Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Feel the Burn: When Hot Peppers Fight Back

Last night, Ranger's grandparents tangled with some peppers of unknown origin they received at church. The very bright green peppers turned out not to be sweet peppers but instead held within them the very seeds of fire.

My parents tend to like very hot foods. My dad's been accused of attempted assassination for serving his rather spicy spaghetti sauce, and the family chili recipe has made people ask "What keeps the pot from melting?" as they gobble down seconds and thirds to stave off the inevitable burn.

Mom called this morning because her hands were still burning from cutting the peppers barehanded last night. Popular wisdom (via Google) unwisely suggests lots of caustics and/or drying agents (ranging from undiluted bleach to ethyl alcohol to 100 proof vodka); all bad ideas. I cannot imagine that these remedies do much more than dry the skin and make it more irritable.

Our own experience and a rather colorful story about friend's hot pepper connoisseur father and poorly timed trip to the urinal (along with wikipedia) point toward oily compounds to quickly remove the pepper's burn agent (capsaicin). We've found that whole milk or yogurt (preferably a non-low-fat variety) work best internally and humble fatty mayonnaise is great topically (store brands often have the highest fat content).

Grandma just called back after trip to the store for cheap mayo, and reports "immediate relief" for her burning hands.


Christy said...

I'm imagining Grandma sitting on the sofa with her hands in two Hellman's Jars. Funny image.

Michael Phillips said...

For the mouth relief, it is actually the sugars in the milk and yogurt that do most of the good. They are competitive inhibitors for capsaicin binding sites.
The drying agents that work are all nonpolar solvents or nearly so. Oils are effective solvents in this case, as, I suspect, would be the alcohol (which while polar, is only weakly so.)

Michael Phillips said...

Wiki mentions an additional route of action for milk products, namely as a detergent.

Michael J. Ludgate said...

Thanks for the Mayo tip! I'd previously tried milk, but we drink skimmed - which doesn't work.

Never had a problem with peppers, until today, but a supermarket packet specifying nothing other than 'Surprisingly Fiery' gave me a newfound respect. I'd read elsewhere that a 'really good scrub' would suffice, this actually made it 10 times worse, I guess because the oils cling to the skin and get exposed to new skin.

Francie said...

First, I needed your first aid advice to treat the poison ivy... Three wks later, your blog is my go-to reference for treating chili burns! We made a fav recipe tonight: white chicken chili. Strangely, I got the chili burns from despite only chopping the relatively mild anaheims and poblanos, while Andy chopped the jalapenos & onions (oh, how the onions burn my eyes). Hours later, I could barely stand the burn on my hands to wash up our dishes. Wore gloves and so I thought my hands would be immune to the typically hot dishwater. But every time the affected hand went back into the hot water, it was like the chilis' capsaicin was reactivated! So I thankfully referred back to this source for the treatment. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!
By the way, Christy's image wasn't that far off. I have just rubbed it over the hand like a thick lotion -- didn't dip it into the Hellman's jar -- tee hee. But then while I waited for the relief, I *did* go sit on the sofa to wait it out! Keep posting the valuable info, friend!!!