I’ve been getting a lot of exposure to shea butter (Butyrospermum parkii) of late. That may not be surprising since this natural moisturizer seems to be in every potion going these days. Recently, however, I saw it being made in a village in Mali, West Africa and have since been using it in almost pure form. Plus I got to compare  the ‘real thing’ with a relatively upscale body lotion by the French brand L'Occitane that I coincidentally carried with me on my trip.

In Mali, shea is used for everything – and I mean everything including the kitchen sink – from canoe and house building, to cooking, to treatments for skin and hair loss. The women’s cooperative in Sibi (about 45km from Mali’s capital) makes shea butter from the nuts of the shea tree. The nuts (green and about the size of a fig) are boiled, dried and then pounded to a paste.

In almost pure form (it is frequently mixed with beeswax), shea has a nutty – I would say almost chocolaty – smell. I was eager to try it out as a body moisturizer as my skin was extremely dry and I knew that shea because its structure and function resembles that of the lipid content of skin, shea butter is considered to be a Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF). As an NMF, it helps keep the intercellular structure of the epidermis intact, effectively keeps bacteria out, facilitates the skin’s healing process, prevents dermal irritation and regenerates the skin.

And pure shea proved to be a fantastic moisturizer – after about 12-15 hours. That’s how long it takes to absorb and until then I looked like a greased up body builder posing for a photo shoot. I found that I had to postpone getting dressed by at least half an hour and that was after patting myself down with paper towels in an attempt to take off some of the excess.  At this point I wasn’t surprised to discover that shea is used in Mali in the construction of traditional houses and boats to keep out water.

Although pure shea isn’t the most practical of cosmetics and it takes a certain amount of courage to sit through dinner glistening like a character in a soft porn video, I found myself going back to it as my skin was starting to look more nourished and supple than it had for years. I swear that it also works as a natural UV protector – I even tried it out one day in lieu of sunscreen and didn’t get at all burned during my hike under a blazing African sky.

Shea butter, coincidentally, was the dominant ingredient in the L'Occitane Verbena Body Lotion ($24) that I had brought with me on my trip. L'Occitane is one of those brands that I tend to dismiss as faux natural and I had grabbed a bottle of the body lotion to see if I could prove myself wrong. The relatively high concentrations of shea and grape seed oil are a definite plus, but the lemon verbena seems to do little more than provide fragrance and, apart from some glycerin, that’s about it. L'Occitane's formula otherwise has a pedestrian array of emollients, silicone, alcohols, PEGs and so on.

Using L'Occitane's body lotion was almost the inverse of my experience with pure shea butter. It went on easily, soaked straight in, left no greasy residue and my skin looked great. For about 20 minutes – after that, I wouldn’t have known it was there and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Ultimately, I'll stick with pure shea as an extremely effective moisturizer, but mostly as a once a week treatment that I can allow to soak into my skin while, say, giving myself a manicure or some LED treatment. I won't, however, be buying L'Occitane's Pure Shea Butter at $39 a tin. I'll be looking out for Fair Trade suppliers such as Coastal Scents.

Ingredients in L'Occitane Verbena Body Lotion

Aqua/Water/Eau (water), Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter) (Shea butter), Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Oil (grape), Glycerin, Dimethicone, Cetearyl Alcohol, PEG 100 Stearate, Glyceryl Stearate, Sodium PCA, Lippia Citriodora Flower Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Sorbitol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Polyacrylamide, Ceteareth 33, Tocopherol (Natural Vitamin E), Xanthan Gum