Saturday, September 21, 2013

The oily shea-butter tree, should it be Butyrospermum parkii or Vitellaria paradoxa?

The shea-butter tree is a very popular source of a vegetable fat in Africa (more information at Agrifostree). This fat, called shea butter, is now exported and used in many cosmetics products worldwide.

100% Natural African Shea Butter
Preparation of Shea butter.
(cc) David Fulmer on Flickr.

Cosmetics and other skin products that include shea butter lists it as  'Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter)', following the INCI database of registered names of cosmetics ingredients.  (As usual, parkii should of course not be capitalized, as pointed out earlier.)

But if you look up the scientific name of the shea-butter tree in current botanical databases, the old Butyrospermum name has changed, and this species is now called Vitellaria paradoxa.  The tree is a member of the Sapotaceae family, famous for its soaping abilities.  The species has two older synonyms in the Butyrospermum genus, B. paradoxum and B. parkii (link). So why isn't INCI updated?  Because there has been a disconnect between the botanical taxonomic world, and the world of plant ingredients in commercial products. 

Shea Butter on LUSH's webpage.
Screen capture by

So companies like LUSH have to use the old, outdated name for this species instead of listing its updated and corrected new name until INCI has updated its database. The same is true for many other plant-derived ingredients that are included in the INCI database.  INCI is working on this, but it will take a while.

So, in summary, the scientific facts for the shea butter plant:

Correct scientific name:  Vitellaria paradoxa
Incorrect name:  Butyrospermum parkii