoprotectors with Natural Origin." Adv Pharmacol Sci., vol. 2018, doi:10.1155/2018/5341487

  5. Tella, A. “Preliminary Studies on Nasal Decongestant Activity from the Seed of the Shea butter tree, Butyrospermum parkii.” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, vol. 7, iss.5, 1979, pp. 495-7. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.1979.tb00992.x

  6. "Shea Butter Nourishes Opportunities for African Women." United Nations Africa Renewal.