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If you have ever read skincare product labels, you will have seen the popular ingredients shea butter and cocoa butter. They are both common ingredients in many skincare products, such as moisturizers.
You might have asked yourself is shea butter the same as cocoa butter. They sound like they would be interchangeable since they are both butters and both are moisturizers.
However, there are some differences between shea butter and cocoa butter that are important to know. Also, it is important to understand what moisturizers do and the different types of moisturizers available in order to understand their benefits and rationale for the use of these butters.
What is a moisturizer?
Moisturizers are creams, lotions, or oils that you apply to your skin in order to treat dryness. (1, 2) There are 3 different types of moisturizers that alleviate dryness. (1, 3) The best and most effective moisturizers are the ones that combine all 3, in the correct proportions, in one product to treat and heal your skin.
Humectant moisturizers hydrate the skin by drawing water into your skin from the environment and holding it there. These work great in humid environments, but can backfire in dry conditions because there is not enough water in the air to draw from.
If you use these humectants in dry air conditions, they will draw water into the skin from the body and not the environment, which will further dehydrate the body. Under the right conditions, humectants actually temporarily plump up and hydrate the skin making wrinkles less apparent, but they do not actually treat the underlying cause of dry skin.
Humectants work better when you combine them with an occlusive moisturizer, which will lock in the moisture.
Here are several examples of humectants:
Occlusive moisturizers tend to be thick or oily and lay on the surface of the skin and prevent water loss through evaporation. It is a temporary solution to make the skin look and feel better. Occlusives will give your skin a smooth and soft feel but not treat the underlying problem.
They only relieve the symptoms of the problem. Some of these oils are non-comedogenic and can be safely used on the face of acne patients.
Here are examples of occlusive moisturizers, both comedogenic and non-comedogenic:
Emollient moisturizers replace the lost lipids and make the skin feel smooth, which helps the symptoms of the problem. Others rebuild the lipid layer of the barrier to prevent water loss, thus treating the problem. These creams that treat the cause are referred to as barrier repair creams.
When they provide ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol in the proper proportions 1:1:1, they can heal the damaged barrier of your skin (4). If these are not present in the proper proportions then the cream will do more harm than good. Some emollients are also occlusives, such as shea butter and petrolatum.
Here is a list of emollient moisturizers:
What is the importance of barrier repair?
The skin consists of 3 main layers: epidermis (top), dermis (middle), and fat (bottom).
The epidermis is further divided into 5 layers: stratum basale (bottom), stratum spinosum, stratum granulosum, stratum lucidum, and stratum corneum (top).
The stratum corneum is considered the skin’s barrier (5-7). It is almost like a gatekeeper. It retains water in the skin to maintain hydration, while it keeps harmful microbes and irritants out to prevent infection and inflammation. The barrier is also in charge of regular programmed shedding of dead skin cells. If dead skin cells are not sloughed regularly, they build up creating rough, dull skin texture.
Your barrier consists of “bricks and mortar”. The bricks are the dead skin cells, and the mortar is the lipids in between the cells that keep the cells together and makes a protective barrier to keep water in and microbes out.
When there are deficiencies in the mortar, irritants can enter the skin and lead to certain inflammatory conditions like eczema. When you supply the barrier with the proper building blocks in the proper proportions to heal itself, such as with good barrier repair creams, you will restore the natural function to the skin.
These barrier repair creams are to be applied last in your regimen because they can also serve to lock in all the ingredients you applied prior.
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What is shea butter?
Shea butter is extracted from nuts of the shea tree, Vitellaria paradoxa (8). The shea tree only grows in Africa. In order to extract shea butter, the nuts are boiled, dried, and ground into a paste. The fat is removed from this paste to create shea butter.
Unrefined shea butter is an ivory color and has a nutty or smokey scent. It is not the most attractive scent, so oftentimes other essentials oils are added to give it a more pleasing fragrance. It is very soft in texture which allows it to melt into your skin.
What does shea butter do?
Shea butter has saturated fats, such as oleic, palmitic, arachidic, linoleic, and stearic acids (8). The fatty acids, stearic and palmitic acids, help repair the lost lipids in our skin’s barrier, or stratum corneum. If the skin’s barrier is not functioning optimally, this can lead to infection and dehydration. Shea butter is a great emollient moisturizer and barrier repair cream which is non-comedogenic.
Shea butter is also a potent antioxidant because it contains vitamins A, C, and E, which help to rebuild collagen and protect the skin from premature aging by the sun (8) These antioxidants scavenge up free radicals produced by the sun and get rid of them so they do not cause damage to your collagen or DNA.
Since shea butter contains oleic acid, it may even have some healing properties useful in the treatment of burn wounds (9).
Shea butter is anti-inflammatory as well, which makes it useful in the treatment of eczema (8). It stops the production of inflammatory cells and even some tumor cells. This anti-inflammatory effect is in part due to the linoleic acid it contains.
Also, it has a low SPF which can help protect against UV radiation from the sun. It should not be used as a true sunscreen because the SPF is too low to afford adequate protection.
What is cocoa butter?
Cocoa butter is extracted from the beans of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao (10). The cacao tree grows in tropical areas of Central and South Americas. The cacao tree produces pods that contain many beans. Cocoa butter is manufactured by drying, roasting, and pressing the beans, with the use of a hydraulic press, to expel cocoa powder as well as butter from the beans.
Unrefined cocoa butter has a brownish color and a delicious chocolate scent. Unlike shea butter, cocoa butter is hard but it will melt into your skin as well.
What does cocoa butter do?
Cocoa butter consists of saturated fats such as oleic, palmitic, and stearic acids which makes it a great occlusive moisturizer and barrier repair cream (10). The fatty acids, stearic and palmitic acids, replenish the lipids lost in the stratum corneum as well.
Lipids are critical to the function of the barrier, because, without them, our skin is prone to dehydration and infections from harmful microbes. Unfortunately, cocoa butter tends to be oily and is comedogenic, so it shouldn’t be used as a moisturizer for the face in acne-prone people.
It also contains CMP, cocoa mass polyphenol, which acts as an anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agent (10). CMP inhibits the production of IgE that can worsen eczema. Not only do these polyphenols reduce inflammation, but they also protect the skin from sun damage. Cocoa butter also contains linoleic acid which aids in reducing inflammation.
Cocoa butter is also being investigated for use in healing chronic wounds since it contains oleic acid (11).
Because cocoa butter is rich in the antioxidant vitamin E, it helps protect collagen from destruction by UV rays from the sun (10).
Is cocoa butter good for eczema?
Since eczema is a multifactorial inflammatory skin condition, you need to use treatments that address all the different causes. Dryness and inflammation from impaired barrier function is one the causes.
If you can repair the damaged barrier and supply the skin with hydration, this will help treat one of the causes of eczema and ease the symptoms.
Cocoa butter can supply the barrier with the much-needed fatty acids to help heal it and treat eczema (10). It is also occlusive to help keep hydration in the skin which helps eczema as well. When the barrier is restored to normal, it will keep water in and irritants and microbes out.
Finally, cocoa butter contains polyphenols which are anti-inflammatory agents to calm and soothe the inflamed skin of eczema. If you have a mild case of eczema, this may be enough to keep it under control; however, if your case is severe, these creams are just part of a larger treatment plan.
Is shea butter good for eczema?
Since shea butter is an emollient and barrier repair cream, it can help eczema by delivering ingredients to repair the skin’s barrier and smoothing out the rough texture of the skin (8). So it helps treat causes and symptoms of the disease. It is also anti-inflammatory to help calm and soothe the irritated and inflamed skin of eczema.
Shea butter vs. cocoa butter for dark spots
Since both shea butter and cocoa butter contain vitamin E, they can help lighten dark spots (1). They are not a replacement for certain skin lightening agents, such as hydroquinone or kojic acid, but they can help.
They also have anti-oxidant properties so they can protect the skin from premature aging by the sun. This premature aging manifests as wrinkles and dark spots. Also, they can decrease inflammation, which can cause hyperpigmentation of the skin.
Shea butter vs. cocoa butter for stretch marks
Both shea butter and cocoa butter claim to help remove stretch marks or striae but there is a lack of quality evidence to support this (12-15). If you have dry skin, improving the texture and appearance will make the stretch marks less apparent, but there is not sufficient evidence to say that they will repair the skin and remove stretch marks.
It is thought that vitamin A in shea butter can help repair the damaged collagen in stretch marks, but there need to be large randomized controlled trials to fully assess this claim. Since there is a component of inflammation in certain types of stretch marks, striae rubra, it is thought that cocoa butter with its anti-inflammatory properties could help.
Once again, there is a lack of concrete evidence to support this claim.
Overall, which is better cocoa butter or shea butter?
Shea butter and cocoa butter are both good moisturizers. They both have fatty acids that help repair your barrier to keep it functioning properly. Cocoa butter tends to be oilier and comedogenic, so it is not a good choice to be used on the face of people who suffer from acne.
They both have antioxidants to help fight premature aging by protecting your collagen. Also, they are both anti-inflammatory to help calm and soothe the skin.
Shea butter and cocoa butter are both good, naturally derived fats that can be used separately or together to make a super powerhouse moisturizer.
So, the answer to the question, what is better shea butter vs cocoa butter for skin, is that both are good moisturizers for the skin. They can be used together or separately. If you have acne-prone skin, stick to shea butter or another non-comedogenic moisturizing oil like jojoba oil or sunflower oil.
They both can moisturize as well as repair damaged skin. They both are antioxidants to protect your skin and prevent premature aging. Finally, they are both anti-inflammatory agents to calm inflamed skin. If your skin is not prone to developing acne, you can use either butter and reap the benefits.
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