What is the Difference Between Cocoa Butter and Shea Butter?

Cocoa butter and shea butter are two popular ingredients that are used as bases in many natural skincare products. Although people often confuse the two products, they are in fact extracted from two very different trees. The chemical composition and uses of the final skincare product are very similar but it is useful to understand the source and chemical composition of both cocoa butter and shea butter in order to know what you are actually purchasing and use it accordingly.

Plant Profile Of Cocoa Butter

The source of cocoa butter is the Theobroma cacao tree, a member of the Sterculiaceae plant family; it is a tropical tree that is native to Central and South America. The Theobroma cacao tree is an evergreen tree with small, yellow flowers and brown fruits. The fruits contain the seeds that are more commonly known as cocoa beans. Cocoa beans are fermented, washed, dried, hulled and roasted before cocoa butter is finally hot expressed in the form of a solid fat. Cocoa butter was first made in 1695 (source: Carrier Oils for Aromatherapy and Massage, Len Price).

Plant Profile of Shea Butter

Shea butter is obtained from the karite or shea (Vitellaria paradoxa, Butyrospermum parkii) tree, a member of the Sapotaceae plant family; the different Latin names refer to the various species of the tree in different regions. The shea tree is native to many countries in Africa, particularly those in the West African savanna region; it is a perennial tree that has plum-like fruits (nuts). Shea butter is the result of the cold pressing of the fruit; the whole extraction process is similar to that used to obtain cocoa butter in that the fruit is roasted, pounded and boiled in water before the shea butter is expressed in the form of a liquid that solidifies to a hard fat at room temperature.

Chemical Compositions

Cocoa butter is predominately made up of oleic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid; it also contains a small amount of arachidic acid and linoleic acid. Shea butter is predominately made up of stearic and oleic acids but also contains small amounts of palmitic acid, linoleic acid and arachidic acid. Both types of butters contain the same principal ingredients but in different quantities.

In addition, the principal chemical components of shea butter, stearic and oleic acids, may vary in quantity depending upon the exact location of the plant from which it was extracted; the West African savanna region extends approximately 3,000 miles from west to east (source: Agbanga Karite website: Shea Butter Scientific Information).


Cocoa butter is extensively used in skincare products, as a base for body butters, massage creams, lip balms, lip gloss and soaps. It is a firm, yellow fat with a rich, chocolate aroma. Shea butter is also used extensively in cosmetic and skincare products, as a base for much of the same products that cocoa butter is used for; however, shea butter is less hard than cocoa butter and can melt on contact with your skin. It has a nutty-vanilla aroma.


You can purchase both cocoa butter and shea butter through many cosmetic and body product businesses; however, always look for a reputable supplier that uses the most unrefined butter, as refined butters often lose many of their original therapeutic properties in a different of form of extraction that uses additional chemicals. An aromatherapy practitioner or natural skincare consultant may be able to help you, depending on their area of expertise.


  • Agbanga Karite website: Shea Butter Scientific Information

Photo by khaybe


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