What's the Difference Between Shea Butter and Cocoa Butter?

By Sher Warkentin in Natural Products

Cocoa butter and shea butter are both naturally derived moisturizers that offer many benefits when it comes to personal care. Because they are so similar, it can be hard to know which one is best for your skin. However, once you understand the differences, you'll know how to make the most out of both ingredients to meet your personal care needs.

What Are Shea Butter and Cocoa Butter?

Before discussing the difference between shea butter and cocoa butter, it can be helpful to understand their similarities. Both are derived from plants and offer nutrients and moisturizing properties that can help to heal and protect your skin and hair.

As a thesis from Rutgers University explains, shea butter is a fat extracted from the nut of a shea tree, commonly found across sub-Saharan Africa. The shea butter you find on store shelves comes in a range of colors and scents, which vary based on how the extract is processed. The least processed, called unrefined shea butter, is typically beige in color and has a nutty odor. Refined shea butter is white and has a milder scent or is odorless.

Cocoa butter is also a naturally derived fat extract, produced from cocoa beans. Yes—the same beans responsible for cocoa powder, which turns into one of the world's most popular sweet treats. Cocoa plants typically grow in tropical regions where it's hot and humid, such as West Africa. In its purest, unrefined form, cocoa butter is a pale yellow color and smells like—you guessed it—chocolate. Just like shea butter, refining cocoa butter leaves the final product white and unscented.

Cocoa butter is a versatile moisturizer.

The Difference Between Shea Butter and Cocoa Butter

From looks alone, it might be hard to tell cocoa butter and shea butter apart, but there are some significant differences between them. According to a study published by the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, moisturizers have one or more of these three main effects: occlusive, humectant, or emollient. Occlusives block water loss from the skin by creating a barrier. Humectants draw water from the dermis layer of the skin to the epidermis. Emollient ingredients smooth the skin by filling in any spaces with droplets of oil.

Cocoa butter is classified as an occlusive, which means that it mainly works to act as a barrier for your skin or hair protecting it from future damage. Shea butter, on the other hand, is an emollient, as the Rutgers University thesis explains, which means it may help heal already damaged skin.

Although both shea butter and cocoa butter are naturally derived from a plant, shea is extracted from a nut, while cocoa comes from a bean. The extraction processes result in two different substances with different consistencies and textures. Unrefined cocoa butter is solid and, even when processed, tends to feel more brittle and dry to the touch—although, it does soften and melt on contact with your skin. Shea butter, on the other hand, has a soft, thick consistency and feels sticky.

Shea butter has many benefits beyond moisturizing.

The Benefits and Uses of Cocoa Butter and Shea Butter

Despite their differences, shea butter and cocoa butter can both be excellent additions to your skin and hair care routine. Both can act as powerful naturally derived substances with protective and moisturizing properties.

Shea butter is rich in antioxidants, such as vitamin E, which Oregon State University notes can help to protect the skin against free radicals and UV radiation. Studies, such as one published in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, have shown that shea butter also has anti-inflammatory properties, which means it may help soothe reactions to skin irritants. In other words, if you're looking to prevent damage to your skin from sun exposure or environmental irritants, consider choosing shea butter as a moisturizer.

While most studies focus on the benefits of cocoa powder, the cocoa plant itself possesses anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, according to a study published in the journal Nutrients. Cocoa contains flavanols, which can help to improve blood flow within the dermal layer of the skin and promote overall skin health. Choose cocoa butter if you're hoping to combat damage, such as fine lines that come with aging.

Once you know the difference between shea butter and cocoa butter, it's easy to understand how you can use them both in their raw form and in personal care products, such as a natural soap bar. To learn more about harnessing the benefits of naturally derived ingredients, check out the Ingredients from Nature board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest.

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Why It's Good

The difference between shea butter and cocoa butter seems subtle, but as moisturizers, both offer multiple benefits for different uses.