Shea butter originates from the Karite Nut tree, also called the Mangifolia tree, found in the semi-arid savannahs of West and Central Africa. The Karite Nut tree, also called the “tree of life,” can live for 300 years, and almost all parts of the tree have some practical use. The bark is an ingredient in traditional medicines used to heal certain childhood illnesses and minor scrapes and cuts. The shell of the nut can repel mosquitoes.
The fruity part of the nut, when crushed, produces a vegetable oil that can be used in soap-making, cooking, and skin and hair care. The oil extracted has a relatively high melting point and is used in rural areas in the making of foods, traditional drugs and cosmetics. Shea is mainly exported as smoked kernels and can be used as an extender in chocolate as its properties are similar to cocoa butter.
While it is only in the last few years that Shea butter has become popular in the United States, it has been used by the women of West Africa for centuries. Shea butter can also help to protect the skin against the damaging effects of the sun, while repairing cellular degeneration. It contains vitamins A and E, and has demonstrated both antimicrobial (kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, or protozoa), and anti-inflammatory properties.
In most parts of West Africa, destruction of the Shea tree is prohibited because this little nut provides a valuable source of food, medicine, and income for the population. In fact, Shea butter is sometimes referred to as “women’s gold” in Africa, because so many women are employed in the production of Shea butter.
Shea butter may also help treat skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis; however, keep in mind that you should always consult a physician or dermatologist about serious or persistent skin problems. Shea butter is not recommended for people with nut or latex allergies.
“From Nuts to Butter” – Video
This video was shot in a rural village in Mali, West Africa. It depicts a woman teaching another how to improve the way she makes shea butter in order to make it export-quality.
– Laquita Thomas-Banks