top of page

Shea Butter - Explainer

Shea butter is derived from the Bambara tree, a small tropical African tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) famous in Eastern Africa as the Karite tree. Shea butter is the fat extracted from the shea kernel or nuts that are rich in natural ingredients, which are harvested and processed into what is consumed as body butter today (Karite Shea Butter, (n.d)).

The rich history of shea butter spans centuries. Cleopatra was said to have stored shea oil in large clay jars for her skin and hair care routines and massaged it into her skin after a milk and honey bath. It is recorded to have also been a beauty secret of Queen Nefertiti and a favourite of Queen Sheba (Body Care, 2021).

The shea belt is the West African countries of Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Benin, Nigeria, Togo, and the Ivory Coast and the only countries south of the Sahara where the shea trees grow naturally. Other African countries include Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya (MFTC, 2019).

How It Is Produced

A shea tree can live to be over 300 years old, and it takes 15 to 20 years to bear fruit for the first time. However, shea butter extractions are complex steps. The remarkable thing about the shea tree is that it is difficult to cultivate. Consequently, there have not been any shea plantations to date (Beiersdorf, (n.d.)).

Ripe shea fruits fallen from the trees are collected during harvesting from June to September. Their pulp is removed either manually or by fermentation to separate the nuts. These are then processed using one of the three traditional methods – boiling, roasting or sun-drying. When shea nuts are boiled in water, the advantage is that it prevents the germination of the seeds. These boiled nuts are sun-dried to separate the kernel from the shell and then sun-dried or roasted. The ripe Shea fruits can be sun-dried directly without boiling (Rajbonshi, 2021).

The traditional water extraction process is used in African countries. The dried kernels are subjected to wet milling to prepare a paste homogenised by kneading and hand-beating. The resultant butter is scooped up, filtered through a filter cloth, and stored for cooling to obtain solid shea butter (Rajbonshi, 2021).

Its Uses

Shea butter is described as a superfood and can be used in many products, such as soaps, lotions, and body butter. Shea butter contains beneficial compounds such as vitamins E, A and F, which have pro-aging and moisturising properties. It is also used as a natural UV protector (T. Islam, 2017).

African women use shea butter for wrinkles and stretch marks. The Vitamin A and E components possess pro-aging and moisturising properties that have been used for centuries.

This African gem has also been used to care for the crown of African women for centuries. The butter is massaged in circular motions into sectioned parts of the scalps for dry and frizzy hair before and after shampooing (Karite Shea Butter. (n.d)).

Popular hair care brands such as Cantu, African Pride, and Carol’s daughter use shea butter to create products that have become household names among black women. With Dove’s purely pamper beauty bar to Jergen’s body butter and QEI+Paris shea butter lotion. Women’s gold accurately describes the value and significance of these precious gifts in over 17 African countries. From Skin care to hair care and women empowerment, the Bambara tree remains a symbol of hope and beauty to African women (Thirteen Lune, (n.d)).

By Damilola Ademilokun, Africa's Young Fashion Leaders Fellow (Project Management) at the Council for International African Fashion Education


  • Shea Butter

  • Beauty

  • African Cosmetics


Says, T. Islam (2017). 7 African Ingredients and Rituals for Healthy and Flawless Skin | Malée. [online] Malee Natural Science. Available at:

Karité Shea Butter. (n.d.). Karité Shea Butter | What is Shea Butter? [online] Available at:

Body Care. (2021). Shea Butter was: Queen Cleopatra’s, Queen of Sheba and Nefertiti’s Favorite. [online] Available at: (n.d.). Shea Butter – Natural Care from West Africa | Beiersdorf. [online] Available at:

Rajbonshi, D. (2021). Shea Butter: Origins and production. [online] Kumar Metal Industries. Available at: (n.d.). Shea Butter – Natural Care from West Africa | Beiersdorf. [online] Available at:

Thirteen Lune. (n.d.). Discovering the Cultural Heritage of Shea Butter. [online] Available at:

MTFC | Meet The Farmers Conference - Nov 2019 - Dubai UAE. (2020). Where this is found in Africa: Shea Butter. [online] Available at:

Image Credit:

bottom of page