Karite butter, also called shea butter, is an oil extracted from the fruit of the karite tree. This oil is used as a skin moisturizer in many cosmetic products like lotion, soap, lip balm, and skin cream. Karite butter is rich in vitamins A and E, and it has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
The karite tree is native to the savannahs of western and central Africa. Although the trees aren't cultivated, they are widely used for food and cosmetics by the native people of those regions. Most shea butter nuts are exported for processing, but some Fair Trade companies are working to keep the production of karite butter products in African villages to protect the local economies. In general, it is women who do the hard work of karite butter extraction and preparation.
Karite butter is traditionally made by hand. After the small nuts are picked from the trees, they are cracked open. The flesh is removed and the seed or nut is dried and roasted. The nut is pounded into a paste and mixed with water, then kneaded by hand. The coagulated oil is separated from the water then boiled to separate it from the nut residue. The resulting white or yellow oil is left to harden, then formed into balls for export. It takes around 20 hours to produce 2.2 pounds (1kg) of oil.
Shea oil is rich in stearic and oleic fatty acids. It doesn't saponify in the soap-making process, which leaves the oils free to moisturize and protect skin. For this reason, it is used in shampoos to repair damaged hair and reduce dandruff. It can also be used a cleanser for people sensitive skin, eczema, or other inflammations.
In addition to moisturizing, karite butter also protects and helps heal skin. The high fat content makes it an effective and soothing salve for minor cuts and burns, and it is very effective in treating chapped lips, feet, and hands. It also contains cinnamic acid, a chemical that blocks some ultraviolet rays from the sun. When the pure butter is applied to the hands or face, it takes awhile to soak in so it provides a barrier against irritation from wind, cold, and irritation from friction and harsh soaps and detergents.
Shea butter is sold in its pure form, or it can be used as an additive. There are three commercial grades, with Grade A as the purest form. Grades B and C are refined forms, and are generally extracted in factories using hexane or other chemicals.