Shea butter is a popular ingredient for use in medicinal and cosmetic applications, especially lotions and ointments. Because it’s presence is so widespread in common everyday items—both as a base and as an additive—a lot of plant-based eaters run across the substance when scanning ingredients labels and want to know if it’s vegan-friendly.
Is it vegan? Yes, shea butter is 100% vegan-friendly. It’s simply a fatty substance extracted from nuts of the African shea tree, Vitellaria paradoxa, that has several useful properties in skincare and similar applications.1
It’s known by several local names in parts of Africa where the tree is cultivated.2,3 The English word “shea” derives from s’í, the name the tree goes by in Bambara.4
What we’ll do here is get into the various reasons shea butter is considered vegan.
Why Shea Butter Is Considered Vegan
It’s 100% Plant-Based
Again, shea butter is a fatty substance extracted from the nut of the African shea tree. It’s typically ivory in color when raw, and white in color after a bit of processing. Supposedly, it can be yellow too, if certain substances and root extracts are added to it.5
The extract is a complex fat, that’s made up of several fatty acids that are also present in animal products.
In addition to the shea butter’s nonsaponifiable components (elements that can’t be fully converted into soap via alkali), it contains:6
- Oleic acid (40–60%)
- Stearic acid (20–50%).
- Linoleic acid (3–11%)
- Palmitic acid (2–9%)
- Linolenic acid (<1%)
- Arachidic acid (<1%)
Most of those—like oleic, linoleic, and linolenic acids—are superabundant in plant-based oil sources like canola, flax, and high-oleic sunflower. For this reason, oleic and similar FAs don’t raise any red flags in the vegan community.
However, some, like stearic acid are fairly abundant in animal sources. In fact, PETA mentions stearic acid in their list of animal-derived ingredients.7
Not because stearic acid is non-vegan in itself, but because it can be produced from non-vegan sources. Keep in mind that the list doesn’t claim that the ingredients are always non-vegan, but implies that some can be vegan if sourced from x but animal-derived if sourced from y.
While shea and cocoa butter are among the only notable plant sources of stearic acid (in any meaningful amount), the FA is highly abundant in several animal sources including beef tallow, mutton tallow, butter, and lard.8,9
In meat (pork, beef, veal, and lamb), stearic acid is present in the range of about 9% to 16% of total fat, while in lean ground beef, it makes up about 16% of total fat.10
Palmitic acid is another FA on PETA’s list. It’s naturally produced by a wide range of organisms, both plants, and animals. It’s present in both shea and cocoa butter, as well as karukas, soybean and sunflower oils.11,12
Animal products high in the FA include cheese, butter, milk, and meat.11
Anyway, being a rare plant-based source of the fatty acid could be one factor that contributes to folks often wondering if the substance is vegan.
Vegans Regularly Use Shea Butter
Not that this would necessarily make a substance vegan-friendly, but, the communities’ attitude towards a particular material is, at the very least, one clue in determining whether a material or substance is suitable for vegans.
While the substance is edible, it’s mostly found in various skin care products.13
It’s a great emollient for skin and seems to help with redness and itching.
Shea butter is pretty ubiquitous in lotions, moisturizers, and other cosmetics. In the UK, you can even find it incorporated into tissue products, like toilet paper.14
It’s a popular ingredient for these applications because it melts at body temperature, and contains a number of aromatic compounds.
Promoters of shea butter for skincare claim that it absorbs into the skin rapidly, acting as a “refatting” agent, and that it has good water-binding properties.15
Though the taste is very different, shea butter can resemble cocoa butter, when mixed with other oils so it’s often used as a replacement.16
The substance is also used quite a bit in lip gloss, and hair conditioners for brittle and dry hair.17
You’ll also find it in soap from time to time, though it’s used less for this application.
Again, shea butter is high in unsaponifiables, so it doesn’t have quite the same cleaning ability as other soaps.
Shea butter is especially common in artisan soaps and can be found in amounts up to 25% to 28% per EU standards. But, commercial soap makers tend to shy away from the stuff (in high amounts) because it’s expensive and less effective overall.
That’s it for the vegan status of shea butter. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Shea Butter. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shea_butter
- Goreja, W. G. (2004). “Chapter 2”. Shea Butter: The Nourishing Properties of Africa’s Best-Kept Natural Beauty Secret. TNC International. p. 5. ISBN 9780974296258.
- All About Shea Butter (ori). https://naturesecreto.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/all-about-shea-butter-ori/
- Shea. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/shea?s=t
- Alfred Thomas (2002). “Fats and Fatty Oils”. Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. ISBN 978-3527306732. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/14356007.a10_173
- Davrieux, F., Allal, F., Piombo, G., Kelly, B., Okulo, J. B., Thiam, M., Diallo, O. B. & Bouvet, J.-M. Near infrared spectroscopy for high-throughput characterization of Shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) nut fat profiles. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Jul 14;58(13):7811-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20518501
- Animal-derived Ingredients Resource: Living https://www.peta.org/living/food/animal-ingredients-list/
- Kris-Etherton, P.M., Griel, A.E., Psota, T.L., et al. Dietary stearic acid and risk of cardiovascular disease: intake, sources, digestion, and absorption. Lipids 40: 1193-1200, 2005.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research. Service, 2007. USDA Nutrient Database for Standard. Reference, Release 20. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home. Page, http://www.ars.usda.gov/ba/bhnrc/ndl.
- Stearic Acid, Technical Summary, Human Nutrition Research. https://www.beefresearch.org/CMDocs/BeefResearch/Nutrition%20Tech%20Summaries/TechSummaryStearic.pdf
- Palmitic Acid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmitic_acid
- Purwanto, Y.; Munawaroh, Esti (2010). “Etnobotani Jenis-Jenis Pandanaceae Sebagai Bahan Pangan di Indonesia” [Ethnobotany Types of Pandanaceae as Foodstuffs in Indonesia] (PDF). Berkala Penelitian Hayati (in Indonesian). 5A: 97–108. ISSN 2337-389X
- National Research Council (2006-10-31). Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables (2006). ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6.
- Tesco Luxury Soft Shea Butter 4 Roll. https://www.tesco.com/groceries/en-GB/products/271374983
- Principles Of Orthomolecularism. R. Hemat – Urotext – 2004. p. 160. ISBN 9781903737057.
- Reinforcing Sound Management Through Trade: Shea Tree Products in Africa. http://www.fao.org/3/y5918e/y5918e11.htm
- Benefits Of African Shea Butter. creed9090 – https://www.tanyasbathandbody.com/uncategorized/benefits-african-shea-butter/