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Juniper oil is an oil extracted from the juniper plant, a Northern European native which is known formally as Juniperus communis. Various juniper products have been used in alternative medicine across Europe and Asia for centuries, and the oil also has a number of culinary uses. Health food stores and large markets sometimes stock juniper oil, with both therapeutic and food-grade options available. Only food-grade oil should be used in food, as therapeutic oils sometimes contain stabilizers which are not safe to eat.
To extract juniper oil, producers can use just the berries of the juniper plant, or they can include the needles and wood as well. The juniper is pressed or distilled, with several techniques available for extracting as much oil as possible. Juniper oil tends to be very shelf-stable, as long as it is kept in a cool dry place and in a dark container. Both organic juniper oil and conventional oil can be produced, with organic oil tending to be more costly.
It is important to differentiate between juniper oil and juniper extract. Juniper oil is an essential oil, meaning that it is highly concentrated and very aromatic. Juniper extract, on the other hand, is an extract which is made by soaking juniper berries in a solvent, classically alcohol, yielding a milder form of juniper flavoring.
In cooking, juniper is most famously used to flavor gin, adding its tart, peppery flavor to this well-known liquor. Juniper oil is also used to flavor a wide variety of foods and soft drinks, including root beer, gum, candy, and ice cream. Some companies use it as a substitute for birch flavoring in foods which are traditionally flavored with birch.
Practitioners of alternative medicine use juniper oil in a variety of ways. Diluted with a carrier oil, it can be used to treat a variety of skin conditions, including eczema, dry skin, and dandruff. It is also massaged into sore muscles and aching joints, and diluted juniper essential oil may be taken internally for its diuretic properties. In aromatherapy, juniper oil is said to be energizing, and it may be used in diffusers for clients who are feeling fatigued or run-down.
Like other essential oils, juniper oil needs to be used with care. It is very strong, and when it is used in a pure form, it can be an irritant. Pure juniper oil on the skin can cause sores, itching, and burning, and ingestion of pure juniper oil is very inadvisable. Dilution can be accomplished with carrier oils, teas, and mixed herbal tinctures. For people who are nervous about working with essential oils, juniper extract can be used as well.