Habanero peppers add a spicy kick to Mexican cuisine, intense hot sauces and specialty snacks, but handling the peppers can lead to an itchy, red burn on the skin. Unlike other forms of skin reaction, such as an allergic skin response to poison ivy, the reaction to habanero peppers occurs because a molecule in the peppers actually burns the skin. Fortunately, home remedies can provide relief if you catch the problem quickly, and itchy skin reactions are also completely preventable with a little forethought before handling habanero peppers.
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Habanero peppers originated in Cuba, but are now cultivated throughout South America, Central America and the southern United States. They are the spiciest chile pepper, scoring 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville heat units, the standard measure of spiciness used to determine how intense peppers taste. Popular varieties of habanero peppers include the Scotch bonnet and red savinas. Habaneros contain capsaicin, the phytochemical present in all hot chile peppers that causes the characteristic spicy flavor and can also lead to a skin reaction when you handle cut peppers. When consumed, capsaicin can cause the nervous system to produce endorphins, combining a pleasant sensation with the pain.
Contact dermatitis causes an itchy skin reaction to habanero peppers. It occurs when the capsaicin in the habanero pepper burns the skin upon contact. Other symptoms usually accompany the itchiness, including redness, burning and a sensation of heat on the affected area. Because the capsaicin molecule has a long fatty tail, it can slip between the molecules of skin cell membranes, embedding itself in the deeper layers of skin and making it more difficult to relieve the burning and itching.
The quicker you respond to a habanero pepper burn, the more likely you will be able to effectively treat the itching sensation. Waiting too long allows the capsaicin to work its way deep into the skin where you cannot remove it. Washing the area of affected skin does not typically reduce the itching sensation because capsaicin does not dissolve in water. Instead, immersing the area in milk can help, since the compound casein in milk can envelop capsaicin and wash it away. Oil and alcohol are also effective at neutralizing capsaicin and can work if no milk is available.
To prevent itchy skin, always wear thin latex gloves while cutting or handling habanero peppers. If you do not use gloves, rinse your hands in milk before you notice any itching or burning to remove any capsaicin before it has a chance to burn your skin.