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Shea Butter in Soap Making

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Shea Butter in Soap Making

Natural, unrefined shea butter

David Fisher

Basic Information about Shea Butter and How It's Made:

Shea butter comes from a tree that is native to western Africa called "s'i" or "karite" - and in English is referred to as "shea." The tree produces small, oblong nuts that contain a kernel that is ground and boiled, from which an oil is extracted which solidifies into a butter-like consistency. That's how we get shea butter.

The process by which shea butter is made is as interesting as the butter is itself. Most shea butter is harvested and prepared by hand in small villages across western Africa - especially Ghana and Togo. Women of the village, using methods passed down to them from their elders, collect, separate, crack, dry, grind and boil the nuts. It is a traditional activity shared by many generations of village women. Most of the work is done by hand and the butter is exported through numerous small exporters.

The shea butter reaches us soap makers as a "butter" that has the consistency and firmness of firm cookie dough. If it's been refined, it has very little scent or color. If it's "natural" or unrefined, it has a warm, nutty scent, and a color that ranges from middle beige to a light sage green. It is sometimes smooth and creamy and sometimes has a little bit of soft graininess to it.

How Does it Compare to Other Soap Making Oils?:

While I usually refer to shea butter as a "luxury" oil - in terms of the basic qualities it imparts to soap, it is actually a wonderful cross between imparting "hardness" and "moisturizing". The approximate fatty acid makeup of shea butter is:
  • 50% oleic acid (like olive, almond, avocado, lard & peach kernel)
  • 35% stearic acid (like tallow, cocoa butter & palm)
  • 8% palmitic acid (like palm, beef tallow, lard & cocoa butter)
  • 7% linoleic acid (like sunflower, safflower, grapeseed & hemp)
So you can see that it has both great moisturizing qualities and hard, stable bar qualities. (And as you'll see below, it's also really great all by itself!)

Adds Hardness to the Bar?:

Most definitely! Even at small amounts (5-10%), shea butter will add hardness to your final bar of soap - and is especially useful if you've chosen to reduce or eliminate palm oil from your soap making recipe.

Creates Fluffy Lather?:

Not really...too much of any of the butters will kill a fluffy lather.

Creates Stable Lather?:

Yes...the lather is a low, creamy, stable lather.

Adds Moisturizing Qualities to Soap?:

Yes! While not as ultimately moisturizing as if you put it straight onto your skin, adding shea butter to your soap recipe will definitely increase your soap's moisturizing potential - both from the fatty acid makeup of the butter and the unsaponifiables in it.

Other Qualities?:

I always have a small container of unrefined shea butter in my medicine cabinet. I use it as a heavy-duty moisturizer, but it's also known to be quite healing to your skin. In addition to normal dryness, some of the ailments shea butter is used for include psoriasis, eczema, blemishes, wrinkles, stretch marks, scars, scrapes, and more. It's soft enough at room temperature to just scoop a pea sized glob out of the container, but it melts at skin temperature and absorbs relatively easily.

Now whether these skin-helping qualities actually come through the saponification process and have the same effect when they are soap is up for some debate. That aside, it still makes great soap that people report is moisturizing and gentle on the skin.

Shea Butter Projects
Whipped Shea Butter Video
Cocoa or Shea Butter Massage Bars

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