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Skin Science

What is shea butter? 5 Skin benefits worth knowing

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Julia Malacoff August, 18, 2020

Writer, trainer, nail art aficionado

If you've ever paced through rows upon rows of moisturizers at the store, chances are you're familiar with shea butter — at least in name. It's made its way onto the ingredients list of some of the richest, most tried-and-true face creams. But what is shea butter doing in your skincare, exactly?


Let's start with where it comes from: the kernels of shea trees, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally, parts of the shea tree were famous for their anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, relieving health issues like ulcers, nasal congestion and, unsurprisingly, skin problems. Shea butter still mostly comes from this region, but these days, it's most valued for its proven skincare abilities.


Here are five of the biggest shea butter benefits for your skin.


1. It boosts skin moisture


There's a good reason shea butter is included in so many face moisturizers and body lotions. It works as an emollient that softens and hydrates skin. Because it contains several types of fatty acids — including lineoleic, oleic, palmitic and stearic acids — that improve the skin's natural barrier, shea butter also protects skin from damage from the environment like pollutants.


2. Its anti-inflammatory properties soothe skin problemsSmiling african girl with applying facial moisturizer while holding jar and looking at camera. Portrait of young black woman applying cream on her face isolated on beige background with copy space.


Research from the Journal of Oleo Science notes shea butter's anti-inflammatory compounds, which make it a perfect fit to soothe and nourish upset skin.


Today, it's often included in products that help heal inflammatory skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, according to the Hong Kong Medical Journal, as well as ones meant to soothe sunburns. What's more, shea butter is thought to have mild sun protection benefits — though it's not strong enough to replace your sunscreen. Still, you might notice shea butter sneakily adding moisture to your sun-protecting products.


3. It could heal cuts and scrapes


This ingredient is also often found in scar-healing products, because its rich fatty-acid levels help to soften scar tissue and may speed up the scar-healing process. Research from the journal Wounds suggests it may be particularly effective in helping prevent keloid scars — the kind of scar that's raised, red and rubbery — from forming. Like many of the known shea butter benefits, it's likely this is also partially due to the ingredients emollient properties.


4. It helps fight breakouts


Shea butter benefits those with acne, too! But what is shea butter good for when your skin already seems oily?


Let's explore: When it's dry, acne-prone skin tends to overproduce sebum, which can clog pores; shea butter stops this cycle in its tracks by preventing skin from drying out in the first place. Don't worry about shea butter causing oily skin, for its part — there's no evidence for this! There is, however, limited evidence that shea tree bark is antibacterial, according to the Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology, which could translate to acne-fighting properties in shea butter. Not too shabby for just one ingredient!


5. Antioxidants may mean anti-aging properties


According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, shea butter also contains quite a few antioxidants, including vitamins A and E, along with many of the same ones found in green tea — a known antioxidant powerhouse. While more research is needed to prove shea butter is an anti-aging ingredient, antioxidants (especially vitamin A) have been shown to prevent free radical damage when applied to the skin.


Every recipe is better with a little butter — and when it comes to shea butter, the same is just as true of your skincare routine!



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