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Natural Soapmaking (once Soap Naturally)
Soap making: Shea butter information & properties

© Copyright R. Nye, All rights reserved

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Shea Butter is Shea Butter is Shea Butter. Anyone out there familiar with Shea Butter is also familiar with this statement. This statement cannot be farther from the truth in actuality.

Shea Butter has two distinct varieties. The West African Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) and The East African (Vitellaria nilotica).
The East African Shea is lighter in color, has less healing properties, is more expensive, and has a tendency for turning rancid.

The Karite Tree, which is the name of the plant that the Shea Nut comes from, grows only in Africa in a band across the continent from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. It has proven to be impossible to propagate as the German and French governments and various companies have found over the last 100 years.

At this time the majority of Shea Butter is still made the traditional way by village women that have learned the methods from their elders. This has been handed down teachings for generations. The Shea nut and butter is used for many things in the villages from skin care to food and cooking. At this time Shea Butter is not accepted by the FDA/USDA for use as a food substance in this country. It is used in the International Chocolate Industry as a substitute for cocoa butter and is called a CBE. It makes chocolate smoother and creamier. In fact 95% of the shea nuts exported are for the use of this industry.
Belgium, Switzerland, and France are the largest importers in this category.

For use as a butter there are three methods for extracting the oil from the nut:
The traditional method, the cold press method, and the chemical method using hexane.

The use of shea butter in the more common "store bought" creams and lotions involves the use of hexane. This also destroys all the healing properties of the shea. The reason the packaged consumer products use this form of shea is because it is the same color and consistency batch to batch. You soapers out there know the importance of this. It is hard for the big companies to sell different color or consistency on the shelves in stores.
I really can't argue against this attitude much as I demand from my supplier Grade A and of a particular color myself.

The traditional method and the cold pressed are both very good methods. The problems arise in shea butter from the differences between each village, the quality of the water used, the quality of the utensils, and the amount of time between shelling the nuts and the crushing for the cooking or pressing. The time between is critical as mold will develop on the nuts after shelling if not crushed and cooked on the same day.
It is the things like following the same routine, using clean fresh water, sterile utensils, and general cleanliness that the American Shea Butter Institute is trying to instill in many of the villages.
Currently the Institute is working in Ghana and Burkina Faso on these things.

High quality Grade A Shea Butter has two important factions for skin and hair care.
The saponifiable faction is the moisturizing faction. The nonsaponifiable faction is the healing faction. It is the nonsaponifiable faction that separates Shea from the rest of the oils and butters. The saponifiable faction is composed of neutral fats and fatty acids.
The nonsaponifiable faction is composed of Phytonutrients, Vitamin A, and Vitamin E.

The Phytonutrients are good for cell regeneration and wound healing. They are anti-inflammatory and have an SPF factor of about 3-4.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant and also good for microcirculation.
Vitamin A repairs skin and works on the germinal layer of the skin. The germinal layer is where new skin cells are produced and vitamin A is very important to the healthy mechanism of this layer. It normally takes 4-6 weeks for the stem cells in the germinal layer to migrate to the top layer of skin. The germinal cells undergo important metabolic changes during this migration and Vitamin A is important in this change. That is why it normally takes about 4-6 weeks for the smoother softer skin caused by the use of shea butter.
Elastin is the protein that allows the skin to stretch and recoil. It is elastic in nature and is what gives the skin the supple youthful resilience. An enzyme called Elastase is the cause for the degradation of Elastin. As we age this enzyme plays a greater role in this breakdown.
In Shea Butter the triterpines Lupeol and Beta-Amyrin, as well as Vitamin A and Cinnamic Acid have all shown to inhibit Elastase activity. If the levels of these ingredients are sufficient in Shea Butter it is reasonable to conclude that regular use may retard the destruction of Elastin, helping to keep the skin supple and resilient. It is these ingredients that help determine the quality and the age of Shea Butter. As the useful age of Shea Butter is about 18 months. As Shea Butter ages the Cinnamic Acid value drops and more free fatty acids develop.
The anti-inflammatory agents in Shea Butter make it excellent for eczema. It can help with psoriasis but it takes a very long time and not everyone is helped.

This is but the first of many articles on Shea Butter and I will try to send at least one of these per week until the subject is covered.
As I work with many different oils and essential oils I will give instructions for the proper additions, amounts, and the ways to melt and set shea butter so it is not grainy and very smooth. All these things can be done without harming the Grade A status.
As it is Grade A that I recommend anyone to use. The institute just tested a 25-ton batch of Shea that was considered by them as Grade F because of the amount of mold in the Shea. When Shea is not tested there is no way to determine whether mold, bacteria, heavy metals exist, or how old the Shea is.
So the most important value of Shea Butter is tested Shea Butter.

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