Shea butter for sensitive skin and eczema

It seems timely with the testing for the Freefrom skincare awards in full swing that I am doing my own skincare testing at home. Nothing to do with the awards, but everything to do with my quest to find natural and healthy food for my skin as well as my body.

A recent visit to my local health food shop gave way to a long chat with the lady working there whose daughter has quite bad eczema. She said that she buys shea butter, just plain simple shea butter, from the local ethnic shop and that it has worked wonders on her daughter’s skin.

Now I decided to do a bit of research into what shea butter really is since I’ve not really ever heard much spoken about it for dry skin. Why have I not discovered this before? It is the most amazing stuff and it’s just one ingredient, just shea butter, that’s it.

What is shea butter?

Shea butter

Shea butter in the sun, looks just like ice cream

Shea butter is a solid fatty oil which is made from the fruit of the Karite or Mangifolia free found in West and Central Africa. It can also be called karite butter.

The fruit looks a bit like a coconut with a hard shell. The shell is broken, the pulp is removed and the hard nut inside, which looks like the beautiful woody seed inside an avocado is then crushed and beaten in a mortar and pestle to remove the fatty oil. Hard, back breaking work, and harvesting is traditionally done by rural women under the beating African sun (300,000 to 400,000 in Burkina Faso alone).

This is what the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) which is based in the US says about shea butter:
“We suggest you ask your allergist for advice about this. The shea nut is a tree nut that has not been widely used in foods in the past, but shea butter and shea oil are being used increasingly in lotions, bath products, shampoos, and cosmetics. Although no reactions to shea nut have been documented in the medical literature some doctors advise patients with tree nut allergy to use caution and avoid products that contain ingredients derived from the shea nut.”

An article from 2003 on the Reuters website entitled, “Shea nuts appear safe in allergy study” describes how scientists analysed the protein in the shea nut and compared it to that of other well known allergenic nuts. It contained much, much lower levels and is mostly made up of the beneficial fat and very little protein.

Whilst it is derived from a nut, “the researchers found that the principle immune molecule that would usually invoke an allergic response, immunoglobulin E, barely bound to the shea protein.”

Dr. Kanwaljit K. Chawla, a pediatrician in training at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City who led the study said, “although shea nut in theory could be an allergy trigger, the evidence from the study suggests it’s not. At least the immune system does not appear to recognize it as a nut protein.”

So the advice is to use caution, but with the evidence above it’s worth giving it a try if you find somewhere that is willing to provide you with a testing sample. If you explain you have a nut allergy and are concerned about having a reaction you might get lucky. I haven’t found any evidence of true shea butter allergy at all. If it’s in a cosmetic product it’s far more likely you might be reacting to another ingredient, as these tests above prove. Remember though, someone, somewhere could be allergic to shea butter, and it could be you.

Try a tiny bit on small area of skin, and not your face. I’d suggest the inside of your wrist or the back of your neck, so if you do react it’s not going to be obvious to everyone and make you self conscious.

Benefits of shea butter

What is it about shea butter that makes it so great for your skin? Here are ten great reasons to give it a go.

  1. It’s jam packed full of vitamins including A,B,C,D,E,F and K
  2. It’s a great source of Calcium and Iron
  3. It’s completely natural and non toxic
  4. It’s even used in cooking as well as soap and beauty products
  5. It is know for its healing effects on burns, skin conditions, ulcerated skin, stretch marks, and dryness
  6. It contains beneficial fatty acids including: oleic acid (40-60%), stearic acid (20-50%), linoleic acid (3-11%), palmitic acid (2-9%), linolenic acid (<1%) and arachidic acid (<1%)
  7. These very clever vegetable fats help to promote cell regeneration and circulation, making it a wonderful healer and rejuvenator for troubled or aging skin
  8. It also contains natural, though limited, sun-protection (SPF 2-6)
  9. It can help to condition dry hair and split ends
  10. It’s just shea butter, one ingredient. What could be better?

The only thing to consider is the manufacturing process of the shea butter. Solvents such as hexane can be used during the process so it’s important to try to get hold of pure uncontaminated shea butter from a reputable source. There are different grades of shea butter which at present are not required to be stated on labelling. Look for fair trade shea butter and make sure you question and look fully into the production. I found some in my local African food shop.

Shea butter testing on dry, sensitive and eczematous skin

So, being very allergic to peanuts and most other nuts and also being blessed with very sensitive, dry and eczematous, atopic skin, I was a little dubious about trying it. I was very brave though and took a really tiny bit and rubbed it gently onto the inside of my left wrist, washed my hands thoroughly and waited. Nothing happened, but my wrist was lovely and silky smooth. So I have been experimenting by trying to moisturise one half of my body with pure shea butter and the other with my normal paraffin gloop.

I have to say, I’m really impressed. I don’t feel I need to put on more moisuriser until the end of the day, it’s not sticky or greasy and so far I’ve had no skin reactions what so ever. As yet I’ve not tried it on my face but I put some on the back of my neck this morning, and no itching. It’s looking good for the shea butter.

I can’t say there is a huge difference between the skin condition on my left side (Lucky left side is getting shea butter) and my right (Drew the short straw and gets Diprobase and Epaderm).

It does have a smell but I can’t quite put my finger on what it smells like. Shea butter I guess… Ha Ha. It comes in a solid form and looks just like ice cream and when you rub it in your palms it melts on contact with the warmth of your skin and becomes soft enough to moisurise without being greasy.

Africans have been using it on their skin and in their cooking for thousands of years. It’s the best kept beauty secret that everyone should know about. If it means we can be feeding our skin something natural and pure instead of man-made stuff we wouldn’t care to put into our mouths then it’s got to be good thing.

Beware of latex allergy cross reactions

If you are allergic to latex you could possibly react to shea butter as they are fairly closely related in the plant world so make sure you use with caution, do a small test area first and make sure you don’t react.

Anyone else tried it? Are you OK to use it? Or do you steer clear because you’ve been told it’s a nut?

You can buy Shea Butter Unrefined 100% Pure, Raw, Natural & Organic

Skins Matter article, “Shea butter does not trigger allergic reactions”

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About Ruth

Ruth works freelance as a copywriter and writes the What Allergy blog to share information with people who have allergies, eczema, asthma and food intolerances. http://www.whatallergy.com was voted in the top 5 allergy blogs and Ruth also judges regularly for the FreeFrom Food Awards and FreeFrom Skincare Awards. She runs a support group for the Anaphylaxis Campaign and also writes regularly for Exchange, The National Eczema Society quarterly magazine.

Comments

  1. Thanks for your article. I enjoyed it. I too have nuts allergies but have been good with shea. I have a tattoo that is a few weeks old and am trying it on that. It passed my inner wrist patch test first. Lol. We sound alike. Best wishes, Jo

    • Hi Jo, Hope the shea butter worked. I find it really soothing but I’m not sure about around my eyes. REcently I got very irritated but it’s hayfever season so it could have been just that. It’s awful at the moment. Have you ever tried bio oil? It’s great on scars, stretch marks etc. so I think would be good on a tattoo too. What’s the tattoo of? Brave you. Might get one that says, “I’m allergic to latex, nuts, dairy, celery, tomatoes…” Might be worth it because if I did somethign like that they’d be bound to find a cure!

  2. I have lately been experimenting with making my own shea butter ‘ointment’. Wanting to limited the use steroid cremes for my eczema, I’ve been researching healthier and more natural options and came across shea butter.
    I mix 50 grams of unrefined shea buttter, 7 ml sesame oil (or almond oil), 15 drops of lavender essential oil, 15 drops of geranium essential oil and 15 drops of chamomille essential oil. Mix well with a fork and wisk until smooth. The ‘ointment’ is slightly grainy, but melts easily by the heat of the palms.
    My very dry skin just loves this blend, it relaxes and looses that horrible crusty feeling :-)
    Birgitte

    • I love this idea. I’ve just been using it neat. I am still using epaderm also sometimes because buying Shea butter does cost more. Mixing with oils sounds fab and will make it smell so much nicer. Am going to try that when I can afford to buy the oils!!! Thanks for sharing. Also have you ever tried Lush dream cream and dream wash? The dream wash is just such a treat.

    • One thing nobody talks about that you need to be mindful of is that shea butter contains a natural occurring latex. Interestingly, this is what gives it its moisture retaining benefits. So if you’re allergic or even sensitive to latex, you can, over time, react to shea butter. This is what happened to me, and it took forever to figure it out.

      • Thanks Annie, No I didn’t know this and I do have a latex allergy so this is good to know. So far I’ve been fine using shea butter so I’ll monitor things and watch for any signs of sensitivity. All these foods and plants are related in so many ways. Cross reactivity is such a complex issue. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Have been using Pre de Provence Shea butter lip balm for years, no problem. Started using 100% butter on very dry knuckles. Lips fine with it. Knuckles? Swollen, itchy as heck, hives. Can’t figure it out. Balm for lips not 100% butter…castor, wax, Shea, fragrance. On knuckles? 100% butter. Can’t figure this out. Any ideas? Would be grateful.

    • Well that is really strange. It could be that you have developed an allergy to shea butter, I have heard it can cross react with latex allergy. Do you have a latex allergy? And maybe the lip balm has much less shea and so doesn’t cause a reaction. Unfortunately we are all rather special and our bodies can be allergic to any blooming thing they like. Not helpful I know but stop using the shea butter but maybe do a skin test on a clear bit of skin to see if that reacts to be sure. Hope it gets better soon.

  4. Anyone with food, or chemical sensitivities should be VERY careful about using shea butter. I used an organic shea butter after researching that it was safe for sensitive skin. HUGE MISTAKE…I have been suffering with ‘nightmare’ hives now for 9 weeks. I have never had hives, or a skin rash before in my entire life. Due to this situation, I now can not use ANY products on my face. Everything now is causing a reaction. My face looks like I was burned, and I never put the shea butter on my face. Whatever you put on your body, goes into your blood stream, and then into your organs. I also learned after the fact, that shea butter has an element of latex in it, and I am sensitive to latex. I would not wish this experience on anyone!

    • Hi Renae, yes you’re right, it can cross react with latex. I was very careful when I tried it and didn’t have a problem. I’m so sorry that you did. I will make sure the blog is clear about this issue. Have you tried coconut butter instead?

  5. Hi! Was googling around for information on shea butter reaction when I found your blog :) I am quite sure I cannot use shea butter. I have tried it many times and sooner or later I react to it. My dd used a lip balm with it once and she said it made her itch more too.

    • It’s weird, because I could use it at first but over time I think it makes me itch a bit. Nothing like a bad reaction, but I’m wondering if this is a latex cross reaction for me. I have quite a bad latex allergy. Such a shame because I love the idea of using ONE ingredient to moisturise my skin. I’m trying out coconut oil now. I can use stuff on my body but my face is sooo much more sensitive. Fingers crossed. I hate having to rely on the petroleum based stuff.

    • PAPA ELIJAH says:

      Hi, It is quite amazing that some of you are reacting to Shea butter. The truth of the matter is, not all Shea butter causes itch. Pure un-refined Shea butter is the solution, that is exactly what you need. Some of the Shea butter on the market which you often use have additives which could result to an allergic situation. However, pure unrefined shea butter is the way forward, it keeps your skin smooth, nice and fresh. I live in Ghana hence have access to quality Shea butter. Shea butter is our trusted companion. I could supply you with the Unrefined one. You will surely love it.

      • The hard bit is buying pure, natural shea butter. I have found it through Akamuti on Amazon but it sure is pricey. I have a nut allergy and I can use shea butter no problem. I must get myself a new pot!

  6. Hi!
    Well, I have recently had some horrible issue with my skin (face), and was attributing it to a new job (hot & sweaty), hormones (getting toward mid-thirties), or maybe the environment. Since turning 33, I had been using anti-aging creams, and wouldn’t you know, I began breaking out. Than out with the Acne treatments, and god what a nightmare. I give Africans credit, perhaps they have evolved with the Shea butter, but being of Asian descent, I have not. While it took me a while to realize it was all my favorite products with shea butter causing a reaction, once i cut them out, my problem skin went away. This was shocking, considering these products do make my skin luxurious and soft. It seems to cause no reactions on my body, but put it on my face, and its all over! I finally figured it out, with the timing of when i started these products, and the woman who makes angelface products finally clueing me into the fact that shea may cause a reaction if u are sensitive to latex, which i am. I am not allergic to nuts, and like I said, it never caused a reaction on my body, but my face has been a mess, until i went through all my natural products and got rid of anything with shea in it. I won’t even use it on my body anymore, because i don’t want to chance any residue ending up on my face. Hope this helps! For those who do have reactions, Angelface on Amazon makes amazing products shea free for the face, but i would still check any ingredients to be sure…

    • P.S. my symptoms did not feel like a typical allergic reaction. It did not itch. It just felt like very painful acne.

    • I am exactly the same, stuff I can use on my body no problem hates my face. I guess the skin so much more sensitive but it’s annoying when it’s your fave products. Consider also that unless you use pure Shea butter it could be ANY ingredient causing the problem.

    • PAPA ELIJAH says:

      Hi, It is quite amazing that some of you are reacting to Shea butter. The truth of the matter is, not all Shea butter causes itch. Pure un-refined Shea butter is the solution, that is exactly what you need. Some of the Shea butter on the market which you often use have additives which could result to an allergic situation. However, pure unrefined shea butter is the way forward, it keeps your skin smooth, nice and fresh. I live in Ghana hence have access to quality Shea butter. Shea butter is our trusted companion. I could supply you with the Unrefined one. You will surely love it.

  7. Kate Kelly says:

    What do you use on your face and around your eyes? My eyes are very easily irritated but I also the area around them is quite dry, especially this time of year. Even EVOO bothers me (as well as Coconut Oil).

    What do you use?

    • Hi Kate, I do use pure 99% aloe vera gell around my eyes but this isn’t always moisturising enough. I also have Epaderm which is OK on any sensitive areas. I also like Pure Potions skin salvation which is really nice to use and doesn’t irritate my skin at all.

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