Shea butter or Shea nut butter is a slightly yellowish or ivory-colored natural fat extracted from fruit of the shea tree by crushing and boiling. Shea butter is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer and an emollient. Shea butter is also edible. It is used as a cooking oil in West Africa, as well as sometimes being used in the chocolate industry as a substitute for cocoa butter.
The shea or karite tree, formerly Butyrospermum paradoxum, is now called Vitellaria paradoxa. It produces its first fruit (which resemble large plums) when it is about 20 years old and reaches its full production when the tree is about 45 years old. It produces nuts for up to 200 years after reaching maturity.
Many vernacular names are used for Vitellaria, which is a reflection of its extensive range of occurrence—nearly 5,000km from Senegal (west) to Uganda (east) across the African continent. The nomenclature history and synonymy of the shea tree followed a very tortuous evolution since the oldest recorded specimen collected by a European—Scottish explorer Mungo Park—dated May 26, 1797. It eventually arrived at the name vitellaria with subspecies paradoxa and nilotica. It usually grows to an average height of about 15m with profuse branches and a thick waxy and deeply fissured bark that makes it fire resistant.
The shea tree grows naturally in the wild in the dry savannah belt of West Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. It occurs in 19 countries across the African continent, namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Zaire and Guinea. thumb|right|120px|Distribution of shea trees In Ghana (FAO, 1988a), it occurs extensively in the Guinea savannah and less abundantly in the Sudan Savannah. The shea tree occurs over almost the entire area of Northern Ghana, over about 77,670 square kilometers in Western Dagomba, Southern Mamprusi, Western Gonja, Lawra, Tumu, Wa and Nanumba with Eastern Gonja having the densest stands. There is sparse shea tree cover found in Brong-Ahafo, Ashanti, and the Eastern and Volta regions in the south of the country.
Shea butter is comparatively richer than other emollients but scarcity of supply results in an erratic market price.
Handcrafted shea butter is used in Togo, West Africa for ceremonies among the Fulani ethnic group.