Butters & Oils

The secret to glowing skin is as close as your kitchen cabinet! Ancient Romans, Greeks, Indians, and even Egyptian cultures have been normalizing plant based skincare for years. Cleopatra herself credited olive and almond oils for her beauty (Queen approved). The recent trends for oil-based skincare is just another media ploy marketing ancient knowledge for modern day consumers. That being said, we do however understand the scientific merit of certain oils and butters.

To start, lets clarify the difference between butters and oils. Oils are primarily composed of saturated fatty acids (FA), they don’t have double bond in their chemical structure so it allows them to pack in tighter together, providing more in less [1]. Butters also have saturated FA, but are primarily unsaturated FA's (have double bonds). You may recognize some examples of these as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

One polyunsaturated fat that may be familiar is linoleic acid, a key component for membrane fluidity and skin health [2]. We all require certain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) as they cannot be synthesized by the body alone, making them essential to our diet and skincare [3]. PUFA's help to build epidermal keratinocytes as they are required for their membranes [4]. Linoleic acid specifically is responsible for healthy barrier functions of the skin [5]. So the next time you run out of your moisturizer, or want to change things up, consider the following plant based skin care alternatives.

Coconut oil (Cocos nucifera)

Derived from the very meat of the fruit, coconut oil is dominated by saturated fats [6]. Studies have shown topically applying coconut oil to wounds resulted in faster healing and more collagen synthesis than wounds left untreated [7]. It is high in lauric acid, giving antimicrobial properties (goodbye acne!) that can protect your skin from microbial infections [8]. Antioxidants found in the oil have contributed to its anti inflammatory effects [9]. Two studies have also promoted its use for eczema, concluding it reduces dryness and the severity of eczema [10,11].

Shea butter (Vitellaria paradoxa)

This butter is made from the ground nuts of shea trees. The hard seed coat is removed, and the soft seed inside is ground to a fine powder. This powder is then boiled and the usable butter rises to the top [12]. The increasing popularity of shea butter has created many jobs and opportunities to women in Africa, where the butter is made by hand, providing social and financial advantages.

Shea butter contains oleic and steric FA's, making it a very oxidatively stable butter (long shelf life), and is important for healthy adipose tissue [13, 14]. Studies have also found it to be antimicrobial, again beneficial for acne prone or wounded skin [15-16]. Shea butter contains linoleic acid and vitamins A, E, and F [17]. Eczema sufferers can also take benefit from its anti-inflammatory and skin soothing effects [18, 19].

Mango butter (Mangifera indica)

Much like shea butter, mango butter is made from the inside of mango seeds. The "stone" of the fruit is dried, opened, and the kernel within is ground to a fine powder. The butter is extracted by a hydraulic press machine, squeezing the oils out [20]. Mango butter carries similar nutrients as the fruit, such as Vitamins E, A, and C, recharging your skin with antioxidants (Vitamins E and C) and increasing collagen production [21, 22]. One study even noted mango butter helped dry skin, itching, and rashes [23]. Its major FA are palmitic (traps moisture), steric (skin barrier protector), and oleic acid (moisturizer) [24].

Olive oil (Olea europaea)

Out of all the natural products spoken about here, olive oil is the only one that is made as simply as pressing the whole olive fruit [25]. Holding up to 83% oleic acid, olive oil is a promising skin moisturizer [26], as well as a source of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) for long term relief [27]. A study observed that applying olive oil after a sunburn reduces the risk of cancer causing cells to form [28]. Contrary to popular belief however, it must be noted that olive oil does not prevent or treat stretchmarks [29}

While there are many more plant oils on the market, this review should show there is scientific evidence to support (or disprove!) the popularity behind these products. Always be mindful to purchase your plant butters and oils from a reputable supplier, preferably one with documentation of their quality control [30].

An easy way to spot suspicious plant oils have clear packaging (bottles should be tinted to protect the product from UV damage), no "best by" date (unfortunately most things expire), and smell. For example because shea butter is processed with water, using dirty water can cause a rancid smelling product that isn't safe to use.

What are your favorite plant butters and oils and how do you use them?


1- Marchand, V., Canadian Paediatric Society, & Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee. (2010). Trans fats: What physicians should know. Paediatrics & Child Health, 15(6), 373-375.

2- Whelan, J., & Fritsche, K. (2013). Linoleic acid. Advances in Nutrition, 4(3), 311-312.

3- Angelo, G. & Pilkington, S. (2012) Essential Fatty Acids and Skin Health. Oregon State University

4- Wertz P. W. (1992). Epidermal lipids. Seminars in dermatology, 11(2), 106–113.

5- Hansen, H. S., & Jensen, B. (1985). Essential function of linoleic acid esterified in acylglucosylceramide and acylceramide in maintaining the epidermal water permeability barrier. Evidence from feeding studies with oleate, linoleate, arachidonate, columbinate and α-linolenate. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Lipids and Lipid Metabolism, 834(3), 357-363.

6- Poljšak, N., Kreft, S., & Kočevar Glavač, N. (2020). Vegetable butters and oils in skin wound healing: Scientific evidence for new opportunities in dermatology. Phytotherapy Research, 34(2), 254-269.

7- Nevin, K. G., & Rajamohan, T. (2010). Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Skin pharmacology and physiology, 23(6), 290-297.

8- Aly, R. (1996). Microbial infections of skin and nails. Medical microbiology. Galveston (TX): niversity of Texas, Medical Branch at Galveston.

9- Intahphuak, S., Khonsung, P., & Panthong, A. (2010). Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities of virgin coconut oil. Pharmaceutical biology, 48(2), 151-157.

10- Verallo-Rowell, V. M., Dillague, K. M., & Syah-Tjundawan, B. S. (2008). Novel antibacterial and emollient effects of coconut and virgin olive oils in adult atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis, 19(6), 308-315.

11- Evangelista, M. T. P., Abad‐Casintahan, F., & Lopez‐Villafuerte, L. (2014). The effect of topical virgin coconut oil on SCORAD index, transepidermal water loss, and skin capacitance in mild to moderate pediatric atopic dermatitis: a randomized, double‐blind, clinical trial. International journal of dermatology, 53(1), 100-108.

12- Goreja, W. G. (2004). Shea butter: the nourishing properties of Africa's best-kept natural beauty secret. TNC International Inc.

13- Andersson, A. C., & Alander, J. (2015). Shea butter extract for bioactive skin care. Cosmetics&Toiletries, 130(6), 18-25.

14- Kokatnur, M. G., Oalmann, M. C., Johnson, W. D., Malcom, G. T., & Strong, J. P. (1979). Fatty acid composition of human adipose tissue from two anatomical sites in a biracial community. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 32(11), 2198-2205.

15- Adamu, H. M., Ushie, O. A., & Nansel, E. (2013). Antimicrobial activity of oil from Butyrospermum parkii seed (Shea butter). International Journal of Modern Biology and Medicine, 3(2), 50-59.

16- Chuku, E. C., Chuku, O. S., & Agbagwa, S. S. (2017). ANTIFUNGAL POTENTIALS OF BUTTER EXTRACTS FROM VITELLARIA PARADOXA GAERTN. Nigerian Journal of Mycology Vol, 9, 105.

17- Honfo, F. G., Akissoe, N., Linnemann, A. R., Soumanou, M., & Van Boekel, M. A. (2014). Nutritional composition of shea products and chemical properties of shea butter: a review. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 54(5), 673-686.

18- Hon, K. L., Tsang, Y. C., Pong, N. H., Lee, V. W., Luk, N. M., Chow, C. M., & Leung, T. F. (2015). Patient acceptability, efficacy, and skin biophysiology of a cream and cleanser containing lipid complex with shea butter extract versus a ceramide product for eczema. Hong Kong Med J, 21(5), 417-25.

19- Akihisa, T., Kojima, N., Kikuchi, T., Yasukawa, K., Tokuda, H., Masters, E. T., ... & Manosroi, J. (2010). Anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive effects of triterpene cinnamates and acetates from shea fat. Journal of oleo science, 59(6), 273-280.

20- Shukla, V. K. S., & Kragballe, K. (1998). Exotic butters as cosmetic lipid. Inform, 9, 512-516.

21- Maldonado-Celis, M. E., Yahia, E. M., Bedoya, R., Landázuri, P., Loango, N., Aguillón, J., ... & Ospina, J. C. G. (2019). Chemical composition of mango (Mangifera indica L.) fruit: nutritional and phytochemical compounds. Frontiers in Plant Science, 10.

22- Abdullah, A. S. H., Mohammed, A. S., Abdullah, R., Mirghani, M. E. S., & Al-Qubaisi, M. (2014). Cytotoxic effects of Mangifera indica L. kernel extract on human breast cancer (MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cell lines) and bioactive constituents in the crude extract. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 14(1), 199.

23- Nadeem, M., Imran, M., & Khalique, A. (2016). Promising features of mango (Mangifera indica L.) kernel oil: a review. Journal of food science and technology, 53(5), 2185-2195.

24- Akhter, S., McDonald, M. A., & Marriott, R. (2016). Mangifera sylvatica (Wild Mango): A new cocoa butter alternative. Scientific reports, 6, 32050.

25- Kapellakis, I. E., Tsagarakis, K. P., & Crowther, J. C. (2008). Olive oil history, production and by-product management. Reviews in Environmental Science and Bio/Technology, 7(1), 1-26.

26- Beltrán, G., del Rio, C., Sánchez, S., & Martínez, L. (2004). Influence of harvest date and crop yield on the fatty acid composition of virgin olive oils from cv. Picual. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 52(11), 3434-3440.

27- Rondanini, D. P., Castro, D. N., Searles, P. S., & Rousseaux, M. C. (2014). Contrasting patterns of fatty acid composition and oil accumulation during fruit growth in several olive varieties and locations in a non-Mediterranean region. European journal of agronomy, 52, 237-246.

28- Budiyanto, A., Ahmed, N. U., Wu, A., Bito, T., Nikaido, O., Osawa, T., ... & Ichihashi, M. (2000). Protective effect of topically applied olive oil against photocarcinogenesis following UVB exposure of mice. Carcinogenesis, 21(11), 2085-2090.

29- Moore, J., Kelsberg, G., & Safranek, S. (2012). Do any topical agents help prevent or reduce stretch marks?.

30- Bell, J. R., & Gillatt, P. N. (1994). Standards to ensure the authenticity of edible oils and fats. Food, nutrition and agriculture, 11, 29-35.

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