According to the oracle known as the Internet, shea butter is a miracle ingredient, and if its uses were tallied up they’d number in the thousands.

After using it for a while now, we have to say we agree. If stuck on a deserted island with only one body care product, shea butter would be it.

While there hasn’t been a lot of research to back up many of the claims, there is no shortage of folk wisdom and testimonies singing its praises. And really, in a world of cosmetics laden with synthetic ingredients and odd extras like little plastic balls, the availability of a botanical body care ingredient pure enough to eat is a beautiful thing. Especially when it happens to be so effective.

Such is the case with shea butter; edible indeed, it also is wonderful as a body care product. It is extracted from the nuts of African karite trees (Vitellaria paradoxa), a species that grows from Guinea and Senegal to Uganda and South Sudan. Shea butter has long been used for health and cooking in Africa and is also an ingredient in a number of confections, especially chocolate; but its latest role is as the new darling of the beauty and body care world.

Rich in vitamins E and A, among others, it has unique properties that make it a standout in the nut oil family. The presence of fatty acids and plant sterols, like oleic, stearic, palmitic and linolenic acids add to shea butter’s notably high nonsaponifiable fraction; it doesn’t convert to soap when introduced to an alkali — which means that it has greater healing potential for the skin. Shea butter has many other awesome attributes as well, which makes it a wonderful ally to do the following with:

1. Indulge dry skin

According to the American Shea Butter Institute, the moisturizers in shea butter are the same ones that are produced by the skin’s sebaceous glands, making it one of the best matches for dry skin.

2. Make your hair happy

Shea butter is used in many a haircare product and with good reason. It is said to have a number of benefits, including sealing in moisture, defining curl, conditioning the scalp, alleviating dandruff and decreasing the dreaded frizz. Also, applied to just the roots when styling can add a bit of volume to fine hair.

3. Fight wrinkles

The American Shea Butter Institute claims that the application of high-quality shea butter will diminish the appearance of wrinkles after four to six weeks of use. Other research suggests that the application of shea butter to the skin results in a brighter complexion and visibly reduced wrinkles.

4. Enhance your kisser

Shea butter is said to protect and soothe the lips. Apply several times a day; smooch frequently to test its efficacy.

5. Calm inflamed skin

Shea butter has several anti-inflammatory agents, including derivatives of cinnamic acid. In a study on shea butter and its anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive effects published in the Journal of Oleo Science, researchers concluded that “shea nuts and shea fat (shea butter) constitute a significant source of anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor promoting compounds.” So go on, soothe away.

Shea nuts

Shea nuts; magic beans! (Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/Flickr)

6. Fade stretch marks

While authorities like the Mayo Clinic and Baby Center note that the only way to really diminish stretch marks is with Retin-A or laser treatments, there are many testimonies across the Web of people who swear by the power of shea butter for helping in this endeavor. Its abundance of vitamins and healing agents doesn’t make this seem like much a stretch, so to speak.

7. Ease eczema and acne

Both eczema and acne require delicate treatments as not to exacerbate the problems; and in both cases, a pure and natural product is favorable to one with synthetic ingredients and fragrances. According to reviews, shea butter's efficacy for eczema and acne is mixed. Some say that it doesn't work at all, but more seem to agree that shea butter does indeed help. For eczema, users like to soak in a tub then apply shea butter while still damp to lock in the moisture; for acne, suggestions include applying a thin film after cleaning the face and then rinsing it off after a few hours. We can't guarantee these uses, but with shea's unique properties, it sure seems worth a try. (And if you have experience with either of these treatments, leave a comment and let us know how you fared.)

8. Repair cracked heels and troublesome cuticles

Many who suffer from painful cracked heels and dry cuticles claim that shea butter solves the problem. For heels that are particularly bad, apply shea butter before bed and slip into cotton socks for the night.

9. Give skin an antioxidant boost

Shea butter is high in vitamins A and E, as well as catechins and other significant plant antioxidants, which may protect skin from damage. There is evidence that suggests that cinnamic acid esters in shea fat also help to prevent damage from ultraviolet radiation.

10. Ditch the itch from insect bites

With its anti-inflammatory magic, it makes sense that shea butter would quell the swelling of insect bites, but if crowds of people across the Web are correct, it also stops the irksome itch of insect bites pretty much on the spot.

11. Aid your shave

The jury is still out on this one – some like a shea shave because it’s so nice on the skin; others say that it doesn’t provide enough cushion for the razor since it doesn’t lather. If you like more of an “oil shave” than a sudsy one, shave with shea. And even if you use a lather to shave with, applying shea post-shave can soothe irritation.

12. Clear nasal congestion

A study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that shea butter was potentially more efficacious in treating nasal congestion than nasal drops. Subjects with congestion (mostly associated with seasonal allergy) were given 2-4 grams of shea butter applied to the interior of the nostril “by means of the subject’s right index finger.” (Which is to say, you can try this at home!) The airways of those using the shea butter (opposed to those using nasal drops or petroleum jelly) became clear within 30 to 90 seconds of application, and remained so for 5 to 8 hours, besting the other treatment methods. (On a similar note, use shea butter instead of petroleum jelly to fight pollen, see: How to survive pollen season (without locking yourself inside the house.)

Raw shea butter

Raw African shea butter. (Photo: David Fulmer/Flickr)

When shopping, raw unrefined shea butter or grade A is preferred, as the product diminishes the more refined it is, and the more additives it has. Also know that unrefined shea butter is not like a smooth, creamy lotion; it’s a little harder and greasier (but in a good way!) and softens when warmed. It ranges in color from creamy off-white to yellow (like that pictured above); very white shea butter has most likely been highly refined.

There are many women’s cooperatives working to produce shea butter – the U.N.notes that shea butter provides employment and income to millions of women across Africa – and many come with third-party fair trade and sustainability certification. Look to buy yours from a company that supports social and environmental issues. Also, although shea nuts appear to be safe for those who are allergic, if you have tree nut allergies please consult with your physician before using shea. And then, revel in the butter!

Related stories on MNN: