Shea has become quite the popular beauty balm recently, with more and more people discovering the many anti aging and therapeutic benefits of this rich plant butter. But the use of Shea butter is nothing new and the people of Africa have been using shea for literally thousands of years for everything from beauty and baby balms to infection protection and as a natural childbirth aid. Perhaps by looking at some of the traditional uses for shea, we can better learn how to use it for ourselves.

Shea butter’s use can be tracked all the way to Cleopatra in ancient Egypt, where early accounts speak of large caravans carrying clay jars of the stuff for her to use. But Cleopatra is not the only woman of Africa who recognized the beautifying effects of shea butter; to this day, African women cover their pregnant bellies with shea butter in order to prevent stretch marks. In northeast Ghana pregnant women often squat over basins of warm water and shea to help ease the pains of childbirth. The butter is also used to cover the babies once they are born.

In the Gambia, shea butter is used quite literally to help combat infant mortality; raw shea butter is applied to the umbilical stump of the baby, and statistics show that the naturally occurring antibacterial factors present in shea help to prevent infection in the cut cord.

Interestingly, shea butter is also used in Africa to fight a different kind of infection known as Simulium. In West Africa, parasitic infections are still a rather rampant issue, and serious cases can become very uncomfortable, if not life threatening. In the case of the Simulium parasite, the infection is contracted via the bite of an adult black fly, and the infection of this parasite can evolve into quite an uncomfortable afliction. Topical use of shea butter has been found to be effective at protecting an individual from the contraction of the Simulium parasite.

Shea butter has been an integral part of African culture for centuries and an exploration of its traditional uses showcases the real and very easy versatility that this botanical balm offers. Though impressive and interesting, the various traditional uses listed here are just a few of many. From stretch mark and infection prevention, to ancient beauty balm for Cleopatra herself, shea butter has withstood the test of time, proving itself to be an invaluable multi-purpose resource for beauty and a myriad of other applications.