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Battle of the butters: Cocoa vs. shea in skincare

Dermatology providers explain which skincare ingredient might be better for your skin.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 1, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
cocoa vs. shea in skincare
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Dec 1, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

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In skincare, not all butters are made equal. So which is best for your skin? We’ve got answers!

We asked Curology’s licensed dermatology providers to compare cocoa butter and shea butter in skincare, highlighting the significant distinctions between the two. Spoiler alert: Shea butter may be a more favorable option for people concerned about pore congestion and breakouts. Read on to learn more!

Cocoa butter vs. shea butter: Similarities and differences

Cocoa butter and shea butter share several similarities in their composition and benefits for the skin. Here are some of the ways they’re alike:

Similarities between cocoa butter and shea butter

  • Both are derived from natural sources. Cocoa butter is extracted from whole cocoa beans, whereas shea butter is derived from the shea tree nut.

  • Both are rich in fatty acids, like oleic acid, stearic acid, linoleic acid, and palmitic acid, which can benefit the skin and help moisturize and prevent dryness.¹

  • Both have skin-nourishing properties. The cocoa bean contains essential minerals, including magnesium, copper, potassium, and iron.² Shea butter contains vitamins essential for healthy skin, such as vitamin E.³

  • Both have anti-inflammatory properties. Cocoa and shea butter contain compounds that can reduce skin inflammation and provide soothing effects for irritated skin.⁴⁻⁵

  • Both are used in cosmetics. Both cocoa butter and shea butter are versatile ingredients that can be used in various beauty products, including lotions, creams, balms, body butters, and soaps.

Differences between cocoa butter and shea butter

While cocoa butter and shea butter share many similarities, they also have notable differences that set them apart. The following are some differences between cocoa butter and shea butter:

  • Texture. Cocoa butter has a slightly harder texture at room temperature and melts quickly upon contact with the skin.⁶ Shea butter has a creamier texture and is softer and more pliable.⁷

  • Smell and color. Unrefined cocoa butter has a chocolate-like scent, while unrefined shea butter has a milder, nutty fragrance. In terms of color, cocoa butter is pale yellow to light brown, while shea butter is usually ivory or off-white.

  • Composition: Shea butter and cocoa butter are both popular for skin care, but they have different ingredients. Shea butter comes from the Butyrospermum parkii tree and mostly has stearic and oleic acids, making up 85-90% of its content. On the other hand, cocoa butter, from the cocoa plant, is made up of roughly equal amounts of oleic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid. Each of these acids forms about one-third of cocoa butter's makeup. While they both contain similar fatty acids, shea and cocoa butter differ in how much of each acid they have, which gives them their own unique skincare benefits.⁸

Personal preferences and skin types influence the choice between cocoa butter and shea butter. Given its lower comedogenic rating, shea butter may be more suitable for specific skin care needs or concerns than cocoa butter.

Skin benefits of cocoa butter

Applying cocoa polyphenols directly on the skin has been found to benefit various aspects of skin health, particularly in terms of elasticity and tone. These effects are specifically related to certain substances in the skin, such as glycosaminoglycans and collagen types I, III, and IV.

Additionally, studies have shown that applying cocoa extract, which contains a compound called theobromine, or using pure theobromine on the skin can help protect against the formation of wrinkles caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation.⁹

Its softening and moisturizing effects can also help fight dryness as it helps to lock in moisture on the skin’s surface. Antioxidants in cocoa protect the skin from the inside out by neutralizing oxidative stress, which contributes substantially to dermal structure deterioration. 

Additionally, cocoa components have been shown to have potential therapeutic benefits for various skin conditions, including psoriasis.¹⁰

All these benefits make cocoa butter an excellent choice for those looking for a natural ingredient that nourishes and reduces discomfort associated with dryness or irritation.

Skin benefits of shea butter

Shea butter is rich in triterpenes, which have anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds help reduce inflammation by inhibiting certain enzymes and pathways in the inflammatory response. As a result, shea butter may be beneficial for soothing irritated or inflamed skin.¹¹

Additionally, shea butter has strong antioxidant properties.¹² It contains several antioxidants, such as vitamin E.¹³ Antioxidants play a vital role in combating the signs of aging and act as protectors for skin cells, shielding them from the damaging effects of free radicals. These free radicals can accelerate aging, leading to premature aging. By neutralizing free radicals, antioxidants help maintain a youthful appearance and promote healthy-looking skin.

Furthermore, its antibacterial properties may make it an excellent choice for those with acne or other skin conditions.¹⁴ Its moisturizing effects also make it great for soothing dryness associated with eczema since this inflammatory skin condition often leads to dry, scaly patches that need extra TLC.¹⁵

How to incorporate shea butter into your daily skincare routine

When considering the potential for pore-clogging properties of cocoa butter, individuals with acne-prone or sensitive skin may opt for alternative skincare products that exclude this specific ingredient. Instead, they consider incorporating shea butter into their daily skincare routine.

Cleansing

Replace your regular soap with a shea butter soap for daily cleansing. Shea butter soaps are gentle, moisturizing, and help maintain the skin's natural moisture barrier. You may consider: Nubian Heritage Shea Butter Soap

Moisturizing

Shea butter stands as an excellent moisturizing agent for your skin. It’s rich in fatty acids and other nutrients that help hydrate and nourish the skin, so it can be applied directly as a daily moisturizer. We recommend two moisturizing products: La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermallergo Moisturizing Cream and Curology’s Rich Moisturizer.

Body care

Incorporate a shea butter-based body butter or lotion into your routine for intense hydration and nourishment. Apply it after showering or bathing to lock in moisture and maintain the health of your skin. You may want to consider L’Occitane Shea Butter Ultra Rich Body Cream as an option. 

Lip care

Shea butter works wonders in nourishing and repairing chapped lips. Use a lip balm or lip butter that contains shea butter to keep your lips hydrated, smooth, and protected. The Lip Balm by Curology is one of our favorites!

Hand and foot care

Shea butter offers benefits not just for dry skin but also for rough areas like hands and feet. Look for shea butter hand or foot creams to soften the skin, soothe any cracks or dryness, and provide relief. Two hand and foot care products we recommend are: L’Occitane Shea Butter Hand Cream and L’Occitane Shea Butter Foot Cream.

Cocoa butter vs. shea butter: The consensus

Both cocoa butter and shea butter offer a variety of skincare benefits that can help improve the overall health of your complexion. They contain natural fats that work to hydrate and enhance the texture and elasticity of your skin. However, cocoa butter has been associated with a higher likelihood of causing comedones or clogged pores, particularly in individuals with acne-prone skin.

On the other hand, shea butter stands out for its ability to moisturize effectively without the increased risk of clogging pores or causing acne breakouts. Consequently, shea butter is a better choice considering cocoa butter's potential comedogenic nature, especially if you tend to develop clogged pores or experience acne breakouts.¹⁶

Curology's moisture-boosting skincare regimen

Curology uses a personalized approach to identify an individual's needs and create a customized regimen. Users can achieve a healthier-looking complexion by restoring moisture to the skin with carefully selected products from Curology's line of cleansers, personalized formulas, and moisturizers. 

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FAQs

Can I mix cocoa butter with shea butter?

If you want to mix cocoa butter and shea butter, consider using a lower percentage of cocoa butter in the blend, especially if you have concerns about pore-clogging. You can experiment with different ratios to find what works best for your skin.

Additionally, it’s always a good idea to do a patch test on a small area of your skin before applying the mixture to your face or body to check for any adverse reactions.

Can I use shea butter for my dry skin?

Yes, you can use shea butter for your dry skin. Studies have shown that shea butter-containing moisturizers are highly effective and well-tolerated, especially for conditions like atopic dermatitis or eczema. For instance, a study involving pediatric patients with atopic dermatitis observed that a shea butter-containing moisturizer significantly reduced itchiness and improved overall skin quality over four weeks. Another study highlighted its effectiveness in adults with mild-to-moderate body eczema, showing noticeable improvements within just two weeks. So if you have dry skin, a shea butter-containing moisturizer could be a good choice. It not only provides effective moisturization but also appears to be well-tolerated by different skin types, including sensitive skin!¹⁷

Is cocoa butter good for reducing the appearance of scars?

Cocoa butter is commonly believed to reduce scars, but scientific evidence doesn't strongly support this. Its benefits are mainly due to moisturizing and massaging the scarred area. While using cocoa butter might soothe and hydrate your skin, its specific effect on improving scar appearance is not clearly proven by scientific studies.¹⁸

Can I use shea butter as a natural sunscreen?

Sure you can use shea butter to help protect your skin from the sun, but of course, it's not as strong as regular sunscreen! Shea butter has ingredients that can absorb some UV rays from the sun, helping to protect your skin a bit. It's especially good for keeping your skin soft and healthy.¹⁹ However, shea butter alone isn't enough to fully protect you from the sun's harmful rays. It's a good idea to use it along with your usual sunscreen to make sure your skin is fully protected.

What are the most common side effects of using cocoa butter or shea butter on the skin?

Here are some of the potential side effects to be aware of:

  • Allergic reactions. Some people may be allergic to cocoa butter or shea butter, which can cause skin irritation, itching, redness, and swelling.

  • Comedogenicity. As mentioned earlier, in one study, cocoa butter had a comedogenic rating of 4 on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 is non-comedogenic, and 5 is highly comedogenic. This means that cocoa butter may have a higher likelihood of clogging pores and causing acne or blackheads, especially for people with acne-prone skin

  • Greasy or oily feeling. Both shea butter and cocoa butter can leave a greasy or oily feeling on the skin due to their rich and emollient nature. Cocoa butter, in particular, has a thicker consistency and higher oil content, making it feel heavier and greasier on the skin than shea butter. Some may find that cocoa butter leaves a noticeable film or residue, leading to a greasy sensation.

Remember that everyone's skin is unique, and individual experience may vary. If you experience any adverse effects or have specific skin concerns, consult a dermatologist or skin care professional for personalized advice.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

  1. Jia C.H., et al. Evaluation model for cocoa butter equivalents based on fatty acid compositions and triacylglycerol patterns. Food Sci Biotechnol. (2019, June 7).

  2. Scapagnini, G., et al. Cocoa Bioactive Compounds: Significance and Potential for the Maintenance of Skin Health. Nutrients. (2014, August 11).

  3. Jin T.K., et al. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int J Mol Sci. (2017, December 27).

  4. Scapagnini, G., et al. Cocoa Bioactive Compounds: Significance and Potential for the Maintenance of Skin Health. Nutrients. Ibid.

  5. Verma, N., et al. Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Shea Butter through Inhibition of Inos, COX-2, and Cytokines via the NF-ΚB Pathway in LPS-Activated J774 Macrophage Cells. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine. (2012, January 12).

  6. de Silva Souza, C. and Block, JM. Impact of the addition of cocoa butter equivalent on the volatile compounds profile of dark chocolate. J Food Sci Technol. (February, 2018)

  7. Megnanou, RM. and Niamke, S. Improving the optimized shea butter quality: a great potential of utilization for common consumers and industrials. Springerplus. (2015, November 4)

  8. Chang, HY., et al. The Preliminary Results for Evaluating Cocoa Butter's Hepatoprotective Effects against Lipid Accumulation and Inflammation in Adult Male Rats Chronically Fed Ethanol. Bioengineering (Basel). (2022, October 6)

  9. Scapagnini, G., et al. Cocoa Bioactive Compounds: Significance and Potential for the Maintenance of Skin Health. Nutrients. Ibid.

  10. Scapagnini, G., et al.Cocoa Bioactive Compounds: Significance and Potential for the Maintenance of Skin Health. Nutrients. Ibid.

  11. Lin, T.K., et al. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. (January 2018).

  12. Lin, T.K., et al. Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. Ibid.

  13. Segman, O., et al. Shea Butter. Cocoa Butter and Related Compounds. Ibid.

  14. Elsewedy, H.S. et al. Shea Butter Potentiates the Anti-Bacterial Activity of Fusidic Acid Incorporated into Solid Lipid Nanoparticle. Polymers. (2022, June 16).

  15. Draelos, Z. A Pilot Study Investigating the Efficacy of Botanical Anti-Inflammatory Agents in an OTC Eczema Therapy. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (June 2016).

  16. Baek, J.H. Early Detection of Microcomedones Induced by Cocoa Butter Using Reflectance Confocal Microscopy. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. (July 2022).

  17. Nisbetm, SJ. Skin acceptability of a cosmetic moisturizer formulation in female subjects with sensitive skin. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2018, April 30)

  18. Commander, SJ., et al. Update on Postsurgical Scar Management. Semin Plast Surg. (August, 2016)

  19. Resende, DISP., et al.Up-to-Date Overview of the Use of Natural Ingredients in Sunscreens. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2022 Mar 18

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
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Laura Phelan, NP-C

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