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Bitter almond oil is an essential oil commonly used to add an almond scent to cosmetics and skincare products. The essential oil is added in small amounts to base oils, creams and soaps. Although safe in small quantities, bitter almond oil is highly toxic when used in excess. Unlike sweet almond oil that can be used abundantly in food and skincare products, bitter almond oil should be used with caution.
This form of almond oil comes from seeds harvested from the Prunus dulcis var. amara tree. It is closely related to the sweet almond tree, which can be found under the name Prunus dulcis var. amygdalus. Though similar in shape and size, the two oils have very different culinary and cosmetic uses.
Oil pressed from sweet almonds can be used as a carrier oil and a base oil, and as a skin moisturizer. It is also used as a light healthy oil for salads and other raw or lightly heated dishes. Sweet almonds are the nuts commonly sold for snacking or made into butters and milk.
The oil derived from bitter almonds is an essential oil. Essential oils are distilled plant oils that contain concentrated scents and are often added in small quantities to base oils. Bitter almond oil has a strong almond scent that can be added to skincare products. It doesn't add volume like sweet almond base oil, but it does infuse the product with the aroma of almonds.
Small amounts of bitter almond essential oil can also be used to flavor food and drinks. When using this oil topically or in food, it is important to select a food-grade oil. This oil contains hydrogen cyanide, glycoside amygdalin and benzaldehyde, which are poisonous compounds that can be fatal in even moderate doses. Food-grade essential oils have had these toxic substances removed. Even with the toxic elements removed, however, this essential oil is best used in small doses.
When used correctly, benefits can be derived from the same toxins that make the oil so poisonous. Used in a high dilution with water, the oil can be applied to the skin as a topical wash to treat surface skin infections, for instance. It also has naturally occurring antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties and is an effective vermifuge for treating intestinal worms. Bitter almond oil should be used with extreme caution when applied as a topical medication or used internally, however, and it generally is best to work with a physician or trained herbalist to determine safe application amounts.