The heat isn't just on your tongue — the effects of eating spicy peppers can be felt throughout your whole body.
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You may have dealt with watery eyes and a runny nose after enjoying hot peppers. Even cutting them can cause irritation to the eyes, lungs, mouth and skin, according to the National Pesticide Information Center.
If you love hot peppers and include them in your meal rotation, just practice caution when cutting them and take the proper steps to remove the acid residue from your hands before touching your face.
What Causes Hot Pepper Burn?
There's a reason why peppers burn when you cut or eat them: "The spiciness of peppers is mainly due to the presence of capsaicin," says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian at UCLA. This chemical is found in peppers of the capsicum family and is what gives them their spicy heat, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
"Capsaicin is also soluble in oil, which is why the acid from peppers can linger on the hands and fingers."
Capsaicin is generally good for you, but there are some dangers associated with eating too much capsaicin, such as diarrhea, a burning sensation, vomiting, nausea and abdominal pain, according to the Poison Control Center.
Specific nerve cells in the skin, joints and membranes react when they're exposed to capsaicin. The burning sensation is caused by calcium ions flooding the nerve cells, according to a June 2017 article in JSTOR. These receptors are part of a larger group of receptors also responsible for regulating body temperature and reacting to extreme heat.
Essentially, the way your body reacts to hot peppers is comparable to enduring high temperatures, leaving you feeling flushed and sweaty.
When your skin is exposed to capsaicin oils, it can lead to pain, irritation and redness. Worse effects are felt if the oils spray or are rubbed into the eyes — which can lead to intense pain and redness. Even inhaling capsaicin can be bothersome, particularly to those with respiratory issues such as asthma.
If you get hot pepper acid on your hands when you're meal prepping, don't sweat it. There are methods to get the residue off your hands.
Want to prevent the spread of capsaicin on your hands in the first place? Hunnes recommends wearing gloves while handling spicy foods. Even then, you should still wash your hands afterward.
1. Rub Hands With Vegetable Oil
Capsaicin is oil-soluble, and like dissolves like. Your first instinct may be to rinse with water, but oil-soluble substances repel water. In fact, the oils in capsaicin are likely to mix with the natural oils from your skin, making them stubborn to remove with water alone.
Hunnes recommends using another oil to remove the capsaicin. "You can pour a little olive oil, avocado oil or another vegetable oil on your hands, rub them together for about 30 seconds and rinse your hands with soapy water. The capsaicin will stick to the oil and come off with it when you rinse your hands," she says.
2. Neutralize Spiciness With Sweetness
What's the opposite of spicy? Sweet. In a pinch, use any sweeteners you have on hand — preferably liquid ones — as neutralizers to halt any stinging or irritation on your skin.
"You may be able to neutralize hot pepper acid by rubbing molasses or honey on your hands," Hunnes says. "The sugars in those foods may be able to bind to the pain receptors better than the capsaicin can."
3. Rinse With Citrus Juice or Vinegar
Like sweet foods, acidic foods act as a neutralizing agent when you have hot pepper acid on your hands.
"The acid in citrus juice and vinegar can help neutralize some of the capsaicin, so rinsing your hands with some of these may help remove the sting," says Hunnes.
Lemon juice is a household staple and vinegar is an affordable ingredient with many purposes. You likely have these on hand already, and you'll be glad you do if you need to get pepper acid off your hands quickly.
4. Counteract Capsaicin With Casein
You may have heard that the best beverage to drink after eating spicy chicken wings is milk. One type of protein in milk, called casein, breaks down capsaicin, providing relief after eating something seriously spicy.
The same applies to removing capsaicin from your hands after cutting hot peppers. The milk protein casein attracts the capsaicin molecules, envelops them and flushes them away in a similar way to how soap washes off grease.
5. Try Rubbing Alcohol or Hand Sanitizer
Rubbing alcohol — the main ingredient in hand sanitizer — kills bacteria and germs. It can also help get hot pepper acid off your hands.
Alcohol is a solvent, so it's used to dissolve oils like those found in capsaicin. If you need a quick and effective way to get pesky pepper residue off your skin, a quick spritz of hand sanitizer or rub with an alcohol wipe will do the trick.
Using rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer may cause stinging if you have any open cuts on your hands. If you do have cuts, try another method on this list.
6. Wash Hands With Soap and Water
Sometimes old-fashioned remedies are the easiest. When you need to act quickly to remove hot pepper acid from your hands, you may not think to grab a jar of honey, carton of milk or bottle of vinegar. All you need is plain soap and water.
"Soap is an emulsion that contains fat- and water-soluble substances," Hunnes says. "Therefore, washing thoroughly with soap and water should also lift the capsaicin from your hands."
Because capsaicin is oil-soluble, make sure to use a soap that contains oils.
Do not rub your eyes with your hands after cutting or handling hot peppers. If pepper 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.