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shea nuts with oil and leaves

Benefits of Shea Nut Oil for Skin and Hair (And Ways to Use It)

The beauty industry is no stranger to the magic of shea nut oil. You have probably encountered shea oil listed as an ingredient in all sorts of hair and skin care products, from sheet masks to lotions and lip balms. This consensus on the utility of shea oil isn't exactly new, given that it was a staple in Cleopatra’s beauty routine. 

The shea butter we use today shares the core properties with what Cleopatra used nearly 2,000 years ago. However, modern extraction techniques make our version of shea butter more refined and processed. The advancement of ethnobiological research has also improved the quality of shea products available, with strict standards for quality control.

Given its time-tested potentially therapeutic benefits, shea nut oil is an indispensable addition to any routine. This article discusses the benefits of shea nut oil and lists the many ways to use it. 

How Is Shea Nut Oil Produced?

shea oil with shea butter

The trade of shea nut oil traces back around 4,000 years to Ancient Egyptian times. The trees grow on the Sahel-Savannah belt, stretching between 21 African countries. The shea trees from which the oil products come are semi-domesticated, meaning that their original genetic diversity has not been influenced by human cultivation. 

Shea oil is derived from the fruit of shea trees, a species scientifically known as Vitellaria paradoxa. The trees belong to the Sapotaceae family, a group of flowering plants known for their diversity in fruit types. 

Shea trees can grow to heights of 15-20 meters and produce green-yellow flowers and woody fruit pods. These fruit pods or nuts contain a fleshy center that can be extracted through several methods. Traditional methods involve hand-kneading the shea nut flesh which is an arduous, time-consuming process. 

Most commercial extraction is done through cold-pressing, a technique that requires less time and physical labor. In addition, it allows the chemical compounds to be preserved throughout the processing stages. The shea nut oil at Wholesale Botanics has been cold-pressed to harness as many of its benefits as possible. The oil obtained is cloudy white in appearance and has a rich nutty scent with sweet undertones. 

Shea Oil vs. Shea Butter: When to Use Which?

Shea oil and shea butter are both derived from the shea nut and share chemical components and therapeutic effects. However, there are notable differences in the percentage of the chemical compounds, resulting in the oil and butter having varied applications. Shea oil is made by removing the solid compounds from shea butter through fractionation. The fractionation process changes the fatty acid composition in shea oil, with a reduction in stearic acid content and an increase in oleic acid content by approximately 10-15 percent respectively. 

This modification in the chemical profile has important implications for the texture and therapeutic effect of shea oil. Stearic acid is a solid at room temperature and adds a waxy texture to products when used in topical formulations. It is beneficial in preventing surface water loss from the skin. 

On the other hand, oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid that is liquid at room temperature and has a lightweight, non-greasy texture. For topical applications, the higher oleic acid content renders shea butter oil more convenient as it melts into the skin and absorbs better than shea butter. 

Additionally, shea oil has a milder scent that lacks the pronounced ‘nutty’ quality of shea butter. It is suitable for individuals who prefer subdued fragrances in self-care products. 

The final verdict depends on the intended use. As a rule of thumb, use shea butter if your skin tolerates thick, creamy products well. Contrastingly, shea oil can be used by all skin types and for most applications as it is lightweight and absorbs quickly.

Chemical Profile and Possible Therapeutic Effects of Shea Oil

The chemical composition of shea oil varies slightly depending on factors such as the soil and climate. The variability may result in slight differences in texture and color; however, the therapeutic properties mostly remain consistent. Shea oil has a high percentage of fatty acids in it, making it incredibly moisturizing and emollient.

Additionally, it contains tocopherols and catechins, phytochemicals with several beneficial properties. The following sections expand on scientific opinion on the benefits and applications of the compounds in shea oil. 

Stearic Acid

Stearic acid makes about 27 percent of the fatty acid makeup in shea oil. Stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid popularly used in cosmetic formulations to modify the texture and stabilize products. Stearic acid is known for its skin-soothing and moisturizing properties. While it does little to add moisture, it prevents water from escaping the epidermis, reducing transepidermal water loss. 

It also protects and enhances skin barrier function as a result of its emollient effects. A study conducted in 2010 investigated the absorbency and permeability of stearic acid into the outermost layer of the epidermis. 

A body wash containing stearic acid was applied to the skin, after which the oil levels were tested using mass spectrometry. Results showed that stearic acid was able to penetrate all layers of stratum corneum in a satisfactory amount. Additionally, researchers determined that the fatty acid was able to assimilate into the lipid phase of the skin, improving the barrier function. 

Oleic Acid

Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid also sometimes referred to as Omega 9. Its chemical structure plays a significant role in its properties and benefits for self-care, consisting of a long hydrocarbon chain with a carboxyl group. It delivers hydration, moisturizes the skin, and has anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant characteristics. 

The fatty acid has a hydrocarbon tail that is water-repellent, allowing it to interact well with lipids and contributing to its emollient effects. Additionally, it has one double bond, making it less densely packed than other fatty acids, allowing it to retain a liquid consistency. The chemical structure allows oleic acid to spread easily on the skin and penetrate the skin’s outer layer. 

In a study published in the Journal of Immunobiology, omega-9 fatty acid was found to decrease inflammation and enhance wound healing. The results affirm that oleic acid can be used to promote tissue repair and support healing processes.

Linoleic Acid

Linoleic acid, also known as omega-6, is a polyunsaturated fatty acid with multiple double bonds in what is known as a ‘cis configuration.’ This creates a kink in the hydrocarbon chain, allowing the oil to integrate well into the skin's lipid layer. This structure allows for linoleic acid to influence prostaglandin levels and subsequently have anti-inflammatory effects. 

Moreover, linoleic acid also has important applicability in the treatment of acne-prone skin. A research paper published in the Journal of Applied Cosmetology noted that individuals with insufficient levels of linoleic acid may be more susceptible to acne infections. They also found that the topical application of linoleic acid helped resolve skin issues and reduce acne and inflammation. 

The utility of this fatty acid also extends to its use as an anti-aging ingredient in skincare formulations. It has notable antioxidant effects and enriches the lipid layer of the skin to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Alpha Tocopherol

The most biologically significant out of all vitamin E forms, alpha-tocopherol has an interesting chemical structure characterized by a chromanol ring and hydrophobic tail. The chromanol ring is present at the core of the tocopherol molecule and consists of a hydroxyl group attached to a phenol ring. 

This chemical configuration plays a crucial role in alpha-tocopherol’s antioxidant activity. The hydroxyl group neutralizes free radicals by donating hydrogen atoms and preventing free radical damage to hair and skin cells. 

In conjunction with its antioxidant effects, alpha-tocopherol is also a photoprotective agent. When used regularly, it has the potential to enhance the effectiveness of sunscreens. A 2002 study found several mechanisms through which the vitamin E compound reduces sun damage to the skin. It absorbs UV rays and reduces redness caused in the skin by sun exposure. 

Alpha-tocopherol also has significant emollient properties, making it a potential ingredient for eczema, psoriasis, and dry scalp treatments. It forms a protective barrier to keep in moisture and reduce water loss from the surface of the skin. 


Catechins are phenolic compounds that make up a significant part of the chemical composition of shea butter. While the word ‘catechins’ may sound unfamiliar, they have become a common addition to skincare formulations, marketed under green tea and coffee-based personal care products. 

Catechins in shea oil include gallocatechin, epigallocatechin, and epigallocatechin gallate. Among these, epigallocatechin gallate, better known as ECGC, has been widely studied for its biological effects. The combination of these catechin compounds enhances the skin’s repair capacities and delivers antioxidant and UV protective effects. 

Ways to Use Shea Oil in Skin Care

Shea oil has incredible versatility and can be used in endless personal care applications. Its seamless integration with various product formulations such as creams, lotions, and moisturizers enables the creation of custom blends. The following sections discuss the blends and recipes that best utilize the biological prowess of shea nut oil. 

Nourish Dry Skin With Shea Oil Moisturizer

In the past 20 years, scientists have probed into the workings of the outermost layer of our skin, the stratum corneum. Findings indicate that dry skin is caused by the loss of moisture from this outermost layer and can be treated by adding protective lipids back into the skin. 

Shea oil is a great source of essential fatty acids such as linoleic that can alleviate dryness and encourage the synthesis of lipids by the skin. Linoleic acid also increases the levels of ceramide 1 linoleate in the skin, a compound that prevents water loss and protects the skin from irritants in the external environment. 

You can make your shea oil moisturizer using beeswax, cocoa butter, and argan oil. To half a cup of shea oil, add 4 tablespoons of cocoa butter, 2 tablespoons of beeswax pellets, and 2 tablespoons of argan oil. You may also add a few drops of vanilla essential oil to fragrance your moisturizer. 

This moisturizer contains non-comedogenic ingredients and can be used by all skin types. It has significant moisturizing potential as it contains linoleic acid, oleic acid, and tocopherols. 

Help Relieve Sunburn With Shea Oil Cream

Exposure to UV rays from the sun or artificial sources such as tanning beds may cause sunburns, a condition where the skin is inflamed and appears red. Blood vessels in the skin dilate, increasing blood flow to the epidermis. In the long run, exposure to the sun may lead to skin damage that manifests in the form of fine lines, darkened patches, and dull skin. 

Shea oil contains anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and photoprotective compounds such as tocopherols and catechins that prevent and treat the effects of sun exposure. Topical application of shea oil alongside consistent use of sunscreens may help absorb harmful UV rays better and reduce the impact of free radicals.

To DIY your own soothing and photoprotective shea oil cream, combine 4 tablespoons of shea oil, 2 tablespoons aloe vera gel, 1 tablespoon of pomegranate seed oil, and a few drops of lavender essential oil. Aloe vera and lavender essential oil calm the inflammation from UV exposure and the pomegranate seed oil absorbs the harmful UVB rays. 

To increase the shelf-life of your DIY mixture, store it in a glass container and place it in a cool and dry environment. 

Potentially Soothe Eczema and Irritated Skin With Shea Oil

Eczema is a skin condition that is caused by several underlying mechanisms, some moderated by genetics and some by factors in the external environment. Eczema may be triggered by environmental factors such as allergens and heat. 

However, most conditions that lead to irritated skin are characterized by a compromised skin barrier. Symptoms such as flaking and itchy skin are brought on by dehydrated, sensitive skin. 

To calm the symptoms of eczema, you can apply shea oil topically with a blend of anti-inflammatory essential oils and ingredients. Formulate an eczema relief cream at home using 4 tablespoons of shea oil, 4 tablespoons of flaxseed oil, 2 tablespoons of beeswax pellets, and 1 tablespoon of colloidal oatmeal. To boost the remedying potential of the blend, add 5 drops of lavender essential oil and combine everything well together. 

This cream mixture contains moisturizing and anti-inflammatory compounds such as fatty acids and phenols that treat the discomfort associated with eczema. Flaxseed oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, soothing the skin and reducing itching and redness. The addition of colloidal oatmeal to this recipe significantly boosts the soothing effect and delivers hydration to dry, irritated skin.

Revitalize Skin Using Anti-Aging Shea Oil Serum

The aging of the skin is impacted by several extrinsic and intrinsic factors such as genetics, hormones, toxins, and UV exposure. Aging changes the structure of the skin through the loss of fibrillin and collagen structures. Components that act as glue in the skin, such as glycosaminoglycans and elastin, decrease in content, deteriorating the skin’s elasticity.

A study on the underlying biological mechanisms in skin aging found that skincare can improve skin elasticity, regeneration, and smoothness. Antioxidant compounds such as those in shea oil may promote the natural synthesis of collagen and prevent the formation of wrinkles.

To introduce shea oil into your skincare, you can combine it with other potent anti-aging oils and create your own serum. Start by combining 4 tablespoons of shea oil with an equal ratio of rosehip seed oil. Into this mixture, add a tablespoon of vitamin E oil and 5 drops of frankincense essential oil.

This serum contains biological compounds that are abundant in vitamins, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants. Rosehip seed oil nourishes and hydrates the skin while addressing darkened spots. Vitamin E protects from oxidative stress and brightens the skin as frankincense essential oil works to promote skin regeneration. 

Ways to Use Shea Butter Oil for Hair Care

The chemical profile of shea nut oil makes it an excellent product to be used for hair care. It contains deeply moisturizing essential fatty acids such as oleic and linoleic acid. These lipids penetrate the hair shaft efficiently to deliver hydration and lock in moisture. Shea oil also contains vitamins E and A, substances that have antioxidant and free radical scavenging properties.

The following sections introduce ways that you can add shea nut oil to your hair care. The recipes discussed are formulated to enhance and complement the therapeutic potential of shea oil. 

Deep Condition Hair With Shea Oil Hair Mask 

Deep conditioning treatments are formulated with emollients, humectants, and highly hydrating compounds that deliver intense moisturizing and nourishing effects to the scalp and hair. It is generally used to enhance smoothness and shine, as well as to repair hair damage due to dryness. Dull hair and dryness are caused by a lack of moisture and sebum. 

Shea oil consists of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids that act as emollients when applied to the hair. They form a protective barrier over the hair strands, locking in moisture. Additionally, it also contains phytosterols and tocopherols, compounds that replenish moisture and repair hair damage.

For advanced effectiveness, shea nut oil can be combined with coconut oil and honey. For every two parts shea oil, use 1 part coconut oil and 1 part honey. Mix all of the ingredients well and apply to damp hair, keeping a focus on the ends. Leave the conditioning treatment in your hair for 20-30 minutes and then wash out with lukewarm water and shampoo. 

The ingredients in this deep conditioning blend synergize well and deliver quick results. Coconut oil provides intensive moisture, helping nourish the hair, while honey is a natural humectant that binds water. 

Tame Frizz With Shea Oil Hair Serum

Frizzy hair can be caused by a myriad of factors, but usually, the underlying cause stays the same: dry hair. A loss of moisture from the hair results in structural changes in the outer layer of the hair strand called the cuticle. The cuticle is made of thin, scale-like cells that overlap. When the hair strand is dry, these cells swell up, causing the cells to lift and give the hair strand a rough appearance.

Products that are formulated to control frizz work through three main mechanisms: creating a hydrophobic barrier, retaining moisture, and reducing static. These outcomes can be achieved through chemical compounds such as emollients, humectants, and lipid compounds. 

To make, mix 2 tablespoons of shea nut oil with 4 tablespoons each of aloe vera gel and rosewater. If you can source it, fresh aloe vera gel works best in this recipe. This is because it retains most of its biological properties when it is not processed. 

This frizz-control serum can be stored for up to 4 days in the refrigerator. To use, apply a small amount to the ends of your hair to lightly coat your strands. Make sure to measure it out according to your hair length so that it works as intended. 

Address Dandruff With Shea Oil Scalp Massage

Dandruff can be a persistent condition that affects a person’s quality of life. It manifests through symptoms such as dry, flaky scalp and itching. It can be caused by irritation to the scalp by excessive shampooing, use of tight-fitting hats, or even frequent combing. Another common factor that triggers the development of dandruff is the presence of bacteria or fungi.

Scientific research has probed into the different ways that dandruff can be treated. A 2014 experimental study found that nourishing the hair scalp and administering frequent hair massages were useful in controlling dandruff. 

Keeping this in mind, the recipe combines shea oil with tea tree oil in a massage blend to add moisture, supply nutrients, and encourage blood flow to the scalp. To use, mix 5 drops of tea tree essential oil into 4 tablespoons of shea nut oil. Massage the oil in your scalp in circular motions to increase blood flow and deliver oxygen to the scalp. Shea oil supplies essential lipids to the scalp while tea tree essential oil defends against dandruff-causing bacteria

Tips for Using Shea Nut Oil in DIY Recipes

Crafting homemade blends using shea nut oil is a great way to enhance the effectiveness of the oil and adapt it for different uses. To make the most of these recipes, here are a few points to keep in consideration:

  • Source your ingredients from trusted and certified sources
  • Sanitize all your mixing equipment before use
  • Measure your ingredients carefully to retain blend proportions
  • When incorporating essential oils into your blend, add slowly and carefully
  • Store your blend in airtight containers away from direct sunlight for longer shelf-life

Ensuring Safe Application of Shea Nut Oil

When using shea nut oil on its own or blended into recipes, it is essential to be mindful of safety guidelines to ensure a positive experience. 

Before topical application on skin or hair, apply shea oil on a small patch of skin to make sure it does not irritate. Products from shea trees may cause an allergic reaction in people with a latex allergy. Hence, if you have a known allergy to latex, avoid the topical use of shea oil, even in blends.

Note that shea nut oil cannot be used as a medical intervention or in place of prescribed medication. If you plan to use shea oil to address any health concerns, take advice from a health professional to safely incorporate it into your regimen. 

Final Notes on the Benefits of Shea Nut Oil

shea nuts with oil and shea butter

Shea nut oil is a versatile natural product that can be adapted for countless applications. Contributing to this flexibility is the fact that it is mostly safe to use by people of different skin and hair types. It does not clog pores and is typically safe to use on the scalp, making it an essential addition to any self-care routine. 

To achieve the best outcomes when using shea nut oil, stick to a consistent application routine and take care to follow the safety guidelines. 

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