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What You Need to Know About Unrefined Shea Butter

The former executive director of a successful nonprofit agency now content specialist, Cynthia writes about a variety of researched topics.

Unrefined shea butter and the shea butternut.

Unrefined shea butter and the shea butternut.

Unrefined Shea Butter: One of Nature's Most Beneficial Products

Unrefined shea butter is one of nature's most beneficial products. In this article we will look at its history, its uses in the past and its uses today.

For over 2000 years unrefined shea butter has been used by the people of various African cultures from royalty to farmer, for beauty to medicine. It was found to have been used in ancient Egypt by the Pharaohs Cleopatra and Nefertiti as well as the Queen of Sheba. African farmers and villagers use it extensively today for a variety of needs, including cooking.

In recent years, the rest of the world has been fast catching on to the many benefits and uses of the valuable, edible unrefined shea butter.

Raw, unrefined shea butter is produced from the nut of the mangifolia tree, more commonly known as the shea karite tree which is indigenous to Central and Western Africa. It can be found in 19 African countries including Ghana, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria and Bukina Faso.

Unrefined shea butter is the most desirable grade of shea butter and this article refers mostly to the unrefined type of shea butter although there are uses for other grades.

Uses Today and Its Possible Benefits

There are a multitude of uses for unrefined shea butter including uses in cosmetics, medicine and cooking.

For unrefined shea butter, the cosmetic uses have a long list of benefits for the skin, hair, and nails. The antioxidants in Vitamins A, E and the non-saponifibale fats and alpha-linoleic acids of Vitamin F are responsible for the anti-aging and skin treatment properties. The list benefits include:

  • Reducing wrinkles.
  • Treating the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis.
  • Soothing itching from allergic dermatitis.
  • Preventing stretch marks
  • Treating blemishes.
  • Treating scars from burns and small wounds.
  • UV protection from the sun (not used alone as a sunscreen replacement) and treatment of sunburns.
  • Moisturizer for the hair, skin and nails.
  • Natural insect repellent.
  • Lip balm.

With these benefits is it any wonder that the cosmetics industry is quick to say they have shea butter added to lotions and hair products? However, the product is generally no longer unrefined and the vitamin content of the shea butter in most mass commercially produced cosmetic products is often so diminished that there is no real benefit from the shea butter.

Shea butter begins as a nut and ends as unrefined shea butter.

Shea butter begins as a nut and ends as unrefined shea butter.

Medicinally, unrefined shea butter’s anti-inflammatory properties seem to be derived from the cinnamic acid present in the butter. Because of the anti-inflammatory properties it has been used in African cultures to treat sore muscles and joint pain. In some countries of Africa, the butter has also been used to treat nasal congestion. It is also used as a natural treatment for athletes foot and to sooth and stimulate diabetic skin.

The butter is also be used as a base for some pharmaceutical medicines.

In Africa, unrefined shea butter has long been used as part of cooking. Chocolatiers use shea butter instead of cocoa butter in some the their chocolate recipes. The taste is slightly different from the cocoa, but the fat content remains proving it to be an economical, still tasty substitute for cocoa butter.

Not often mentioned, shea butter is great for restoring wood and leather, their cells rejuvenated by the oils in shea butter. It is also used for conditioning musical instruments and making candles.

Women in Western and Central Africa aking shea butter

Women in Western and Central Africa aking shea butter

Making Unrefined Shea Butter

The women and girls of the villages in Western and Central Africa are responsible for making unrefined shea butter using the same process today that was used centuries ago for everyone from farmers to royalty.

The innocuous little nut from the shea karite tree is transformed into raw, unrefined shea butter, which has a myriad of beneficial uses from beauty to health. It is one of the many natural resources of Africa and the trade of unrefined shea butter has a positive impact on the families of the village communities in Western and Central Africa.

The nut is harvested from the Magnofolia tree, commonly called the shea karite tree. The tree itself does not produce the nut until the tree is nearly twenty years old. The trees can live for hundreds of years and is protected from any clearing because if the many benefits of the shea nut to the various African cultures for eons.

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The butter is a product of the a process of extrusion of the oils from the boiled and roasted nuts. The first step in the process is to dry the nut, then separate it from its outer shell and roast them. The nuts are then crushed and ground followed by boiling in huge outdoor, open flame pots. Like any other butter making process, the pot is stirred often to prevent burning.

The smell of the butter is often a result of this hot, smoky, sticky tiring process. The nuts are then ground further to form a paste. Water is added to help separate the oils from the paste. The water is then extruded or squeezed from the paste, which is boiled some more to remove any remaining water and then shaped into balls. A tedious, arduous process that produces a product with many benefits known to the African cultures for over 2000 years and just becoming appreciated worldwide.

Shea butter is often confusing to the public because the look can be different with each product, even the highest grade, unrefined shea butter can look different from batch to batch. This is because of the process of making it and because of the area that the nut and butter originates.

Unrefined shea butter ranges in color from creamy white to a grayish yellow. The fragrance can be a smoky, nutty smell which some find it to be unpleasant. Because it is natural, the smell disappears when applied to the skin.

With a shelf life of one to two years, if the butter has no smell and it is purported to be unrefined, it is no longer fresh and should be discarded.

Where Does Shea Butter Come From?

Unrefined shea butter is processed almost entirely by the women and girls in Western and Central Africa where the shea karite tree grows. t is one of the many natural resources of Africa and the trade of unrefined shea butter has a positive impact on the families of the village communities in Western and Central Africa. It is possible for the women to support their families by selling the highly sought after product. The women usually sell in co-ops and when the women are members of the Fair Trade Federation, they adhere to uniform buying practices, protecting them from unscrupulous buyers and protecting the public with the quality and integrity of the market product.

The innocuous little nut from the shea karite tree is transformed into raw, unrefined shea butter, which has a myriad of beneficial uses from beauty to health. It is one of the many natural resources of Africa and the trade of unrefined shea butter has a positive impact on the families of the village communities in Western and Central Africa.

Shea butter is found in Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria, Ghana

Is the Color of Shea Butter Important?

Grading Shea Butter

Because of the general publics desire to use shea butter, but they may not know that there are different the qualities and types of shea butter. Shea butter has been gradded in order to help the user to decide which quality of the products may best suit the user's purpose. In general:

  • Grade A is raw, unrefined shea butter. It has all the properties needed to be beneficial in the many ways it is used. The smoky, nutty fragrance is present and the color varies from creamy to grayish yellow. It is the grade suitable for cooking.
  • Grade B is refined chemically or using clay filters.
  • Grade C is highly refined and extracted with solvents such as hexane or it has been clay filtered. It is generally pure white and has no scent making it attractive to those who add their own fragrance choices.
  • Grade D is used mostly by the cosmetics industry.
  • Grade F has additives of some kind or it may be contaminated in some way.

In addition to color, when buying shea butter, consider the texture and the odor. If the butter you are purchasing has a grainy texture, then most likely it has been exposed to extreme temperature change. It is still usable, but it will not be as smooth to the touch initially.

In addition, shea butter that is too old and should not be used will have a rancid odor.

Because it is so easily purchased and so easily used, a myriad of products containing unrefined shea can be created even in the home kitchen. Other butters, such as cocoa butter, can be mixed with unrefined shea butter and carrier oils such as argan, coconut, cocoa and others can easily be added to create just the right product. When creating your own products, synthetic additives found in most over the counter products today are bypassed, making unrefined shea butter one of the most sought after natural products.

Note: If you are allergic to other nut products, be sure to test before using shea butter.

None of the suggestions mentioned should supplant any medical advice or products. Unrefined or refined shea butter is not an adequate sunscreen and should not be used alone.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Cynthia B Turner


Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on August 24, 2014:

Hi Faith, yes I was so happy to learn that shea butter could be used in the raw, without anything added to it. I use it everyday. Like you, I wish I had known about it much earlier. So glad to hear from you! Thanks for the vote, tweets and pins! Take care.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on August 23, 2014:

Oh, I love shea butter but now I know a lot more about it due to your awesome hub here! You have covered the topic so well and presented all the facts wonderfully. I am certainly going to use the unrefined shea butter and reap the benefits of it. I wish I had known such long ago.

Up +++ tweeting and pinning

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on May 18, 2014:

Hello FlourishAnyway, Thanks so much for reading. You know how we love comments and votes! I appreciate them. Take care.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 17, 2014:

This is terrific information. I learned a lot. Voted up and more, plus pinning.

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on April 21, 2014:

Hello Cyndi, I'm so glad the hub was helpful. I'm a fan as well. Given its consistency, it's amazing how it just smooths into the skin. Thanks so much for leaving the comment. Take care.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on April 20, 2014:

Awesome hub about shea butter. I love, love this stuff! My skin just loves it, too, haha. I'm also glad you put that Amazon capsule up there - I need to order some more - and on Amazon you can more easily find it unrefined - good tip there.

Voted up!

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 22, 2013:

Hi, thanks for reading. As a matter of fact, people swear by it for stretch marks and minor scarring. I hope it works for you as well. Take care.

Michelle Liew from Singapore on June 21, 2013:

Wow! I might try this for some scars that I want to get rid of. Thanks for sharing, Cyndi!

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 21, 2013:

I'm glad you found the article useful. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Take care.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on June 20, 2013:

Useful and informative hub about Shea Butter, thank you for sharing.

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 19, 2013:

Hi Debbie, Just like you, I knew it was good, but until I dug into the research, I had no idea. The really good thing is that when it's bought through Fair Trade Association members, you know that a community of women is getting fair price for their product and they are changing the lives of their families.

Take good care.

Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on June 18, 2013:

thank you.. I knew that Shea butter was good but I guess I didn't know what all the uses for.. this is wonderful .

thank you I will share on Facebook in the healthy section.



Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 17, 2013:

Hello Eddy, Glad to see you took a look at the shea butter article. Thanks so much for leaving a comment. Take good care across the water.

Eiddwen from Wales on June 17, 2013:

Interesting and oh so useful Cyndi; wishing you a wonderful day.


Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 12, 2013:

Shea butter really makes the skin look soft. I'm happy to have provided more information about its benefits. Take care.

StrictlyQuotes from Australia on June 12, 2013:

I love the feel of shea butter on my skin, and it was great to learn more about it here! Thanks :)

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 11, 2013:

Hi Jackie, don't worry, I had to look twice at the scientific name also. LOL. Glad you took a look at the article. I'm a fan after my research. Thanks for commenting.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 11, 2013:

You really covered this and thank you for it. I will certainly be trying it out. I have used some lotions with it in it but really paid no attention, but now I will have to add it to my diet awhile and see what that does. I thought at first you said it came from the magnolia tree, sure glad I took a second look, what a fool I would have made of myself. lol

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 11, 2013:

And thanks to you again, Suzie. Have a fantastic afternoon.

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on June 11, 2013:


I would be delighted if you chose to share my work, thanks so much for the thought!

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 11, 2013:

Hello Sparkleyfinger, Your choices might be different when there is a little more knowledge about the product. Once I found out so much more about shea butter, it has changed my buying habit.

I'm so glad that you found the article useful and you left a comment along with your votes.

Take care.

Lynsey Hart from Lanarkshire on June 10, 2013:

I am guilty of buying products thatcontain shea butter, and not actually knowing anything else about it! You have provided some great advice and information that I will refer to again in future! Thanks! Voted up and useful!

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 10, 2013:

Hello bridalletter, I hope this was of some use for you. I really found shea butter very confusing to buy until I did my research. Now I know what I'm looking for. I hope this is the same for you.

Take care. Have a creative day!

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 10, 2013:

Frank, you always make me chuckle. Anyway... thank you so much for reading. I'm really glad you found it worthy.

Take good care up in Shelton. Hope your weather is better than mine today.

Cynthia B Turner (author) from Georgia on June 10, 2013:

Hi Suzie, Thank you for reading, sharing and pinning! I would be honored to have you link to my article. I would like to do the same because you have very useful homemade skin care products.

Have a great evening.

Brenda Kyle from Blue Springs, Missouri, USA on June 10, 2013:

I enjoyed the education on such a useful item. It is amazing the different grades vary so greatly in quality. Thank you for sharing all the known benefits as well.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on June 10, 2013:

well Cyndi I hope they are paying you because this is the most thorough hub Ive read on any one subject from the history to the product and the many uses.. brilliant.. Ill help you spend the money you have earned from this info-hub LOL

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on June 10, 2013:

Hi Cyndi,

What a great hub! I am a massive fan of Shea Butter in my homemade skin products as you know, delighted to see this and would love to link it to a number of my hubs if that is okay? Votes, shared and pinned!

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