People with eczema often rely on over-the-counter moisturizers (also known as emollients) to alleviate eczema symptoms alongside their prescribed treatments. These products include shea butter — a semi-solid ointment with moisturizing and anti-inflammatory attributes.
According to the American Shea Butter Institute, shea butter is derived from the fat of the seeds of the African shea tree, karite. Off-white in color, shea butter has been recognized as an effective moisturizer with skin-healing properties. This article discusses how shea butter may be used to treat eczema. We will consider the research on the benefits of shea butter’s properties, as well as recommendations from MyEczemaTeam members. As always, talk to your dermatologist before incorporating a new product into your eczema skin care regimen.
Many MyEczemaTeam members swear by the use of shea butter as an at-home remedy for itchy skin and other uncomfortable eczema symptoms. “It’s been a good three days since I started using African shea butter,” wrote one member. “No itchiness or redness and no flaking, thanks to the shea butter,” wrote another.
Aside from anecdotal evidence, some studies have suggested that shea butter’s ingredients and properties are beneficial to people with eczema-prone skin. One 2015 study aimed to assess how plant-based anti-inflammatory ingredients may improve eczema symptoms. All participants in the study continued with their normal oral medications but swapped their topical moisturizers and treatments for the experimental emollient.
The emollient — which contained shea butter oil, among other ingredients — was found to significantly improve several eczema symptoms in the participants after two weeks of use. The appearance of the skin improved, as did symptoms like dryness (44 percent increase in skin hydration), itchiness (79 percent improvement), and irritation. Shea butter, in particular, was noted for its occlusive (moisturizing) and antioxidant properties.
Research in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine also notes that shea butter extract has anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. In particular, the extract has been found to significantly reduce the levels of proinflammatory cytokines in the body, including tumor necrosis factor-alpha, which plays a role in the symptoms and decreased skin-barrier function of eczema. Furthermore, the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology states that shea butter’s essential fatty acids — including oleic acid and stearic acid — can be used to treat eczema symptoms during flares.
MyEczemaTeam members have shared many different ways of using shea butter to help moisturize and manage their eczema symptoms. Many people report that they combine the ingredient with others to create a topical cream or paste. As one member wrote, “I have hand eczema. I make my own whipped shea butter. I add sweet almond oil, avocado oil, tea tree, and lavender.” Another member shared that they “used some shea butter with coconut oil and haven’t itched all day.”
Other members have shared that they use shea butter while bathing. “I have eczema and psoriasis,” one shared, “and I use shea butter soap to bathe.” Another wrote, “raw shea butter soap and lotion work wonders!”
Not everyone finds relief from eczema using shea butter, however. Some members have reported experiencing negative reactions: “I tried it,” wrote one member. “It made mine worse. But everyone reacts differently to products.” Another member shared, “I wish I could use shea butter on my skin. I usually avoid it — it’s too strong for me and causes me to itch.”
The National Eczema Association (NEA) provides tips for using moisturizing ingredients like shea butter for eczema. As the NEA notes, bathing right before moisturizing is the most effective method for replacing moisture to dry skin. The NEA recommends bathing in lukewarm water and avoiding hot water, which can irritate the skin. Use a fragrance- and dye-free body wash and then apply moisturizer to warm, damp skin. Showers or baths are equally effective but should be limited to 10 to 15 minutes.
Note that some people may have allergic reactions to new topical ingredients or treatments. Those with sensitive skin and nut allergies may be at risk of experiencing allergic reactions or developing irritated skin. Talk to your dermatologist before incorporating new skin care products like shea butter into your skin care routine.
The selection of shea butter products may be overwhelming. However, as is the case with many natural products and remedies, the purest forms are the most desirable. In other words, it may not be a good idea to go for the shea butter product that smells the best — especially because many people with eczema are sensitive to fragrances.
Only high-quality shea butter can offer health benefits, including its anti-inflammatory properties. For example, shea butter contains cinnamic acid (related to cinnamon). If shea butter loses its natural integrity, the cinnamic acid dissipates and loses its healing qualities.
The most important aspects responsible for variations in shea butters are processing and exposure. Pure, unrefined shea butter is cold-pressed without harmful chemicals or preservatives, according to the American Shea Butter Institute. At room temperature, shea butter spreads easily and melts in your hands.
Pure, natural shea butter also has a distinct smell that sometimes is described as unpleasant, but after 10 minutes, it no longer emits any odor. It is not green, yellow, white, or brown — those types of shea butter have been altered. Refined shea butter may be more cosmetically elegant, spreading more easily and without an odor. However, it may not retain all of the benefits, as shea butter is changed during the refining process. As with any eczema treatment, people should avoid chemicals and fragrances that may aggravate the condition.
MyEczemaTeam is the social network and online support group for people living with various types of eczema. Here, more than 38,000 members from around the world come together to ask questions, offer support and advice, and meet others who understand life with eczema.
Have you tried using shea butter for eczema? Share your experience and tips in the comments below or by posting on MyEczemaTeam.