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The Stuff of Hot

El chile gordo

Late Saturday evening, I was cutting jalapeños for the salsa for the next day’s barbeque party. I had a few other things on my mind — like my bean salad, and cleaning the bathroom, and figuring out what to write for this post — and so I forgot the lesson learned the last time I cut hot peppers: just wear gloves, you idiot. Five minutes later, my hands were on fire.

The stuff that makes jalapeños hot is a colorless, odorless compound called capsaicin, found mostly in the white pith that connects the seeds to the shell. Capsaicin works by binding to ‘TRPV1’ receptors in your nerve cells, which in turn sets off pain messages. Inside your mouth, small amounts of capsaicin makes for a pleasantly tingling spice, which I happen to love when mixed with the salt of a tortilla chip. But when rubbed in large quantities over both sides of both hands, capsaicin feels like a bad, bad sunburn.

Unlike a sunburn, capsaicin doesn’t damage your tissue. In 1988, a group of gastroenterologists showed this by injecting 30 grams (about an ounce) of freshly crushed jalapeños directly into the stomach of some cash-starved healthy participant. The next day, they performed a video endoscopy and found no damage to the stomach lining. (In contrast, a few tablets of aspirin leaves ‘gastric erosions’.)

I did not know this tidbit on Saturday, but even if I had, I doubt it would have eased my agony. I was visibly and audibly alarmed, and soon Randal, my partner in party-planning, was frantically Googling ‘jalapeño burn treatment’. Some strange remedies popped up, and we tried most of them.

The most common advice: put your hands under cold water. So I did, and it gave me instant relief. As soon as I left the water, though, the pain flared back.

Next attempt: rubbing alcohol. Lots of people raved about this one, too. We didn’t have any, so I used some wipes from the first-aid kit that seemed like they had alcohol in them. They did nothing.

Next: bathe hands in milk. Randal thought this made sense because milk is a base, and he thought capsaicin was an acid (turns out it’s not). Some websites claimed that a milk protein called casein removes capsaicin from the TRPV1 receptors. (Later I tried and failed to find any sound science behind this idea.) In any case, milk didn’t work for me.

Finally, from some wonderful nerds on a site called Physics Forums: bathe hands in vegetable oil. Capsaicin, you see, is not soluble in water. All of those minutes I spent under cold water didn’t help wash it away. It is soluble in fat. I dunked my hands in a big bowl of yellow Crisco. It felt heavenly. After a few minutes, I pulled them up slowly, expecting the pain to rush back. But it didn’t, it didn’t! I was giddy and triumphant. Science had saved my weekend.

My enthusiasm was crushed about seven minutes later, when the burning returned. I consulted the nerd postings again. “Once capsaicin is absorbed no amount of oil is going to get it off,” wrote gravenewworld, whom I picture as a grouchy old man. “From my own experience from cutting hot peppers, it seems that capsaicin has a long half-life, probably around 24 hours.”

It took me a long time to fall asleep, because of pain, anxiety and the fact that I was too afraid to take out my contact lenses. When I woke up, my hands still burned, but in a different way. It was the same feeling of numbness that you get when you walk into a warm house after playing for hours in the snow. By this time, as you’ve figured out, I had become mildly obsessed with capsaicin. As I scanned the medical literature, I was surprised to find out that this numbness is useful as a treatment for chronic nerve pain. Its first documented use was in 1850, as a toothache fix. A capsaicin-laced patch is sold today as a long-lasting treatment for pain from shingles, and other topical capsaicin ointments are used to dull diabetic neuropathy and arthritis.

And my burn? As I type this, it’s been about 15 hours since the exposure, and my hands are almost completely back to normal. Let the grilling begin!


Photos from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

5 thoughts on “The Stuff of Hot

  1. I love this post! As a long time maker of things chile I feel your pain. I also feel the pain of your partner in party planning… Randals who spell your name with one “L” unite!

  2. This was the most interesting science related story I have read in a very long time. It was informative, yet funny. Sorry for your discomfort, but you have taught all of us a valuable lesson.

  3. Love this article. I am typing this as my left hand is on fire!! I am just glad to know it will soon be over! Thank you for the uplifting information. My name is also Virginia.

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