Today we’re talking about one of my favourite ingredients; shea butter! I first fell in love with shea butter after buying a rather extravagantly priced small tub of it at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto back when I was in university, and it’s been a staple for me ever since. Today’s post is all about shea butter—what it is, where it comes from, how it’s made, and what to make with it.
This post and the partner video are sponsored by Baraka Shea Butter.
What is shea butter?
Shea butter is a rich, soft, creamy butter made from the nut of the shea fruit. Unrefined shea butter has a nutty, smokey scent and is pale off-white/ivory in colour. It melts right around body temperature, at about 32–37°C (90–99°F), and is slow to absorb. It’s a brilliant ingredient for dry skin, and I’d say it’s a DIY staple ingredient. For more information, though, let’s get into our interview with Gifty from Baraka Shea Butter!
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Interview with Gifty Serbeh-Dunn, Baraka Shea Butter Co-Founder
Could you start with a brief Baraka introduction?
“Baraka, in my language, means “thank you”, and the reason why we chose that for the name for the company is because the business was inspired by the women in my community. Baraka has been an off-shoot of several steps. When we started I called it Shea Care because it was about caring, and then we moved off to Shea Butter Market and then Baraka, but we’ve always had the theme of working with the women because they inspired it.
“The shea butter business in my family came to be because Wayne, my business partner and husband, was doing a lot of work in Ghana, and every time he came back home there’d be shea butter in a care package for me. When we went back, which we did often, I brought stuff for the women. On one trip I asked what I could bring next time—what they needed—one of the elders said they didn’t need anything. One of the women said “we just want to work” and I thought that was odd because they all worked. My oldest sister explained that they didn’t want just work, but opportunity—the opportunity to do better, as they were paid very poorly for their work. Every one of them made shea butter, but they made very little money for their hard work. I didn’t think it was practical or possible—I live in Mill Bay [a small town in British Columbia]—but they planted a seed, an idea.
“A few years later I was sitting in front of my TV and I saw that Nivea had shea butter in their products and that’s what they were advertising. And I thought, “oh my god, all those women—hey! What if?” I was very excited and I spoke with Wayne—what if we organized the women in my community and I sold their shea butter here in North America? Wayne—being the strategic business thinker—had lots of ideas. We decided that we’d buy shea butter from the women in my community and sell it in North America. So the next thing was coming up with a name. In my culture, thank you is a big thing. We always want to thank the women for their hard work and for always doing their absolute best to give us good quality shea butter, and they want to thank us for the opportunity, for trying to create that opportunity. So we thought that name, Baraka, was a good name. Actually, in our language, it’s pronounced baah-raah-kaah. And that’s how Baraka came to be!”
Where does shea butter come from and how is it made?
“Shea butter comes from the seed of the shea fruit—this is another way that people misunderstand shea butter, they think it comes from a nut. But we actually eat the fruit, and the pit of the fruit is what the oil is extracted from. In our language the fruit is called taama; the closest thing, taste-wise, is the persimmon. It’s my absolute favourite fruit!
“I love shea season because, as children, there was always a basket in the house, and we all threw our seeds in. The seeds were then collected, sun-dried, and husked. The seed of the fruit is then roasted in big pots over a woodfire and then crushed—once it’s toasted it is easier to crush. Once it’s crushed it’s ground into a paste. The paste is mixed with water and then churned. It is very labour intensive.
“Shea season starts in May/June; it’s the rainy season after coming out of the dry season. When the women are making shea butter, when they’re pounding the seeds or de-husking, they sing. There’s a lot of music, and it’s community work. No one woman will make shea butter; even for household consumption they will get two, three, four women together and say “let’s make shea butter for cooking for the household”. When they go to market with it they group together and they make it. The pounding of the shea seeds is done to rhythmic music and it’s a really lovely time of year.”
Where, geographically, do shea trees grow?
“Shea trees grow throughout the Sahel—Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali, most of West Africa—but only in the dry parts of the region. A little bit of shea butter grows in Sudan and Uganda, and it’s a totally different shea butter. The makeup is very different from what you get in West Africa. But all over the Sahel, we have shea trees. When I drive from the south of Ghana I know when I’ve hit the north when I start to see shea trees—they’re everywhere!”
What do the different shea terms mean?
“Natural, pure shea butter has a nutty/smoky smell. The smoky is from the process (toasting over a wood fire); the nutty is just the chemical composition of the product. I always say to people that they can tell their unrefined shea butter is real when you smell that nutty, smoky scent. When shea butter first came onto the market the cosmetics industry loved it—loved the ingredient—but did not like the smell. So they then decided to refine it, like everything else, and through the refining process, you get a white refined shea butter. To me, it’s almost lifeless. It has no smell, and most of it is almost clinical looking. It’s white in colour. Pure shea butter is off-white—ivory—in colour. That’s the difference between refined and unrefined.
“And then you have organic and non-organic. Depending on where you are, in some places, there was all this education to help farmers about fertilizers, and using fertilizers to grow food. So in some communities, they spray fertilizers to increase their yields of crops. Of course, in organic production, we don’t want any chemicals in the product, so there are communities/areas where they use no pesticides or fertilizers—they practice traditional farming. Baraka works with villages and communities where there’s no spraying of pesticides. We’re getting the seeds from there, and then we have processes to apply for organic certification.”
We’ve talked about white, refined shea butter and raw, ivory-coloured shea butter. What about yellow shea butter?
“Yellow shea butter somehow got very popular traction in North America; people think that there’s always yellow shea butter. Sometimes, with the natural organic shea butter, sometimes if the seeds are picked earlier on in the season, sometimes you get from the young seeds a yellowish colour to your shea butter. Generally, what we get, in my community, is off-white. Every now and then I have seen them make shea butter that is totally yellow; it’s almost that light yellowish buttery colour. That is not always the case throughout the season. In North America, I think a few people got ahold of that buttery yellowy shea butter and they had it in their head that the yellow butter was all they wanted. So, in some communities, they started to dye the shea butter with a plant. If you are consistently getting yellow shea butter, it’s dyed. It’s a natural dye, but it’s dyed.”
How can you recognize high-quality shea butter, especially when purchasing it online?
“With no judgement to be made, some people are looking for that “perfect” clinical product. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you have to go with refined. If you’re looking for unrefined, natural, pure shea butter—of course you can’t smell it online, but you’ll see on our website that we mention there’s a nutty, smoky scent to our shea butter. Some people have heard that shea butter is supposed to smell bad. It’s not supposed to smell bad—we eat it—it’s not supposed to have a pungent smell to it. If it does, it’s because the shea butter wasn’t made properly. When they dehusk it, they dry the seeds. It has to be very dry. They want all of the moisture out of the seed. If that moisture is not taken out completely, if it’s not well dried, in the final product you get a very unpleasant, pungent smell. It’s supposed to be nutty and smoky—those are the good smells.
“You’ll also want to watch out for rancidity. If it smells rancid, it’s old. It’s like any old oil.”
What are your favourite things to make with shea butter?
“I love shea butter everything, of course. I love shea butter in my soap. Soap can be so drying, but shea butter makes it nice and creamy. And then, of course, I like my pure shea butter on my face and on my heels. I hate dry heels!”
Shea Butter Formulation Considerations
Because shea butter is quite rich and slow absorbing, we definitely want to take that into consideration as we’re formulating. If you are planning on creating something that uses a lot of shea butter, it’s a good idea to plan on that finished product being quite rich and thick.
If you’d like to create lighter formulations with shea butter, here are a few of my favourite strategies:
- In anhydrous formulations, incorporate some starch or an ultra-light ester like isopropyl myristate (IPM)
- In body butters, blend shea butter with mango butter as mango butter is far lighter feeling
- Use shea butter in an emulsion, where the high water content will substantially lighten the entire formulation
- Incorporate some hardeners, like a wax or fatty thickener, to make the finished formulation harder and therefore difficult to over-apply. Anhydrous formulations are very rich and a little goes a long way—making the product quite firm is a good way to discourage over-application.
All of these strategies basically boil down to “dilute it” or “prevent over-application”. Depending on your formulation needs, consider combining several of these tips!
Along with being very rich, shea butter can also feel sticky, especially when used in large concentrations. Perceptions of what is sticky and what isn’t sticky tends to be rather personal—one person’s sticky can be another person’s creamy—but if you are looking to reduce the tackiness of a formulation, many of the above tips on reducing greasiness/richness apply. One additional tip would be to try incorporating a small amount (2–4%) of a silicone like dimethicone or cyclomethicone, or a natural silicone alternative. Just a little bit can make a big difference!
Unrefined shea butter has a nutty, smokey scent that will come through in our finished formulations if used much above 5–10%. I haven’t had much luck covering up that scent with other fragranced ingredients—you just end up with the scent of shea mingling with whatever essential oil, fragrance oil, or other fragrant ingredients you’re using. These are my strategies for working with the scent of shea butter:
- In formulations where the scent of unrefined shea butter is noticeable, choose essential oils/fragrance oils that complement the scent. I’ve had good results with bright essential oils like cardamom and citrus—the smokey/nutty makes a good base note, so choosing bright top notes that work with the nutty/smokey scent can be lovely.
- If you want to use lots of shea butter, but don’t want the formulation to smell like raw shea butter, consider using refined shea butter or a blend of unrefined and refined shea butter.
And just a reminder—unrefined shea butter shouldn’t smell bad. How much you enjoy the nutty/smokey scent is definitely a personal thing, but if your shea butter has a truly bad/spoiled smell to it I recommend disposing of it (composting it if you can!) and purchasing new shea butter from a different supplier.
Our last formulation consideration is graininess—if you’ve done much making with shea butter you’ve probably had it go grainy on you at least once. Graininess happens in formulations when the product isn’t cooled properly, giving the hard fatty acids a chance to solidify before everything else does, creating extra-hard little bits in our formulations. I recently shared an entire post and video on preventing graininess; you can check that out here.
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What can I make with shea butter?
You can formulate so many things with shea butter! It is a wonderfully versatile ingredient 😄
For starters—you can just use it neat. A little goes a long way, so start with far less than you think you might need, massaging it into the skin. As it warms up it’ll spread around and leave your skin feeling richly moisturized. Because shea is so rich I usually do this before bedtime; try applying it to your feet and then putting on a pair of socks before going to bed. You’ll have wonderfully soft feet in the morning!
To level up your shea game, I highly recommend trying a few cold-processed formulations. I’d recommend starting with my Super Simple Whipped Shea Butter, which truly lives up to its name! You’ll need just four ingredients to whip up this highly customizable tub of fluffy shea goodness. One of those ingredients is starch, to lighten the butter. This post also includes information on how to adjust whipped body butter formulations to work in your climate; they can be rather finicky things!
My Whipped Shea Citrus Body Butter also doesn’t require any heat and uses isopropyl myristate (IPM) to lighten up the finished product. Tamalita made it and shared this feedback: “Wow. This is amazing. I was very skeptical about being able to whip the shea butter in North Idaho in April, but it whipped right up! This was my first time trying IPM and it is kind of magical. I made 6x so that I could have a double batch for myself and 2 double batches to give away. Even with my skepticism on the shea butter, I just knew it would all work and it did! It’s lovely! Thank you.” ❤️
If you’d like to heat things up a bit, give my Autumn Spice Whipped Body Butter a try. This fall-themed whipped body butter combines rich shea with lighter mango butter and macadamia nut oil; you’ll need to melt the fats together and then chill and whip the mixture for a fluffy, marshmallowy body butter.
Love massage? I highly recommend my Cinnamon Cocoa Massage Bars. The ingredient list for this formulation is pretty short at just four ingredients, but the process is where the magic happens. You’ll need to bring the mixture to just the right level of trace before pouring them into the mould to set up. Make sure you watch the video tutorial for more guidance on that!
For an ultra-rich skin treat, try my Creamy Oat & Shea Face Mask. I’ve presented this as a creamy face mask, but you could also use it as a cleansing balm if you wanted to. Shea butter teams up with silky kaolin clay and soothing colloidal oatmeal for a fabulously rich formulation ❤️
Why not take advantage of shea’s richness and transform it into a tub of Eucalyptus Mint Foot Butter? In this formulation I’ve combined it with cornstarch and ultra-light mango butter to lighten things up a bit, and added refreshing peppermint and eucalyptus essential oils for a moisturizing and enlivening treat for your toes.
If you love rich, herbal, ointment-y things, definitely check out my formulation for Bill’s Lavender Salve. This indulgent yellow ointment gets its oil-gel consistency from cera bellina, a modified beeswax. I’ve blended shea butter with some of my favourite lightweight liquid oils and beautiful lavender essential oil to create a slippy, rich tin of lavender-y decadence.
Beautiful green hemp seed oil and shea butter star in my Hemp & Shea Hand and Body Lotion, along with some of my favourite skin-soothing ingredients like panthenol (vitamin B5) and colloidal oatmeal. The oil phase of this lotion is pretty small to ensure the finished lotion is lightweight, but it is still richly moisturizing thanks to the inclusion of some fabulous humectants.
For a decadent emulsified shea experience, try my Shealoe Emulsified Body Butter formulation. Emulsified body butter formulations contain a lot more buttery loveliness than lotions, but are still a lot lighter than anhydrous body butter. If you like your body butters to be like the body butters sold by The Body Shop, definitely give this formulation a try!
And lastly—soap. I adore shea butter in soap. It makes the bars rich and creamy, helps harden them, and I find it’s very compatible with room temperature soaping. You’ll find shea butter in many of my soaps, but today I want to draw your attention to my Lots & Lots of Clay Soap, which lives up to its name! The general idea here was to put what seemed like way too much clay in some soap and see what happened, and I was rewarded with super extra creamy soap 😍
Relevant links & further reading
- Shea Butter in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Why is my body butter melting?
- Why is my body butter grainy?
- From the Baraka blog:
- Even more shea butter formulations:
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What do you love to make with shea butter?