review: shea butter

praise de lard


A rich heavy dense moisturiser. At room temperature, somewhere between stiffly-whipped cream, wax, and solid. Melts at human body temperature. To use, scoop out a small quantity and melt, using human body parts. My own preference is for using two fingertips, but let your imagination run riot, alongside that of significant other(s); NB, like all oily things, don’t mix with latex things like condoms.

Depending on variety, smells slightly nutty.

Once melted, can be patted and pressed into skin (ex. lips, eye area) or smoothed around larger expanses (ex. limbs).

Moisturises. Can, depending on various other factors, be a good and soothing thing on certain skin conditions that involve skin desiccation and rawness. Good for moisture retention. May have added benefits, at least on the antioxidant level, c/o the vitamin content. May offer some slight SPF, but not enough to be any use to those of us of the gingery flammable persuasion.

For more on attributes and benefits, see for a good start:


One reason for using shea butter: as a more environmentally-sound, sustainable, and responsible alternative to petrolatum, the solid stuff of which Vaseline is the most common branded instance.

Just as with using plant-derived oils as environmentally-better alternatives to paraffinum liquidum (unscented plan mineral oil), the ethics aren’t simple. A case of shades of grey rather than black and white. We’ve looked at mineral oil elsewhere on this blog (see “categories” or search), plus plenty references to other people saying more and better elsewhere. Ex. some excellent material c/o The Guardian, now probably counts as “classic” as it’s from a few years ago.

shea tree

Things to take into account in the ethical calculus here:

  • costs of production: including energy consumption, sustainable practices from raw material to finished product, labour, other human costs: forced/slave labour, forced evictions and land-grabbing, unfair non-unionised work, human rights violations, corruption at the procurement and other contractual levels
  • costs of post-production process: packaging, shipping, carbon emissions during transportation especially over long distances; also branding and brand-management, product placement and publicity, marketing, advertising, sales, strategic management,…

Sometimes-to-often, paraffinum liquidum can work out “better” (ethically; always better on price) than plant-derived alternatives. The same is true of petrolatum. In both cases, it will also depend on which plant derivative we’re talking about: there’s a world of difference between palm oil of the worst sort–derainforesting, orang-utan-killing, human-evicting, soil-stripping, slave-labour-using, and eventually desertifying–from the other side of the world; and, for us here in Vancouver, meadowfoam seed oil that’s locally-sourced, sustainably-grown, soil-enriching (with crop rotation), properly-manned and managed. Or hemp seed oil from slightly further off in central Canada.

geographical distribution of the shea tree


Consider this post as free marketing. I do not work in any of the fields concerned: nor do I have any financial interest here. Possibly the opposite: one of my shea butter sources is Oxfam, and I donate money to them. But the main point is: I am a free agent. And a gynarchist. So I am keen as mustard on contributing to grass-roots pro bono activity, whether that’s more direct and obvious activism, or just spreading information and doing my wee bit to encourage its continuing further dissemination.

Especially if this can do the slightest thing to help other people who need help, and who are already working to help themselves. In areas that have suffered war and civil war; that are somewhere between unstable and teetering on the brink of return to such conditions. Or back there. In areas where women suffer doubly, as pawns and objects of property. All too often only to hit the news and have their very existence acknowledged when they are grossly inhumanly abused, used as tools for retaliation, revenge, humiliation, annihilation… not of them and their people: but of the associated men-folk. In conflicts that are as ever about power, man to man, where there can only be one victor, as conquered opponents are de-manned (including via abuses to their attached women). That de-manning is already a victory as one can’t be any sort of contender or contester if one is not a man; usually, of course, there is total extinction too. There’s a whole other can of worms on people and events only being perceived to count and matter in the eyes that count: that is, the eyes of the media, and with the “counting” of numbers, extent of gravity, statistics.


“Helping” does of course entail a sense of guilt, and of attempts at reparations, and part of that is one’s own repentance. This is not a purely selfless philanthropic act. We’re humans, and that means complicated.

“Helping” might be giving money to charities, or directly to people on the ground. It might also, as here I’m suggesting is a good idea with shea butter, be in a less patronising way: paying someone an honest price for something they produce and that you can use. You might not need it; but start with little things, and work up to the bigger ones. You might, indeed you will, pay more than you would for a tub of own-brand petrolatum: you are buying something that performs the same function, after all. The difference is in an ethical bonus or added benefit.

For the producer, they sell something. That enables them to make a living, and to put surplus into the business, into looking after the shea trees for example, and to longer-term planning. Not necessarily the Viagra paradigm of expansion: but of maintenance and stability, including putting profits into local education, health-care, infrastructure, marketplaces, self-sufficiency. And to focussing more energy on peaceful sustainable stable daily life. Not war-mongering. That last point is where I prefer when possible, out of pure prejudice, to support women’s cooperatives: being less likely to support war-mongering activities, which always starts out of aggression and territorial expansion, which in turn start small, at the interpersonal and local levels. I’m not claiming that all women, by virtue of being female, and immune to such things; or to greed; but I would suggest that there are some key differences on the aggressive macho front, and UNESCO and other would seem to concur, in their active support of women’s cooperatives in fragile and post-conflict zones.

What’s in it for the buyer?

You are at least trying to make a difference. Rather than saying “ah, but that country is fucked: always has been, always will be, there’s nothing I or anyone else can do.” If everyone thought and acted that way, everywhere would be fucked. True. But all it takes is a few, and those few talking to others and persuading them to change their habits, and so on. Grassroots. Word of mouth. And little by little. The fair trade movement(s) didn’t start with a big BOOM overnight: they built up little by little, one product at a time.

It might not work. The country concerned might return to a state of war. Your own country might, too. We all might. The world might end, and all of us die. But you’ll have experienced hope, as will the producer of your shea butter. And you’ll both have the memory of that hope forever: even in what seems like a negative form, nostalgia.

If the worst comes to the worst, you will have given some money to someone else. Money that they needed more than you did. That makes more of a difference to them than to you. That really doesn’t hurt your pocket (though you should still feel it and think about it, and do so in terms of your own time and labour: even if that is only a quarter of an hour sitting at a desk); after all, the pocket-money of average children in the first world could often look after a family in the developing world for a week.

There’s good psych and applied philosophy research on giving money away being something that makes you feel better, happier, improves your mood. So there’s a good selfish reason for being generous to others. You could of course do this by buying a jar of Vaseline, checking how much the same quantity of fair trade shea butter would cost, and donating the difference directly to charity. (That is, incidentally, what I do with petrochemical-derived products that I buy, and any animal-tested ones I have to use for medical reasons.)

The big difference, though, between just donating money and supporting a business?

shea tree

Trade not aid. It’s not even the “give a man a fish vs teach a man to fish” thing: here, we’re talking local indigenous knowledge and skills. This is important, and ties in with what this blog has been talking about for the last while, possibly obsessively and to the exclusion of morosophical beautification. For shea butter is produced in areas that have been colonies of foreign powers, most recently of Western European empires. Colonization and decolonization bear a heavy responsibility for current political and socio-economic problems in these areas: war zones, failed states. No, I myself never personally enslaved, butchered, or conquered anyone else, let alone anyone from West or East Africa. But I do feel a sense of responsibility and obligation. And I know that it cannot be assuaged, repairs cannot be made, simply by feeling guilty and by throwing money at a problem, via say charity, and thinking I’ve done my bit and my guilt and responsibility will go away.

What will, and in my own experience does, help? Acting as directly and personally as possible. One of the problems with charity and abstracted guilt is distance. Another is the possibility that you’re still being patronizing, as much so as colonists who wanted to better their new subjects (albeit more like objects, but still). You need to do something, or I felt I did anyway, to change that distance and relationship. To make things equal, between peers. Because when you get down to it, what’s at the heart of those feelings of guilt and horror–be it Africa or Canada–is that these are human beings, and I am a human being too, and what I feel is a deep gut overwhelming and thus often weepy (and yelling) empathy. At the heart of these feelings: that we are all humans, we are people, each of us is a person, all are equal; and that the wrongness is in turning equality to inequality. That is the fundamental injustice: the senses of guilt and responsibility are secondary and derivative, the primary next level of reaction is a need to redress imbalance, to return to equality.

And that is is why it is important to buy as directly as possible, pay an honest price, and maybe even think about sending an actual real live personal thank-you note and refer your friends. In an ideal world, we would all do this one on one at a real live market. In which the buyer and seller interact as equals–that is the basis for trade, so profoundly so that perhaps rather than distinguishing “fair trade” from “trade” one should call a spade a spade, and refer to them as “fair trade” and anything that isn’t fair as “unfair trade.” It is a sad fact that “fair trade” seems unusual and aberrant; sad, as that means that colonial and colonialist mentalities are still with us, and still core to ideas of business, commerce, and economics. Yet colonialist and imperial phases have been short, over the whole long extent of human history. And the most recent ones started not that long ago. Good readers: let’s do our small bit to accelerate decolonization: use the terms “fair trade” and “unfair trade.”

shea nuts

The relationship between buyer and seller is not just one of equals: remember, the seller is an expert where a buyer is (usually) not, and is offering to sell something that s/he has produced and that the buyer has not, often cannot. Hence why the buyer wishes to buy in the first place: and a good honest buyer respects and pays due homage to the seller’s superior knowledge in their area of expertise; to their training, practice, experience, skill, and talent. In the case of shea butter, if you add in geographical and cultural difference and a global marketplace, it’s obvious why I should be duly respectful: you can’t grow shea trees where I live and I lack the knowledge associated with their cultivation and with the production of shea butter. This is specialist knowledge, like any other art or craft, technique or technology. It takes time and effort to learn, years of practice to master, and innate natural qualities, affinities, talents. From patience and manual dexterity, to “reading” and knowing your trees, to skills of making and shaping. And such knowledge may be specific to certain parts of the world. The same is true of my own local area: not far from where I live, for example, are specialist experts in a range of skills, techniques, technologies, crafts, and arts associated with the cedar tree. Including the making of marvellous, beautiful, clever woven hats that are light, insulating, shady, and waterproof.

We could all trade: for example, if I were to bring one of my more practical skills and its material results to our global marketplace. Or immaterial ones: marketplaces, good proper ones anyway, also feature storytelling and other entertainment, and storytelling also includes the telling of histories, and public debates and discussions.

Using money functions as an intermediary: it retains value and validity so long as it can still be respected by the seller, through what it signifies. Money should still represent something: my time and labour, the product of my own training and skills and years of practice in my craft. It should feel like I’ve worked for anything I buy. It should hurt my wallet. I should value the thing I buy, and the act of buying it. It should not be something throwaway, that doesn’t matter, that my bank account doesn’t feel. Put yourself in the shoes of a Ugandan shea-butter producer: what respect would you give someone who, you feel, could buy and sell you in a blink of an eye, on a whim or to follow a fashion, without that meaning anything to them? Could you even consider such a creature to be a fellow human-being?

If this reminds you of the Hunger Games trilogy: so it should. I still have a chuckle when I realise quite how subversive those books and films are, released in certain parts of the first world! I give thanks that they snuck in under the censorious conservative (and arch-capitalist) radar. I cross my fingers–I would pray if I could–that the subversive elements do a damn fine job corrupting the youth, and help to make the world a better place.

Further reasons for rejecting fashion, gross consumerism, and disposable pseudo-culture; reasons for distinguishing between “need” and “want”, and for behaving responsibly, thoughtfully, considerately: because otherwise you dehumanize yourself, bring shame on your sub-species (First World Man) by losing the respect of the species as a whole (Global Man), and you are, in your irresponsibility, responsible for continuing colonialism and contributing to its horrors.



Think of that post-colonial, properly global, mutually respectful marketplace as the ideal to aspire to, in all purchasing transactions. This was the basis for the present-day EU and its antecedents: the Coal and Steel Community, the Common Market, those names are telling. And for why? Equal and fair trade and its extensions into free movement of people, goods, and ideas: as a foundation for equity, social justice, universal human rights, and peace. In the hope of rebuilding Europe after World War II, and of avoiding war, especially the peculiarities of a WWII kind of war: genocide and threat to global annihilation. (Yes, don’t kick me, there are other angles too: Marshall aid, anti-Communism, the building of a geopolitical block as a non-military parallel to NATO, all that paranoid Cold War propaganda… But we’re also looking at a period of growth for other forms of socialism in Europe, and for political movements with a foot in socialism and one in liberalism, and for the green movement.)

European digression aside, with apologies for what might seem like Eurocentrism–that is, I’m afraid, where I am from and one of my primary identities (besides “human, female, ginger”) is as a European. For better or worse: we’ve seen more of the “worse” of late, but there is some good too.

Digression aside: that common equal mutually-respectful global marketplace is no longer just a hazy dream: that marketplace is there, online.

shea nut processing in Burkina Faso

shea nut processing in Burkina Faso


There are two main kinds of shea butter, from one species of tree: West African shea butter (butyrospermum parkii; this is the formal name used for all shea, and what you’ll see on almost all ingredient-listings, though more recently decolonially renamed vitellaria paradoxa) and East African, or Nilotic (vitellaria nilotica).

The former is much more common, and is also sold in a refined version (for example, NOW foods and L’Occitane both sell them, non-hexane-refined). The raw unrefined organic sort is generally more prized; it is often fair trade, thought as ever the responsible consumer should check and double-check, to ensure one isn’t paying through the nose to third parties and middle-men. The refined sort is becoming increasingly prevalent as an ingredient in more general mainstream skin-care: Aveeno and Dove, for example. It would be interesting to find out what their sourcing is, how sustainable, environmentally-responsible, and honest in its dealings with producers. Especially as these companies have a murky track record on palm oil, used to “green up” heir products in replacing mineral oil. I sense the same is going on with shea butter as a plant-derived alternative to petrolatum. We will, doubtless, see.

Now, I tried to use raw unrefined West African shea butter and can’t. Skin reactions. I assumed at the time this was due to the cinnamates, and tied to my skin’s inability to tolerate octyl methoxycinnamate and my nose’s issues with more than a small quantity of cinnamon in food and drink. The cinnamates are removed in refining, and I can use the refined version. Two problems, though: NOW has as far as I can ascertain no fair trade accreditation, and I’m not buying from L’Occitane until they sort out their presence on the Chinese market in a more animal-lovingly-convincing way.

So I used petrolatum (drugstore own-brand, so as not to directly financially support Unilevil) and donated some extra money to charity.

All well for some time. Then, as ever, being female and therefore fickle, and curious, I decided to try the East African version. What the devil not, thought I: if the worst comes to the worst and I can’t use the stuff, I can give it away to someone who can, and I’ll have supported someone who needs the money along the way, and I might have helped them to build their business and build a better and more peaceful world. As the main producing countries are Uganda and South Sudan, that is an important consideration.

And lo! All was well.

  • no reactions
  • moisturising: sinks in like a dream, no greasy after-feel; not, of course, in the way that things that aren’t moisturising enough sink in and don’t feel greasy, because skin feels dry. Nope, just comfy cushiony skin, like it should be
  • although I can’t use it on my face and some other more delicate places, like inside of wrist, without getting some low-grade irritation and clogs: raised bumpiness, some redness, itchiness (around the corners if my nose is always a telltale spot), and the little bumps that signal the start of milia in the under eye area. That last thing always happens with me when I used something too rich on the very thin skin there (best option so far: a beeswax/oil balm followed by a lanolin/oil cream, like Weleda Calendula Ointment).

So East African shea butter is now what I use, on dry patches.

Key differences in comparison with West African shea butter:

  • no overall skin reactions: usable, especially hands and feet, though not face and more delicate areas
  • less scent
  • much softer, more creamy, squishy, liquidy
  • smoother texture, less gritty
  • lighter in colour, varying from pale to buttery; not that colour makes any difference to anything


East African Nilotica shea butter: any brand; raw and unrefined; most are organic anyway for reasons of local agricultural methods (and poverty). Insist on Fair Trade: most of the production areas are or have been war-zones (Uganda, South Sudan), and this is a good product for supporting peace-building women’s cooperatives. First bought from Oxfam, later bought from other sources inc. Garden of Wisdom and Lulu (c/o Etsy). Try to buy as directly as possible, with minimal middle-men.

Most people are fine with West African shea butter (butyrospermum parkii); I can use the refined version but have allergic reactions with the unrefined one. I can, however, use the East African kind on more of myself. Not face or other thinner-skinned more delicate areas; but usable on hands, feet, knees, elbows, dry patches on legs, etc. May make it worth at least trying if you’ve had similar issues with unrefined raw shea butter of the more usual West African sort.

A good substitute for petrolatum (= Vaseline, for the Unilevil branded version) if you’re avoiding it for environmentalist or other ethical reasons. Though, of course, petrolatum is a natural product; it is excellent in most skins, better on mine than shea butter is; and often works out ethically better in terms of price, energy consumption and carbon use for production and transportation; and better in terms of environmental and human cost than most–unethically-produced–shea butter. Petrolatum is also much cheaper. One can always buy cheap petrolatum and donate the difference in price between that and expensive fair trade shea butter directly to shea producers, organisations supporting them, or other appropriate charities.

Other points of comparison:

  • more expensive:
    —one should, however, in shea butter as in all things, pay an honest fair price for fair labour and in fair recompense for time, training, investment in infrastructure and maintenance and future continuation (trees, land, soil, water supply), individual skill, and towards the future continuation of business, knowledge (investing also in future education and training), community, and socio-politico-economic stability
    —that is, one should pay a price for the real value of something
    —a price that includes a contribution towards future sustainably: of vegetation, ecosystem, people, and their knowledge and culture, what makes them “a people” and “people”
    —in what ought to be a fair business transaction; that is, fair (rather than unfair) trade
  • harder to find and fewer suppliers, for practical reasons: smaller area of cultivation and production, political and socio-economic instability in the region
  • lighter in colour, smoother in texture, and softer and more liquid to the point of being creamy
  • less scent
  • very moisturising: a decent plant-derived alternative to petrolatum, though not as moisture-sealing as hospital-grade petrolatum-dimethicone-wax unguents (mind you, nothing is)

Something worth reading, if you’re interested in a “see further”:


Some ethical sources for shea butter: mainly the East African kind, as that was what I had been researching.

There are many more, and many of them good ones, for West African shea butter. Garden of Wisdom and Mountain Rose Herbs are, as ever, a good starting-point if you are in North America (GoW also sell fair trade organic East African shea butter).

Women’s cooperatives often sell more directly via charities (have a look at this season’s batch of Christmas gift catalogues), also through churches and church fairs / fêtes. Being my main reason for hanging out in such places, besides doing so to keep company with ageing relatives of a religious persuasion. Coops and their agents (including family and extended family living abroad! acting on their behalf) also seen on Etsy and EBay. Etsy is looking more and more like my idea of an ideal global fair marketplace. *like*

Viz Magazine 52 (1992): 21

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