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Shea butter is an extremely rich, fatty substance. Could it help treat acne despite that? Some people claim it can, and there are several convincing reasons that suggest they may be right.

Are you plagued by acne? You'll likely have made ample use of the army of specialized acne treatments on the market — things like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, sulfur, Retin-A or other retinoids, and even antibiotics such as tetracycline or potent medications like isotretinoin if your acne is severe enough [1]. You'll have heard that it's important to keep anything oily well away from your skin, too, since it's common knowledge that oil-based cosmetics and skin care products can make your acne worse, along with hormonal changes, stress, and excessive scrubbing [2]. 

What if you could contribute to the treatment of your (mild) acne with a completely natural product, in a way that counters everything you've ever learned about acne-prone skin? What if one of the many benefits of shea butter, a rich and incredibly fatty butter derived from the seeds of the African shea tree's nuts [3, 4] was exactly treating acne?

Those who love shea butter, which is widely recognized as an excellent treatment for dry skin (xerosis) [5] claim it can. They say that shea butter can help people with acne by:

  • Providing a non-comedogenic way to deeply moisturize your skin.
  • Infusing your skin with potent anti-inflammatory agents. 
  • Preventing the formation of acne scars, and fading existing acne scars. 

Are they right? Let's examine that!

Does Shea Butter Really Help Treat Acne?

Yes, it might — and for several reasons. 

First off, shea butter has anti-inflammatory properties — four different triterpene acetates that fight inflammation were found in the fat of the shea nut kernel [6]. With research pointing to acne as a primary inflammatory disease emerging, along with suggestions that anti-inflammatory drugs help in the treatment of acne [7], it is quite possible that this particular property of shea butter is rather helpful for people with acne.

We also know that shea butter is rich in fatty acids such as linoleic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid [8]. Studies have found that the topical application of linoleic acid is effective at reducing acne lesions, because a lack of linoleic acid contributes to the clogging of pores as it triggers an overproduction of sebum. [9] Oleic acid, on the other hand, is comedogenic and can thus contribute to further acne breakouts [10]. 

Then, there's tocopherols, a group of vitamin E compounds that function as powerful antioxidants. All shea butter contains these trocopherols, but research reveals that some have more than others. One study found that shea butter from trees growing on hot and dry areas, such as N'Djamena, Chad, have the highest vitamin E content. [11] Vitamin E is helpful in the treatment of acne because it reduces the oxidative degeneration of lipids in your skin [12], 

Furthermore, though acne-prone skin is usually greasy and oily skin, you'll still need a moisturizer — especially, as the American Academy of Dermatology points out — if you use popular and effective acne treatments that also dry your skin out. These include benzoyl peroxide, Accutane, tretinoin, [13]

Finally, there is some evidence that using shea butter for dark spots on the face helps fade these darker patches. Acne lesions often leave small scars, which can be accompanied by dark spots. If you're affected by these and are looking to get rid of them naturally, shea butter just may work in your favor. [14]

The Bottom Line

Scientific research is honestly still lacking in this area. Anecdotally, however, we can report that shea butter receives positive consumer reviews from people with acne. Most would recommend unrefined shea butter, which tends to be beige or yellow in color and does not contain added fragrances or chemicals, but does have a shorter shelf life. [15]

Anyone who suggests that shea butter alone is enough to treat even mild acne is, quite frankly, simply wrong. It does, however, have a place among other products in an acne treatment regimen for some people.

Alongside more conventionally recommended acne treatments, shea butter could help your skin fight inflammation, fade dark spots left over from acne scars, infuse your skin with moisture that other anti-acne products will have stripped away, and even actively reduce acne breakouts. 

Counter-intuitive as it may sound, you wouldn't be the first person to be happy to offer acne a place in your acne treatment routine. Once you realize that African shea butter for eczema has already been tested and found to be helpful [16], and that the traditional medicinal uses of shea butter include treating inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis [17], it no longer sounds so strange!

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