The Science Behind: Shea Butter
Shea comes from a natural occurring Karite tree found in several African countries. There have been attempts to cultivate the tree abroad, but nothing successful, making this tree unique to the economies where it grows naturally. Better still, the Shea Industry is women driven, creating the opportunity for women and improving the economies they serve. This women-centered, African industry has caught the attention of global organizations to ensure gender equality, and fair trade practices will continue. This commodity is a unique and amazing thing for the women who support the industry. One of the many reasons I love shea butter! Read more about it here.
Let’s talk fatty acids for a minute. I want to keep this pretty simple but we need to understand how fatty acids behave so that we know how they interact with our skin. There are two primary types of fatty acids, saturated and unsaturated. Typically, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and absorb more readily into the skin. Saturated fats tend to be more solid at room temp and serve more like a skin protectant, or stay around the surface of the skin. This has to do with the bonds between the primary elements of carbon and hydrogen. Saturated fat is just that, it’s saturated in hydrogen, meaning the molecule is a little more robust, and denser, thus making it solid. Unsaturated fats have a double bond, so there is a part in the molecule that is a little weaker, a little easier to break because it’s essentially missing an hydrogen; thus it’s a bit more liquid, and that attraction to hydrogen makes it easier for your cells to use. I always recommend a good balance of both types of fatty acids when it comes to good skincare.
Shea has an excellent fatty acid profile including palmitic, stearic, oleic, linoleic, and arachidic types. Percentages of each fat vary among plants based on where they are found, but no other plant has quite as much of the stearic and oleic as shea. Cocoa butter comes close, but I still prefer shea because of ethical reasons, like deforestation etc. All of these fats benefit our skin in some way, but for our purposes lets focus on stearic (saturated) and oleic (unsaturated), which together make up over 80% of the fat profile in shea butter. It’s these two that give shea the feeling of actual butter. It’s pretty solid at room temperature, but once your skin warms it up, it melts completely.
These two fatty acids together, act as a sort of emulsifier. What I mean is, they can help mix oil and water. Let’s be clear, Brevity DOES NOT add water to its shea containing products. If we did, we would have to add preservatives and chemicals that we don’t like. However, the fact that shea acts as a sort of natural emulsifier helps when applying it to your skin because, like the rest of your cells, your skin cells are over 70% water! In short, your skin is naturally attracted to shea butter and can absorb it better than a lot of other oils and butters.
Other benefits of shea include reducing inflammation, treating rashes such as eczema, increasing collagen production, reducing wrinkles and scaring, and even reducing allergy symptoms. Here is a good list of all of those scientific studies.
Another fun fact, there’s never been any reported allergies to shea butter.
You can read more about the fatty acids and benefits of shea in this study.
Another critical thing to note is how shea butter is processed in your lotions and potions. Natural shea is a bit chunky so most skincare pros will melt the shea down to ensure all the fatty acids are blended thoroughly to provide a super smooth texture. It has a reasonably low melting point at about 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit. If Shea gets too hot, the fatty acids could be damaged. Additionally, if it stays warm for too long, the fatty acids tend to separate from each other because each fatty acid will return to its normal state at a different temperature. Steric acid may re-solidify at 85 degrees, but the oleic acid is still liquid. This results in a gritty shea. The trick is to warm it up quickly and cool it down even faster. Also, the ingredients you pair with it matter. Adding water to shea will then shrink the shelf life of the finished product, invite germs and could interfere with the absorption rate into your skin.
But, if processed correctly, the fatty acids stay blended and stay wholesome. Which is AMAZING for your skin. When we make our shea containing products, we make them in batches of no more than 15 finished products at a time. Ensuring that the temperature stays very consistent, and never gets too hot. Every fatty acid is preserved and every ingredient added is a compliment to the shea. Our Deep Moisture contains a rich blend of shea butter, coconut oil, olive oil, beeswax, and aloe. It is our best seller for a reason!
Thanks for reading and letting me do the research for you!