For years, shea butter has been worshiped as a skin care miracle. It’s added to dozens of cosmetics, and can even be purchased all by itself. But what role does shea butter play in hair growth?
In this post, I’ll introduce shea butter and it’s many healthy components. You’ll also learn about:
- The hair-benefiting properties that shea butter contains;
- How it can play a role in promoting healthy hair and growth;
- The five classifications of shea butter available on the market;
- TWO ways to add it to your hair care routine; and
- Cheaper alternatives that you may consider using.
I’ll also share with you a few of my own favorite ingredients, all of which can be easily added to your usual daily routine.
What is Shea Butter?
Shea butter is a fat extracted from the nuts of the shea tree. It’s used primarily in cosmetics – including makeup, moisturizers, lotions, and even hair products – and contains an array of beneficial components.
Shea butter contains the following fatty acids: oleic acid (40–60%), stearic acid (20–50%), linoleic acid (3–11%), palmitic acid (2–9%), linolenic acid (<1%) and arachidic acid (<1%).
As the most abundant component (40 – 60%) of shea butter, oleic acid plays a major role in the fat’s cosmetic attributes. It
And best of all for hair loss sufferers?
Oleic acid has been shown to block DHT!
Stearic acid is found commonly in soaps, lubricants, and cosmetics. It’s also been shown to contain antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
But what does this mean for your hair?
Inflammation – as we’ll get into further down below – is a major cause of hair loss. It occurs for many reasons, though sensitivity to DHT, poor diet, and bacterial/yeast infections are just a few.
Using stearic acid, you can naturally reduce inflammation within the hair follicle. It’s even been shown to hasten the healing process (by 57% compared to control) when applied to the burned skin of mice!
Linoleic acid is an essential omega-6 fatty acid, which means the human body cannot naturally produce it so we must obtain it from our diets.
This polyunsaturated fatty acid is also important in hair health, as deficiency can lead to hair loss on the scalp and eyebrows and even a lightening of the hair’s color.
Is there a reason for this?
While researchers aren’t 100% sure, they do believe that unsaturated fatty acids regulate 5-alpha-reductase (5AR) production. This enzyme – when combined with testosterone – produces DHT which is the main cause of hair loss in people with AGA.
Arachidic acid, also known as 18-methyl eicosanoic acid is a natural part of the hair shaft. In fact, it composes the majority (40%) of the total fatty acids.
This plays a role in the prevention of water loss, which is crucial if you want strong, healthy hair strands.
CAUTION! People with Type B latex allergies should avoid shea butter altogether!
What Properties Does Shea Butter Contain?
Perhaps more important than its components is what its components can do. Let’s take a look!
There are various types of hair loss, including Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA), Alopecia Areata (AA), anagen/telogen effluvium, and scarring alopecias. And while the cause may vary by type, they do have one thing in common: inflammation.
Inflammation occurs as a direct response to irritation or infection. It’s the immune system’s main way of fighting foreign substances.
On a short-term basis, this is normal. However, men and women with hair loss typically deal with chronic inflammation.
What effects do chronic inflammation have on the scalp?
Namely, it leads to follicle miniaturization. As the follicles miniaturize, the hairs being produced become shorter and shorter. Eventually, they no longer push through the scalp and can even stop being produced at all.
It also leads to reduced blood flow to the scalp, which decreases oxygen and nutrients levels significantly.
So, what can shea butter do about this?
As an anti-inflammatory, shea butter can reduce signs of inflammation. If used over a long period of time, this can help to reverse follicle miniaturization and increase blood flow to the scalp.
And what’s even better?
This is true for the majority of causes of hair loss!
Aside from inflammation, men and women with hair loss may also suffer from scalp irritation and discomfort. This includes itching, burning, and stinging.
As an emollient, shea butter increases the skin’s flexibility (so as to prevent cracks) and soothes irritation. It also acts as an oily layer on the skin – slowing down water loss and improving the skin’s capacity to hold water.
Emollients are commonly used to treat eczema and psoriasis – common skin conditions which affect millions of people worldwide.
It’s a commonly held belief that aging leads to baldness. And, while this is technically true, there are ways to combat age-related hair loss.
How can you do so?
With the help of anti-aging products!
As you age, free radicals run rampant. These molecules have an unpaired electron, so they’ll steal the electron of any molecules near them – including those that make up your skin, hair, and other organ cells.
As your cells begin to breakdown, this leads to the common signs of aging. Namely, wrinkles, greying, and hair loss.
Fortunately, anti-aging products neutralize the body’s free radicals. With less free radicals, your body will show less signs of aging.
Shea butter is known to contain anti-aging properties. In fact, it’s even been shown to boost collagen production! This lends itself to elascity of the skin and hair.
Can Shea Butter Be Beneficial for Hair?
As mentioned, shea butter is commonly found in cosmetics. These include soaps, lotions, scrubs, and shampoos.
Foremost, shea butter is non-comedogenic. This means it does not clog pores, which is important for preventing acne and ensuring healthy hair growth.
Shea butter is also quite good at mimicking sebum. When applied to the scalp, it slows the production of excess sebum. This is good for your follicles (which can become clogged), and also for the quality and health of your hair.
How About Hair Loss?
There are numerous components of shea butter that lend themselves to preventing (and even reversing) hair loss.
The component that most contributes to this goal?
In 2009, researchers from Japan tested the effects of various fatty acids on 5alpha-reductase (5AR). This is an enzyme that plays a key role in Androgenetic Alopecia (AGA).
What role, exactly?
In men and women with AGA, it’s believed that sensitivity to DHT (an androgen) plays a significant part in hair loss. It’s not the only cause – after all, genetics, environment, and lifestyle also contribute – but one that can be easily targeted.
So, where does DHT come from?
DHT is an androgen, which means it’s a sex hormone. It’s produced when testosterone (the male sex hormone) and 5AR interact.
Now, DHT is a natural chemical within the body. It’s actually important for sexual development, and low levels can cause distressing sexual side effects (including inability to get or maintain an erection, and low ejaculatory volume).
However, people with AGA react negatively to DHT when it attaches to the hair follicles’ androgen receptors.
This reaction causes inflammation, which in turn leads to follicle miniaturization.
So, what about that study?
Researchers found that two fatty acids – oleic acid and alpha-linoleic acid – were successful at inhibiting 5AR’s activities and, therefore, reduced DHT production levels.
Perhaps you’re wondering:
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to block DHT entirely?”
And you’re right! There are a few hair loss treatments (such as finasteride) that attempt to do just that.
But, this can have a poor effect on sex drive and reduce quality of life.
So, instead of blocking DHT, it’s better to reduce the enzyme activity that produces it in the first place. In this way, DHT is still present within the body. Though, the lower levels pose less threat to the scalp of sensitive individuals.
Shea Butter Classifications: Which is Best for Hair?
When purchasing shea butter online or in-store, you have many options. Which one is right for you?
How Shea Butter Is Produced
The nut is removed from the shea tree, where it then dries and the outer shell (endocarp) is removed. The nut is then broken, and the kernel from within is extracted.
These kernels are ground down – using a mortar and pestle or machines – and the crushed remains are then roasted (which gives it its classic aroma).
Once roasted, it’s boiled in water and the fat content eventually floats to the top of the pot. This is then separated from the water, and has finally become shea butter.
At this step, the shea butter is Grade A (raw/unrefined), though further steps can be taken.
These steps can alter the smell, color, and nutrient contents of the shea butter.
Grade A: Raw, or Unrefined
Just as it sounds, Grade A shea butter is unrefined past the point of initial extraction. The kernels are extracted using water, and boiling is used to separate the fat.
Once the fat is skimmed from the top of the water, it’s commonly packaged and sold as is.
Grade B: Refined
While the above process involving water may be used to extract and separate the fat, there’s one additional step added to refined products.
To remove impurities and give the final product a more consistent color, the butter is commonly passed through a cheesecloth or strainer. It’s then packaged and sold.
Grade C: Highly Refined
Similar to Grade B, Grade C shea butter undergoes a more involved production process. The seeds themselves are commonly extracted using solvents, such as hexane, and chemicals are also used to speed the separation of the fat.
Preservatives and additives may be added at this grade level, and it’s not uncommon for perfumes to also be incorporated.
Grade D: Lowest Uncontaminated Grade
While still passing the rigorous testing methods which make it available for human use, Grade D shea butter is considered the lowest uncontaminated grade. This is because it has a shelf life of less than one year, and is therefore quite cheap.
Grade F: Contaminated
As the name suggests, this grade of shea butter is of the lowest quality. It includes contaminants and isn’t recommended for human use.
How to Use Shea Butter
If you’re looking to add shea butter into your regular hair care routine, there are various ways to do so. Here are just two methods I recommend.
Apply It Directly to Your Hair
The easiest way to use shea butter is by applying it directly to your hair. You can apply it from root to tip, and even massage into your scalp for additional benefit.
Using your fingertips, collect a small amount of shea butter. Rub between your palms until it melts, and then apply directly to the scalp and hair.
Use your fingertips to massage the shea butter in, using slow, circular motions.
Allow the shea butter to sit on your scalp for 15 – 20 minutes, and then rinse the remainder from your hair.
The majority of the shea butter will be absorbed by the scalp. You can repeat two or three times per week, as needed.
Make a Shea Butter Shampoo
Instead of taking time out of your day to apply the shea butter itself, you can always add it to your usual routine.
By using it in a homemade shampoo!
- Liquid castile soap (200 ml)
- Organic shea butter (15 ml)
- Rosemary essential oil (8 drops)
- Distilled water (50 ml)
Using a double boiler (or, one pot fit within a larger pot), melt the solid shea butter. Let cool to room temperature.
Mix the liquid castile soap and distilled water, and stir well. Add the melted shea butter, and the drops of rosemary essential oil. Combine well.
To use, pour onto your wet scalp. Massage the combination into your scalp for 2 – 3 minutes, and then rinse with lukewarm (or cold) water.
Aside from the previously mentioned benefits of shea butter, this shampoo also contains additional antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These come from the other main ingredient, rosemary essential oil.
When used on a weekly basis, this formula can soothe and moisturize your scalp. It can also protect and strengthen the individual hair strands.
Are There Alternatives?
Perhaps you’re asking yourself:
“If shea butter is an all-natural hair care product, why would I consider alternatives?”
The truth is, shea butter is quite expensive. This can be prohibitive to many, and it may leave you feeling discouraged.
Fortunately, there are alternative options that are less costly and similarly beneficial.
What are they?
Extracted from the cacao bean, cocoa butter is commonly used in moisturizers and lotions. It melts at body temperature, and can be applied on both the skin and hair.
The main difference between shea butter and cocoa butter is cocoa’s antioxidant properties. This means it has a shelf life of five years (on average), which also makes it more affordable.
While not as beneficial as shea butter for rejuvenating hair, it does have moisturizing and hydrating abilities. It can also be a bit on the greasy side, but this can be reduced when mixed with other oils (such as almond, coconut, and jojoba).
Perhaps a lesser known option, mango butter is expressed from the seeds of the mango fruit. It has many of the aforementioned abilities – including moisturization and hydration – and it’s also rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
When applied to the skin, mango butter can provide dry skin relief.
Another great thing about the product?
It makes an effective substitute for store-bought conditioners, as it’s absorbed quickly by the skin and hair.
The scent is fruity, yet mild, which is another bonus for those people who don’t like shea butter’s signature nutty aroma.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to make mango butter at home. However, you may find it in stock at local health food stores or specialty supermarkets.
If you’re sensitive to strongly-fragranced products, then avocado butter is a good option for you to consider.
Avocado butter is similar to shea in that it’s an excellent sealant and protectant. However, it has a creamier texture, which makes application easier (and more enjoyable).
Is Shea Butter the ONLY Answer for Treating Hair Loss?
Perhaps you’re wondering:
“Is shea butter the miracle cure that will reverse my hair loss completely?”
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used in your hair regrowth regimen.
In fact, shea butter is a great, natural way to condition the scalp and hairs. And with healthy, well-conditioned hairs, you’ll see less breakage and thinning.
However, there are other ingredients you should be used in your hair regrowth journey.
What are they?
Peppermint oil is an essential oil, which is commonly used in aromatherapy. When diluted, it can also be applied to the skin in the treatment of various conditions.
Its cooling effect is a great way to temporarily relieve nerve and muscle pain, and it can also relieve itching.
In regards to hair and scalp health, peppermint oil can clean the follicles and even reduce irritation and inflammation.
And, this is crazy:
Peppermint oil has been shown to be 60% more effective than minoxidil!
Another essential oil, rosemary has many chemical components that lend themselves to natural hair health. These include resin, tannic acid, camphor, cineol, pinene, and flavonoids.
These components have been shown to be beneficial in treating various types of hair loss, including AGA and Alopecia Areata (AA).
When applied to the scalp, it can soothe an irritated scalp and stimulate the follicles.
Magnesium is a critical mineral, one which is required for humans to function. In fact, it’s largely responsible for enzymatic reactions and biochemical activities.
Unfortunately, magnesium is poorly absorbed when consumed orally. This means that magnesium deficiency is quite common.
So, what does this mean for hair health?
With low levels of magnesium,
Perhaps you’re wondering:
“If consumption isn’t enough, how else can I get the ideal levels of magnesium into my body?”
And the answer is: through topical application!
When applied topically, magnesium oil absorbs quickly. It then enters the bloodstream and, can bring your body’s magnesium levels into check.
That’s right – your favorite morning pick-me-up can be used on your scalp!
Caffeine is a stimulant, which is most commonly used for a jolt of energy. However, this stimulant can be used in other ways, such as on the scalp to increase blood flow and stimulate hair growth.
Let’s look at the science.
In 2012, researchers released a review in the International Journal of Trichology. They looked at the role of caffeine in treating hair loss – more specifically, AGA.
As outlined by researchers, there seem to be multiple ways in which this stimulant works.
It can counteract the effects of testosterone on hair growth, even in concentrations as low as 0.001%!
The human body is full of proteins and, in fact, they make up many of the body’s structures. One such structure is the hair, which is mainly comprised of keratin.
These proteins aren’t just present within the body, though. They must be synthesized.
The Bottom Line
Shea butter is a popular cosmetic product, and one which is becoming commonly used in hair products. Its many properties make it a beneficial addition.
However, you should never rely on just one ingredient. After all, there’s no such thing as a miracle cure for hair loss.
Instead, you must take a multi-pronged approach, including the use of other natural topicals, as well as scalp massage and microneedling.