It would be interesting to learn something more about the history of this extremely important plant from the rich African oral tradition. Its history in Europe does not date back very far. The first mentions of it can be found in the book Description of Africa, written in Italian in the mid-16th century by the well-known Arab geographer known by the name of Leo Africanus.
Shea butter is extracted from the seeds of a tree that the indigenous peoples often called the tree “of health and youth”. Its botanical name is Butyrospermum Parkii, and it is a majestic tree that is, to some extent, reminiscent of our oak trees in appearance. Its fruit is not unlike a large berry, with a thin skin and pleasant tasting, slight tart mucilaginous flesh, similar to that of our plums. The flesh constitutes a little more than half of the fruit’s weight. It usually contains one or sometimes two or more seeds, protected by a hard, smooth and shiny shell.
The seed is very similar in size and appearance to our edible chestnuts, and it is in it that the valuable shea butter is found, mixed with latex.
The shea butter is still extracted in its place of origin using an artisanal process, which begins with the selection and crushing of the seeds. The product thus obtained varies from light green to yellowish in colour. It has a pleasant odour and a taste that is almost sweet. It can be used pure or, given how rich it is, it can be used as a base for many other cosmetic products.
Shea butter has always been used in Africa in foods and for cosmetic and medicinal purposes, either alone or together with other plants. The indigenous peoples call it the “tree of youth” and use it, for instance, as a salve for use in massages to ease rheumatism and aches, and to treat burns, sunburns, sores and skin irritations. According to local tradition, it stimulates circulation at a local level, allowing for the reoxygenation of the epidermal tissues and improving elimination of metabolic wastes. Women in tropical countries, famous for their velvety skin, have been using it since time immemorial to protect against the ravages of sunlight, wind and salt. In truth, African peoples use every part of the plant. The fruit’s skin and flesh are eaten raw or cooked using ancient recipes. The fat contained in the seeds, which is the shea butter, is used as a condiment, much like we use our butter, but also as a skincare and haircare product. The waste from processing the fruit and seeds is used as feed for livestock. The fat is also used in candle-making or to produce cleansers much like our soap. The latex contained in the leaves, the bark and the pith of the trunk is used as a glue and as a resinous base for chewing gum. Lastly, the wood, which is very hard and heavy, is used in construction and for making cooking utensils and other handmade objects.
Shea butter’s unsaponifiable components – which are not themselves fatty, and take their name from the fact that, when they come into contact with soda, they do not react to form soap, as occurs in the case of fats – are important for its therapeutic and cosmetic function. The butter contains vitamins A, D and E.
In truth, shea butter could have and has many uses, as sun protection, as a soothing agent, and lastly to prevent skin ageing.
Our shea butter comes from a non-profit NGO (non-governmental organization) in the north of Benin.
One of shea butter’s few limitations is that it is difficult to work with. Given that it presents as a hard butter that melts when worked with the hands (its melting point is about 37°C), the Salesian Sisters’ LA MAISON DE L’ESPERANCE therefore softens it.
It is softened by beating it vigorously with sticks until it is almost frothy.
The concept is not unlike when you beat egg whites until they are stiff (forming a microemulsion with the air).
The product thus becomes softer and easier to apply, while nonetheless maintaining all of its properties intact.
You can recognise shea butter in cosmetic products by looking for the name “Butyrospermum parkii butter” on the label.
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