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Can use of Shea Butter prevent you against COVID–19? Not at all

Dr Mohammed Auwal Ibrahim

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Compared to last month (March 2020), the circulation of COVID-19-based misinformation, especially with respect to a “cure” for the disease, has slowed down a bit. Thanks to the awareness campaigns by the government, scientists, health practitioners, NGOs among others.

However, some troubling claims about the COVID-19 “cure” are still being circulated. One of the claims is that shea butter “kills” the virus and “prevents” the disease when rubbed to the hands, nose and tongue. This misinformation could have a profound negative effect on social distancing as a preventive measure against the COVID-19, especially in our local communities.

Shea butter is commonly used as an ingredient for skin creams and predominantly contains triacylglycerols with various proportions of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids depending on the source and/or method of preparation.  The main fatty acids constituents are stearic, palmitic, oleic and linoleic acids. By their chemical nature, these fatty acids, generally, do not mediate anti-infective properties against bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Therefore, this might be the primary scientific information to suggest that the claim is false and not true. More specifically, there is no scientific report that clearly demonstrates the ability of shea butter to kill any virus, not even the novel COVID-19 virus. This is with the exception of a study where a small proportion of shea butter was considered as part of a regimen against Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and the findings from the study has not been released. In fact, even when available, the results from the HSV study would hardly be extrapolated to COVID-19. This is because the mechanisms of pathogenesis for the two viruses are not related in addition to their evolutionary differences.

Covid 19

Based on the foregoing, it is irrational and unscientific to use shea butter as a “preventive measure” against the COVID-19. Apart from the lack of scientific evidence, another worrying detail from the ‘shea-butter-COVID-19’ misinformation is the inclusion of tongue among the sites for the topical application and this action would certainly increase the intake of fatty acids. Such an increased intake of, especially, saturated fatty acids could have a long-term adverse health consequence to individuals prone to cardiovascular diseases.

For scientific scrutiny and curiosity, it was thought that other minor components of the shea butter, such as phenolics and triterpenes, may also be argued as the possible antiviral components by promoters of the misinformation. While some studies have demonstrated the antiviral activity of some of these components such as catechin, the available evidences from the studies are preliminary to make such a bogus claim for “curing” the virus. Of course, there is absolutely no scientifically validated experiment that connect these compounds with the novel COVID-19 under discussion while, as earlier explained, it will be difficult to extrapolate the data from the antiviral activity of these components to COVID-19. Hence, the “imagination” that the minor shea butter components might be responsible for killing the virus cannot be scientifically proven.

Ultimately, the topical application of shea butter as a preventive measure to curb the COVID-19 transmission is totally false and has no scientific basis. For now, social distancing, washing hands with sanitizers and the use of face masks remain the viable way of preventing the viral transmission.

Mohammed Auwal Ibrahim (PhD) is a Lecturer and Researcher at the Department of Biochemistry, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria and currently working as a JSPS Research Fellow at the Structure Based Drug Design Research Group, National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Tsukuba, Japan. Mohammed is a Fellow of the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN)

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