Shea butter is one of my favorite ingredients to use in soap. It comes from the nut of the African Shea (Karite) tree (Vitellaria paradoxa (also known as Butyrospermum parkii)). It is typically a yellowish or ivory color, but can be refined to remove the nutty scent and color leaving it pretty much pure white. I find that the the raw unrefined butter is great when used in soapmaking, but if you are wanting to make a lotion or whipped Shea butter, the white refined version tends to suit that purpose better.
Shea Butter and Shea Nuts
Shea butter is mainly used in the cosmetic/body care industry though it is also used as a cooking oil in some African countries. You will find Shea butter as an ingredient in many products such as lotions, creams, salves, lip balm, soap, and hair conditioners. Shea butter is made of a variety of fatty acid components and many unsaponifiable (they do not react with the alkali (sodium hydroxide) and will not become soap) components. This results in soap that is more moisturizing. Shea butter melts upon contact with our bodies and is highly emollient. It has been traditionally used to reduce the appearance of scars,
stretch marks and skin discolorations and sooth skin irritations like eczema, psoriasis, and sunburn. The unsaponifiable components are also thought to protect
the skin against sun damage by absorbing the ultraviolet radiation. Another great fact about Shea butter is that it has a long shelf life and can easily last 1-2 years or more when stored in a cool, dry location. This means I can buy it in bulk to keep costs down and then include it in almost all of my soap! Only my Castile soap, shampoo soaps, and salt soap bars are formulated without Shea butter.
Want to know more? Check out this great page of information on Shea butter over at the National Geographic website.