Types of use of shea butter in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals
part 4 shea series

Shea butter has gained its fame mainly through cosmetics. But it is also widely used in the food industry, pharmaceuticals and medicine. Here you can find out about the various areas of application of this valuable vegetable butter.

Use in cosmetics

The high content of the inexhaustible in shea butter has a very positive effect on the skin. It makes the skin supple, binds moisture to the epidermis and thus prevents dehydration. Shea butter is very well tolerated, especially by sensitive skin. Due to its many positive properties, it is used in many skin care products such as lotions, creams, lip balms and the like. Shea butter has a natural sun protection factor of 3. The natural antioxidants vitamin E and beta-carotene also help the skin to protect itself from free radicals, which are also responsible for skin aging. Thus the shea butter is said to have an anti-aging effect. Furthermore, shea butter protects and regenerates the skin against weather influences.

Use in pharmacy and medicine

The ingredient allantoin contained in shea butter has an anti-inflammatory effect. Therefore, it can provide relief for dry skin prone to eczema and skin diseases such as neurodermatitis or psoriasis. It also helps to level out scars.

In a clinical study, the use of shea butter on the nasal mucous membrane was tested against colds. The better effect compared to conventional nasal drops was found (Tella 1979).

Shea butter is traditionally used to treat rheumatism in its countries of origin. Through the massage while applying the cream and the anti-inflammatory ingredients, joint pain can be alleviated with regular use. Yellow shea butter is known for this. It is enriched with the root of the Borututu tree. 

In northern Ghana, the bark of the Borututu tree has been used for centuries for the production of topical preparations and teas, which contributes to the detoxification and healing of inflammations. Its yellow root is added to «normal» shea butter during production. The result is shea butter that has a bright yellow colour and is enriched with extra antioxidants and minerals in addition to the «normal» shea butter.

Gelbe Sheabutter unraffiniert
Yellow unrefined shea butter extracted Borututo tree

Use as a dermatotherapeutic

In a clinical study, pure shea butter was tested on 35 patients with skin diseases, while a 15% shea butter cream was tested on 15 patients. The subjects applied the products 2 times daily for 10 days and 5 months respectively. It was found that scaling dermatitis and dry aging skin can achieve faster and better results than with an oily corticosteroid ointment. Both the pure shea butter and the 15% cream were shown to be effective in the treatment of atrophic and degenerative symptoms of aging and prolonged exposure of the skin to radiation (Tran 1984).

The triterpene alcohols amyrin, lupeol and butyrospermol contained in shea butter have an anti-inflammatory effect. They also inhibit protein-degrading enzymes and proteases. These act in the skin and break down collagen and elastin, which are however important structural proteins for the strength and resilience of the skin. The production of these proteins increases with age. This leads to thinner and less elastic skin. Shea butter, on the other hand, can be used.

Lowering cholesterol levels

A controlled double-blind study investigated the effect of a shea butter spread on healthy individuals with normal to slightly elevated serum cholesterol levels. 53 subjects ingested 30 g/d of the shea butter spread for 6 consecutive weeks and 52 subjects in the control group ingested 30 g/d of a sunflower oil spread. The shea butter diet reduced total cholesterol levels by 5%, LDL cholesterol levels by 8%, LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol ratios by 9%, apolipoprotein B levels by 7% (average serum levels), average diastolic blood pressure by 2% and average systolic blood pressure by 3%. HDL cholesterol, triglyceride and lipoprotein a levels in serum remained unaffected. The average BMI (body mass index) decreased significantly by 0.6%.

The results showed that a diet with shea butter effectively reduced total and LDL cholesterol levels in healthy adults and could thus serve to prevent coronary artery disease (Schmidt et al. 2003).

In the food industry

Stearins from shea butter are often used as cocoa butter substitutes. It is also used as margarine, in baking fats and other foods.

Other uses

Shea butter is very popular for making soap. It is also used in the construction industry as protection against rain on house walls (Axtell and Fairman 1992, p. 121). Shea butter is used in African countries as edible fat, in Europe it is used for margarine production, for the production of ointment bases and as a substitute for cocoa butter (Hunnius 1998, p. 1466). Last but not least shea butter is a great allrounder in cosmetics.

Source: Lexicon of vegetable fats and oils, 2nd edition 2013, Sabine Krist, University of Vienna, Institute for Clinical Pharmacy and Diagnostics

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