How to Use Shea Butter as the Best Solution for Hair and Scalp

If you're like me and didn’t know much about using shea butter for hair, you're in for a surprise. Shea butter is a unique product and one that all of us should perhaps keep in the house! It certainly is the solution to many hair problems.

So, whether your hair is long or short, curly, kinky or straight, oily or dry, Afro, Indian or Caucasian - read on to see what the benefit is for you.

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Let’s start with what shea butter is, why it is so special, and why you should use it for your hair. And then I’ll give you the recipes for split ends, a luxury mask for dry hair and a quick every day conditioner.

What Is Shea Butter?

Shea butter is an oil that comes from the seed of the vitellaria paradoxa tree. It is an important part of the economy in West Africa. In fact, according to the Global Shea Alliance (AGK), the shea industry supports about 16 million people, many of them women. Because of this, shea butter is sometimes called "women’s gold". It has been used for hundreds of years to protect hair and skin from the harsh African sun and winds. (Have a quick look at how they produce shea butter here.)

shea butter for hair

The vitellaria paradoxa tree can live for hundreds of years, and it resists droughts, floods, and fire. Yet it grows only in its wild habitat, and, until recently, no-one has been able to grow it commercially. It takes 25 years to yield any oil, and then it delivers only every third year. The trees have been overexploited for timber and charcoal, and there is population and agricultural pressure. As a result, it is registered as "vulnerable" on the IUCN red list of endangered species.

What Makes Shea Butter So Special?

All seed oils are classified according to saponifiable fractions (moisturizing capability) and non-saponifiable fractions (healing capability). For the moisturizing fraction, shea butter is remarkably close to the natural sebum or oil produced by sebaceous glands. Also, shea butter melts at body temperature. As a result, it is readily absorbed into the skin. It will soften and moisturize dry, cracked and chapped skin.

It is the healing fraction that makes shea butter unique. The levels are very high, ranging from 5% to 17%. Most seed oils have less than 1%. Therefore, it is very effective in dealing with skin conditions such as itchy skin, diaper rash, insect bites, eczema, and dermatitis, peeling after sunburn and even speeding up wound healing. Nutrients in this healing section include Vitamins A, E and F, cinnamates, phytosterols and other phytonutrients.

Not All Shea Butters Are the Same

Quality really matters with shea butter. Here are some important things to know:

  • Shea butter must have a healing fraction of at least 3% for it to have healing properties.
  • The higher the healing fraction, the better the quality of the shea butter.
  • A recent finding is that, as shea butter ages, it loses its healing properties, although it can still be used as a moisturizer. This seems to be linked to cinnamic acid, which is a key ingredient in fresh shea butter.
  • Shea butter should be used within 18 months after extraction. Considering the time taken to export from Africa and then to bottle or mix with other cosmetic products, it is possible for the butter to have passed its usefulness by the time you buy it.
  • In the USA, you can look for the Seal of the American Shea Institute, to guarantee quality.
  • The Institute tracks the age and the levels of cinnamic acid in the butter. They then classify it as Class A (premium quality), B, C or F. Class F is where the butter should be used only for moisturizing.
  • Fresh Shea butter should have a smoky, nutty smell. If it doesn’t, it is probably old and may be rancid. (In some cases, people have got so used to buying old butter that they think that the slightly unpleasant smell is what it should smell like!)

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  • Various factors reduce the quality. Some suppliers mix in other ingredients for color or fragrance. Others mix it with inferior oils for cost purposes. Refining reduces quality. White butter, butter with no smell and butter that doesn’t harden at room temperature are all signs of refining. Refined butter can lose up to 75% of its healing properties, with "ultra-refined" losing most.
  • Quality is retained if the extraction is by hand or cold press, with no chemicals. The color should range from ivory, faint yellow to faint green and beige. It should have the consistency of spreadable butter
  • There is a bright yellow butter that also comes from Africa. This is river butter and is not the same as shea butter.

Here are a few products that I found that are unrefined, cold-pressed, 100% pure shea butter, with no additives, and classified as Grade A:

Why Shea Butter for Hair?

All the moisturizing and healing benefits of shea butter make it an excellent treatment for both scalp and hair.

Scalp Treatment

The very high healing properties of shea butter are wonderful for dry scalp and conditions such as dandruff. The butter is rapidly absorbed into the scalp and does not remain as a greasy layer on the skin. This is especially beneficial for those of you who have a combination of dry scalp with oily hair.

Anti-dandruff shampoos tend to remove all surface oils. So, shea butter may be a good replacement, as it will moisturize your hair while dealing with the dandruff problem. It also deals with itchiness and inflammation.

In addition, phytosterols in shea butter increase microcirculation of the blood and stimulate cell growth. Stimulation of hair follicles prevents hair loss and encourages hair regrowth.

shea butter for hair and scalp

Nourishment and Protection for Your Hair

The combination of essential fatty acids and high levels of vitamins and nutrients found in shea butter are key requirements for healthy hair.

#1. Shea butter is made up mainly of saturated fats and monounsaturated fats. Both are absorbed directly into the hair shaft. A certain amount remains on the surface of the shaft. This does two things: It prevents water (from the atmosphere, from showering and washing, etc) from penetrating and swelling the hair shaft. It also prevents moisture loss from inside the hair shaft.

#2. It helps to restore condition after chemical treatments to straighten, perm or relax your hair, or after high heat for drying or ironing

#3. Shea butter is one of the few oils that has been shown to repair split ends (see our tips and recipe later)

#4. It has sufficient SPF to protect the hair from sun damage

#5. It protects the hair shaft from salt and chlorine, so can be used before swimming.

How to Use Shea Butter for Hair

Shea butter on its own is very effective and it’s easy to use: Just rub a small amount between your palms and it will melt as it reaches body temperature. It is then easily absorbed into your hair and scalp. And, of course, your hands will be getting a super moisturizing treatment at the same time.

Pro Tip

best shea butter for hair

Did you know that thick hair attracts up to 40% more moisture from the environment than fine hair? This makes it frizz. (Anyone with thick, curly hair knows what a hair nightmare it can be to visit a place that has high humidity!) Rubbing a tiny amount of shea butter on your hands and then running your fingers through your hair will help to tame the frizz. Start a little distance away from your scalp for this. Once a week, moisturize your hair with a shea butter mask. Apply it to wet hair and leave on for at least 20 minutes before shampooing.

Recipe #1: Shea Butter for Split Ends

Use as a deep conditioning mask (see our luxury recipe later).

Use as a leave-in treatment, on the ends.

  • Rub the butter between your hands so that it melts
  • Massage into the ends of your hair
  • Tie up in a bun or braids, or cover with a colorful head scarf for the day. This gives the butter time to penetrate the ends.

If you have your ends trimmed regularly, avoid using high heat, and use shea butter regularly, you are likely to have manageable, frizz-free hair and healthy ends.


Recipe #2: Shea Butter Luxury Mask for Dry Hair

shea butter homemade hair treatment

(I found this recipe in Neal’s Yard Beauty Book in Google books. I couldn’t find the name to give credit to the author, but the recipe looked too good to ignore!)

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon shea butter (for dry and split ends and antioxidant protection)
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil (to protect the protein layer and strengthen the hair)
  • 10 drops rosemary essential oil (to stimulate blood flow to the scalp)
  • 1 tablespoon argan oil (to protect against hair aging)

What You Will Need

  • Glass bowl
  • Pot with hot water
  • Handheld whisk or stick blender
  • Sterilized glass jar with a tightly fitting lid
  • Towel to wrap around your head

Have a look here for instructions on how to sterilize the jar. Sterilizing prevents contamination and lengthens the shelf life of the mask.

How to Make

  • 1. Heat the butter and oils together in a glass bowl over a pot of boiling water, until melted
  • 2. Allow to cool for 30 – 40 minutes
  • 3. Use a whisk or stick blender to whisk the oils until you have the texture of double cream
  • 4. Mix in the essential oil.
  • 5. Spoon into the warm sterilized jar. Allow to cool and then put the lid on.
  • 6. This conditioner will last for up to 6 weeks.

How to Apply

  • A little goes a long way. You need about a teaspoonful.
  • Massage into scalp and hair, starting from the roots and working your way to the ends.
  • If you have long or thick hair, divide into sections and apply to each section separately. Use a little extra oil if necessary.
  • Wrap hair in a warm towel and leave on for 30 – 60 minutes or overnight.
  • To wash out, apply the shampoo directly onto the oiled hair before you add any water.
  • Rinse out the shampoo and oil, and shampoo again to remove any last traces of oil.

Pro Tip

See our other posts on coconut oil for hair and argan oil for hair to understand why this combination recipe is likely to be such a winner


Recipe #3: Shea Butter as an Every Day Quick Conditioner

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons of shea butter
  • 1 tablespoon of coconut oil
  • 5 drops of lavender essential oil
  • 3 tablespoons of rose water

How to Make

  • The method is just about the same as for the mask recipe above.
  • Add the lavender oil and rose water to the warmed oils before you whisk them to a cream.
  • Store in a sterilized jar as for the mask.

How to Make

  • 1. Wash your hair as normal
  • 2. Apply about a teaspoon of the shea butter mixture to your hair and rub in circular motions
  • 3. Rub into your scalp at the same time only if your scalp is dry.
  • 4. Rinse, dry and style as usual. (Use a very wide-toothed comb, as butter can make your hair difficult to comb.)
  • 5. If the ends of your hair still feel dry, add a little of the mixture as a leave-on treatment.

So, there you have it. Shea butter for hair is a good choice for you, especially if you have dry hair, split ends, dry scalp and dandruff. It’s a great moisturizer and has the highest amount of healing and nutrient power of all the oils. It will tame frizz, help to prevent hair loss and stimulate regrowth. Sounds like a winner to me!

Please try some shea butter for your hair, and let me know what the results are.

shea butter for hair infographic

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Amelia Johnson
 

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