If you find your hands burning after cutting green chilis, red chilis or jalapeños, the chemical compound capsaicin is to blame. This chemical is found in peppers of the capsicum genus and is what gives them their spicy heat.
Use a dairy product such as milk or cottage cheese on the skin to remove the burning sensation. If you do not have dairy, starchy foods such as bread can work.
The National Pesticide Information Center cautions that peppers with capsaicin can cause irritation to eyes, lungs and mucous membranes, as well as skin. Even though we do not absorb capsaicin through the skin, the pain is felt due to nerve endings in the skin and joints, says a June 2017 article from JSTOR.
What Causes Hot Pepper Burn?
As stated, capsaicin is the main compound found in the capsicum genus that produces the tell-tale burning sensation that comes from peppers. There are seven other chemical compounds that produce burning, but capsaicin is the main culprit says the June 2017 article. When too much capsaicin is ingested, it can cause a number of negative side effects such as diarrhea, burning sensation, vomiting, nausea and abdominal pain, warns the Poison Control Center.
Specific nerve cells in the skin, joints and membranes react when exposed to capsaicin. The burning sensation is caused by calcium ions flooding the nerve cells according to the June 2017 article. These receptors are part of a group of receptors also responsible for regulating body temperature and reacting to extreme heat. What this means is that the way your body reacts to the burn of hot pepper is quite comparable to how it reacts to high temperatures.
When the skin is exposed to capsaicin oils, pain, irritation and redness can occur. Worse effects are felt if the oils spray or are rubbed into the eyes. If this happens, very intense pain and redness can ensue. Even inhaling capsaicin can be bothersome, particularly to those with respiratory issues such as asthma.
How To Get Capsaicin Off Of Skin
The National Poison Control recommends warm water flushes, rubbing vegetable oil on the affected skin, or soaking it in vinegar diluted with water. An antacid preparation placed on the skin, such as Maalox, may also help.
However, the American Chemical Society (ACS) exhorts that water is not the best way to get jalapeño off of hands. In fact, water may make the situation worse. This is due to the polar nature of water and capsaicin.
In chemical reactions, like dissolves like and both water and capsaicin are polar. Due to this, water causes the capsaicin molecules to spread, potentially causing the burning to disperse over more skin area. It is not recommended to use water to get jalapeño juice off hands.
Instead, the ACS points out that nonpolar liquids such as the protein casein found in dairy products like cottage cheese are ideal to get jalapeño juice off hands, or any other hot pepper for that matter.
The milk protein casein attracts the capsaicin molecules, envelops them and flushes them away in a similar way to how soap washes off grease. If you do not have any dairy products in your home, an alternative is to use starchy foods like bread, as they also contain nonpolar molecules.
Do not rub your eyes with hands after cutting or handling hot chili peppers. If chili oil gets into your eyes, use water or saline solution to flush your eyes. If you experience breathing difficulties with exposure, call 911. For more help with serious pepper oil burns, contact your local poison control center.