Shea butter (//, //, or //) is a fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). It is usually yellow in color when raw, with Unrefined, Refined, and Ultra-Refined Shea butter being ivory or white in color. Shea butter is a triglyceride (fat) derived mainly from stearic acid and oleic acid. It is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer, salve or lotion. Shea butter is edible and is used in food preparation in some African countries. Occasionally, the chocolate industry uses shea butter mixed with other oils as a substitute for cocoa butter, although the taste is noticeably different.
The English word "shea" comes from s’í, the tree's name in the Bambara language of Mali. It is known by many local names, e.g., kaɗe or kaɗanya in Hausa language, karité in the Wolof language of Senegal, ori in some parts of West Africa, and many others.
The common name is shíyiri or shísu (lit. "shea tree") in the Bambara language of Mali. This is the origin of the English word, whose primary pronunciation is // (rhyming with "tea"), although the pronunciation // (rhyming with "day") is common and is listed second in major dictionaries. The tree is called ghariti in the Wolof language of Senegal, which is the origin of the French name of the tree and the butter, karité.
The shea tree grows naturally in the wild in the dry savannah belt of West Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. It occurs in 21 countries across the African continent, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and Guinea.
Shea butter extract is a complex fat that in addition to many nonsaponifiable components (substances that cannot be fully converted into soap by treatment with alkali) contains the following fatty acids: oleic acid (40–60%), stearic acid (20–50%), linoleic acid (3–11%), palmitic acid (2–9%), linolenic acid (<1%) and arachidic acid (<1%).
Shea butter melts at body temperature. Proponents of its use for skin care maintain that it absorbs rapidly into the skin, acts as a "refatting" agent, and has good water-binding properties.
Shea butter is mainly used in the cosmetics industry for skin- and hair-related products (lip gloss, skin moisturizer creams and emulsions, and hair conditioners for dry and brittle hair). It is also used by soap makers, typically in small amounts (5–7% of the oils in the recipe), because it has plenty of unsaponifiables, and higher amounts result in softer soaps that have less cleaning abilities. Some artisan soap makers use shea butter in amounts to 25% – with the European Union regulating the maximum use around 28%, but it is rarely the case in commercially produced soap due to its high cost compared to oils like palm oil or pomace (olive oil). It is an excellent emollient for dry skin. No evidence shows it is a cure, but it alleviates the pain associated with tightness and itching.
In some African countries such as Benin, shea butter is used for cooking oil, as a waterproofing wax, for hairdressing, for candle-making, and as an ingredient in medicinal ointments. It is used by makers of traditional African percussion instruments to increase the durability of wood (such as carved djembe shells), dried calabash gourds, and leather tuning straps.
Shea butter is sometimes used as a base for medicinal ointments. Some of the isolated chemical constituents are reported to have anti-inflammatory, emollient, and humectant properties. Shea butter has been used as a sunblocking lotion and some of its components "have limited capacity to absorb ultraviolet radiation".
The United States Agency for International Development and other companies have suggested a classification system for shea butter separating it into five grades:
Commercial grades are A, B, and C. The color of raw (grade A) butter ranges from cream (like whipped butter) to grayish yellow. It has a nutty aroma which is removed in the other grades. Grade C is pure white. While the level of vitamin content can be affected by refining, up to 95% of vitamin content can be removed from refined grades (i.e., grade C) of shea butter while reducing contamination levels to undetectable levels.
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