It’s said that Cleopatra used to smooth shea butter onto her body to counteract Egypt’s scorching climate. Centuries later, people around the world are still turning to the versatile ingredient for all manner of concerns and applications, including soothing scrapes and treating parched hair.
But shea butter’s benefits don’t end there, as savvy spa pros know. The rich emollient, derived from the nuts of the karite tree that grows wild in central and western Africa, is a powerful tool when harnessed in skin care. It traps moisture, promotes elasticity and helps fade age spots—and as a result, it crops up in treatments on spa menus across the country, from manicures and pedicures to body wraps and facials.
Why it’s a skincare all star: Shea butter is particularly high in oleic acid, a deeply moisturizing essential fatty acid that’s responsible for its trademark thick texture. It also contains vitamins A and E, as well as catechins (plant antioxidants). The butter’s high fat content lends it a slick, silky feel, which makes it “a dream product for estheticians and massage therapists to work with,” according to Michelle Boster, owner of Balance Spa in Boca Raton, Florida. “It’s an ideal carrier for essential oil blends during a facial or body massage, and mixes extremely well with other oils such as fractionated coconut, jojoba or saower.”
Shea butter works well on all skin types, even sensitive. In addition, it boasts cinnamates and other compounds that may help inhibit enzymes that contribute to the inflammatory response; when used for facials, that natural anti-inflammatory element can help decrease acne flare-ups. However, because the ingredient is so rich, Boster recommends removing it with a light cleanser and warm steam towels when employed in a facial, in order to ensure optimal absorption of subsequently applied products.
Kristen Tripodi, owner/esthetician at Emidio Vincenzo Escape Salon & Spa in Arnold, Maryland, raves about the ingredient’s versatility. “It moisturizes, softens, soothes, bolsters elasticity and helps with collagen production,” she explains. “It’s excellent for use on virtually all of our clients, especially as we’re located on the coast, which experiences big swings in temperature and humidity throughout the year.”
To ensure you’re getting the butter’s maximum benefits, check that a product label lists shea butter (Butyrospermum parkii) among the first few ingredients. “Make sure it’s from a reputable source,” advises TJ Degner, lead massage therapist at Sundara Inn & Spa in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.
In the treatment room: The Hydrating Shea Butter Body Wrap (80 min./$275) at Canyon Ranch Spa in Lenox, Massachusetts, begins with warm organic shea butter painted onto the client’s body. The guest is then cocooned in a Mylar blanket to promote absorption. A therapeutic scalp massage and deep conditioning hot oil treatment come next, followed by a full-body massage and application of a body lotion.
The spa incorporates shea butter products from Zents into this and other services, including manicures and pedicures, in which “it helps strengthen nails and promotes healthy growth by keeping the cuticle hydrated,” reports spa director Samantha Cooper.
At Sundara Inn & Spa, the Shea Body Butter Indulgence (90 min./$225) starts with a gentle salt scrub. Warm towels remove the mixture, preparing skin for the shea butter. “It shouldn’t be too hot and sweaty, but just warm so the skin absorbs the shea,” says Degner. Finally, shea butter is massaged into the skin during the full-body massage.
Tripodi enjoys performing Pevonia’s Myoxy-Caviar Facial (90 min./$145) in which she cleanses and exfoliates the skin before applying layers of the brand’s creamy Myoxy-Caviar Mask sandwiched between gauze. “This isn’t just a treatment, it’s an experience,” she says. “Think of it as wrapping your client in their favorite cushy, warm blanket—at the end of the service, that’s how their skin feels. It’s spectacular!”
- The best shea butter for skin care, according to the American Shea Butter Institute (ASBI), is prepared using cold press methods without added chemicals or preservatives.
- A The ASBI classifies shea products as A, B, C or F. Class A is premium shea butter, while Class F is poor quality shea moisturizer.
- Shea trees can live for 300 years, but they produce nuts only once annually.
- Traditionally, the harvesting of shea butter was strictly reserved for women; today there are many commercial sources that support female- owned co-ops.
- Shea butter is edible and has long been used for cooking in parts of Africa. Unrefined, 100 percent shea butter is available at health food stores throughout the U.S.
Shea Butter Products