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Do you think of shea butter as a nice skin care product? It has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes as well, and you may benefit too.

Do you love natural skin care products? You've almost certainly come to love shea butter — a really rich and hydrating butter extracted from the African shea tree's nuts [1]. Pleasant-smelling and luxurious-feeling, shea butter easily melts onto your skin at room temperature, where it can fight dryness [2] and wrinkles [3]. 

Shea butter would be great if all it could do was make your skin feel silky soft — but that isn't all it can do, and that makes it even better. The West-African cultures that are used to life with the shea tree right in their back yard have been using it for medicinal purposes for a very long time [4]. 

Should you, too, yank your shea butter out of your beauty case and add it to your medicine cabinet instead? What are the medicinal benefits of shea butter?

Is Shea Butter A Natural Sunscreen?

Shea butter has traditionally been used as a means of protecting the skin from the sun's harsh rays. Does it work? Well, shea butter apparently has an extremely variable sun protection factor, ranging from none to about six [5]. Most people are advised to use an SPF of at least 30 for optimal sun protection [6] — while also staying out of the sun during the hottest hours and seeking shade instead — so shea butter alone won't be enough to protect you. It does, however, make for an awesome sunscreen ingredient, and if you have nothing else, it's, well, better than nothing. 

Shea Butter For Rheumatoid Arthritis

Shea butter has long been used to treat sore muscles, bruising and swelling, and arthritis. If that sounds strange to you, you may like to know that shea butter has proven anti-inflammatory properties. Research has indeed found that topically used shea butter or shea extract can relieve the pain of arthritis [7], and if you're wondering how that works out in practice, people who have tried it anecdotally report feeling better after simply rubbing shea butter onto their skins. Shea butter can also, however, be eaten [8]. 

Nasal Congestion? Shea Butter To The Rescue!

Are you dealing with a stuffed nose? Rhinitis strikes when your nasal mucosa becomes inflamed and irritated as the result of viral or bacterial infections, and symptoms like nasal congestion, sneezing, and a runny nose quickly ensue. Liberally apply shea butter onto the outside of your nose, your upper lip, and your chest — and if you dare to go a step further, place some inside your nasal cavity, too. Research has shown that shea butter is indeed a powerful nasal deblocking agent! [9]

Shea Butter For Small Cuts And Scrapes

People living in the areas where the shea tree grows have long found that it has the ability to promote proper wound healing. As such, they've applied shea butter to allow circumcision wounds to heal faster and without infection, as well as using shea butter to care for umbilical cord stumps in newborns. [2] 

Does this mean you should rub shea butter in your small cuts and scrapes? Well, research does indeed indicate that the shea tree has antimicrobial properties, inhibiting the growth of such nasties as P aeruginosa, K pneumoniae, B cereus and typhi. In this case it is, however, the stem, roots, and leaves of the plant that were used. [10]

While it's better to clean minor wounds with soap and water and then to apply a sterile dressing or band-aid [11], shea butter may well come in handy once a scab has formed. During this stage, it may help prevent infection and scar formation. 

Shea Butter As An Insect Repellent

The black fly (Simulium) is a group of fly species that can carry nasty diseases, including river blindness [12]. Getting these pests to stay away is another traditional use of shea butter [2]. Scientific studies confirming its efficacy are sorely lacking, however, so you may want to rely on something like DEET instead. 

Stretch Marks Be Gone?

Over half of all pregnant women develop stretch marks, and I'm pretty sure none of them are particularly happy about it. While there is little evidence that anything except having them surgically excised removes stretch marks after you've already developed them, it is possible that proper moisturization during pregnancy can help prevent them. [13

Since shea butter is an excellent emollient that's easily absorbed into the skin, you could try rubbing shea butter all over your abdomen, thighs, buttocks, and breasts during pregnancy to see if it will keep stretch marks at bay. You wouldn't be the first — women from regions where the African shea tree grows, such as Nigeria, have been at it for ages [2]. 

Shea Butter As A Moisturizer For Eczema 

If you suffer from atopic dermatitis, moisturization is one of the most important parts of your self-care regime. With shea butter's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, it would only make sense that it could make your skin smoother, less red, less dry, and less itchy. Research indicates that it does. In fact, African shea butter for eczema works better than Vaseline, a commonly recommended emollient. [14]

  • Photo courtesy of Marco Schmidt - Own work (own foto), CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=792432

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