The Habanero Experiment

by | Nov 9, 2009
Extra Hot Peppers

Extra Hot Peppers

Hot chili pepper season is one of my favorite times of year. But working with these little devils can be tricky and, if you’re not careful, really painful.

If you’ve made the mistake of working with spicy chili peppers without gloves in the past, you know what a huge mistake it can be. Not only will chili pepper burn your skin for days, anything you touch while the pepper oil is still on you (it doesn’t wash off) will also feel the burn. Just a couple weeks ago a friend of mine got jalapeño spice all over her face and didn’t recover for more than a day.

In an attempt to cure “Hunan hands” I tested several common heat neutralizing recommendations. One friend recommended I try mouthwash, which I thought might work through menthol, a substance with receptors similar to those for capsaicin–the active ingredient in chili peppers. In biology, sometimes some good old fashion competition can be enough to change an outcome. To test this hypothesis directly, I also tried a 2% menthol gel from the drug store.

But despite the theoretical plausibility of the menthol hypothesis, the skeptic in me went directly to the source for more information. I contacted UCSF professor David Julius, the scientist who discovered the sensory receptor for both capsaicin and heat to see if he had any ideas for alleviating pain from chili peppers. He didn’t know for sure, but directed me to an article where baking soda was used as a treatment.

In my research, I had also learned people recommend various solvents including rubbing alcohol and vinegar. I decided to try the powerful solvent acetone (nail polish remover) and lime juice as well.

You can watch my experiments below. I had to clear my camera’s memory card before the last shot, during which time the sun went down (lousy winter). Please accept my apologies for the obnoxious light reflection in the dark windows.

Since making the video I’ve discovered a few other topical treatments that may provide some relief from capsaicin burns. The first is a milk compress, though the degree of effectiveness is questioned. The most consistently reported relief is from the application of lidocaine jelly or oral analgesics (topical anesthetics)–treatments that block sensation in the affected area.

My #1 tip for preventing chili pepper burn is to prevent it in the first place by wearing gloves to handle them and being especially careful with the seeds.

Have you had any luck alleviating pepper burn? Do you have any capsaicin horror stories?

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28 Responses to “The Habanero Experiment”

  1. Chez Us says:

    Moral to this video … don’t rub hot peppers on one’s hand! Great video, Darya! Glad we meet you over the weekend. Am checking out your site now & am loving it, there is so much very useful information!

  2. Lenny says:

    Hey Darya, Nice post. I appreciate your personal commitment and sacrifice in the name of pepper science! The word on the street is that alcohol, specifically vodka, breaks down the capsaicin oils better than anything else. Maybe it’s the getting drunk part that is actually numbing the pain.

    It was great to meet you this weekend.

  3. arvind says:

    You don’t know if the various remedies are working in combination. So you need to repeat this experiment every day with one particular remedy being tested each day. You know, just for improving scientific accuracy. 🙂

  4. jeff clark says:

    Good timing on your video. I just made this weekend some habanero hot sauce that uses about a dozen hanbanero peppers in producing around 2 cups of hot sauce. Although I do not use gloves, I am careful about touching any of the interior of a pepper. Thanks for the sacrifice.

  5. doug says:

    I never wear gloves when cooking with peppers. What follows is just part of the fun.

  6. Jan says:

    Hi Darya! I’ve had pepper burn before but only in my mouth. This was in Mexico and I unknowingly ate some very hot serrano pepper salsa. My temperature rose sky high and tears filled my eyes as my ears burned. I ducked into the nearest bar and the bartender helped me.

    He had me put salt, lime and sugar (or is it sugar, lime and salt) and the pain was alleviated almost instantly! I’m not sure if this can work on the hand because of it’s dry surface but maybe it’s worth a try?

  7. Jan says:

    oh and to clarify, each ingredient was taken one at a time…not all at once.

  8. Oh my, you crazy girl! 🙂 I hope your hand isn’t hurting you any longer.

    I have a very low tolerance for hot peppers (mild salsa is sometimes too hot for me!) so I doubt I’ll ever have to worry about pepper burn, but I will certainly wear gloves if I ever need to rise to the occasion.

  9. Peter says:

    You put acetone on your hand??? Habaneros are just too hot. You never need more than bird chilis. I would definitely try going for something with alcohol or fat. Rub your hand with some raita or something :). Although that’s acidic too, so also seems to go against the pH hypothesis…

  10. Oh, the WORST is when i cook with peppers, wash my hands and forget about it, then later go and take out my contacts. Auugghhh the pain!

  11. Dan H says:

    The outcompeting theories wouldn’t make sense in this case. As long as some capsaicin oil is on your skin, it will find somewhere to go.
    The ideal would be something that denatures the capsaicin, but it’s unlikely to find such a substance that wouldn’t cause some other unpleasant reaction to skin.

    The second best would be to get it off your skin. The solvents like acetone might be a good guess, but perhaps repeated rinsing with a strong soap would be good place to start before trying other methods.

    I don’t think you’ll be repeating this experiment any time soon, but perhaps, if your hand still hurts, the experiment can continue.

    BTW, nice website. I noticed it a while back, but I don’t think I’ve commented yet.

  12. I am fortunate, I guess. I eat habaneros quite regularly, and I have never had a burning sensation in my hands. Eyes? No doubt. Mouth? Uh huh! Never on my hands.

  13. Steve says:

    If I remember correctly, capsaicin is fat soluble hence the milk.
    I would support any further trial you would like to conduct with 0% Milk Vs. Whole Milk or Full fat yogurt.
    I can provide homemade Greek yogurt (10%fat) or Fjord type too.
    I had few battles with Sr. Habanero. I lost every single of them.
    Good luck

  14. Kirsten says:

    I noticed you touching the other items on the table with your gloved hand. Is there any worry about cross-contamination? I’ve contracted poison ivy this way, so it was something I was wondering about as I watched your video.

    BTW, thanks for the experiment. I’m not much for spicy foods (Scandinavian taste buds here), but my husband has encouraged me to venture out beyond my comfort zone, and one of these years I might actually bring a jalapeno into the house. Curious to know if milk helps at all.

  15. Michael says:

    Hi Darya,

    Funny you should ask about horror stories. 🙂 You can read my habanero horror story here:

    I use a product called deep tissue oil (which contains menthol and capsaicin) and I can tell you from personal experience the menthol does not stop the burning, in fact it enhances the experience. 🙂

  16. Christian says:

    Hello Darya,

    I like your blog in general, so reading in this post about hot pepper oil not washing off made me jump on my seat. If it’s oil, it can be washed away by correct use of soap (or detergent) and water! Although using gloves is a good idea too, personally I simply wash my hands vigorously after handling hot peppers and I’m fine.

    Sorry to be a bit negative for a first post, but can I humbly suggest that this means you may not be washing your hands as well as you could? (Although that probably applies to the majority of people too, so you’re not alone.) In the name of science, you may want to try again the “washing hands” option, but making sure to scrub everywhere and long enough… A search for “how to wash hands correctly” gives a good number of hits.

    Sorry again, just couldn’t let the claim stand that hot pepper oil is a special kind of oil that (unlike all other oils) doesn’t react with soap to be washed away. I love your blog and what you write otherwise!

    In an attempt to end on a more positive note, the best advice I’ve heard for dealing with “mouth on fire” because of too much hot pepper is to eat rice (or bread) afterwards, chewing well. The rice will absorb the hot pepper oil, and will then move it away from your taste buds when you swallow. Drinking water doesn’t help much because oils (including hot pepper oil) and water don’t mix together. Hence the idea of eating something that can soak up the hot pepper oil instead.


    PS I thought about sending this privately instead, but when I went to your “contact me” page, it said what the private form should be used only for general suggestions and improvements to the blog, and that feedback on a particular story should be left as comments on that story. So there you go. Maybe a case of being careful what you wish for? 🙂

    • Darya Pino says:

      Ha ha, thanks Christian! I actually enjoy it when people disagree with me, so you’re good 😉

      However, I do still disagree. What makes peppers hot is not the oil, it is the chemical they contain called capsaicin. It does tend to be present in the oil of peppers, however once it binds to the capsaicin receptors in your skin you’re pretty screwed, no matter if you get the oil off or not.

      With regular level spicy peppers like jalepenos or serranos, washing hands immediately afterward is mostly sufficient. Although even then my fingernails will be spicy to the taste for days (after multiple washes and showers). However when you are dealing with very spicy peppers such as habaneros, hot Thai chilies and Scotch bonnets, the sheer concentration of capsaicin makes them dangerous to handle. Their vapors can even cause choking and watery eyes. And there really is no way to get it off. Trust me, I wouldn’t have done this experiment if hand washing worked! I work in a lab and am pretty familiar with hand washing protocols 🙂

      Also too, some people are more sensitive than others. Maybe you’re an X-man?


  17. burnt hand man says:

    alo vera makes your hands seem as if there burning worse it cures the burn and polysporin and lots of ice cold frozn water and 4 in a half day i was all better

  18. baahar says:

    Turkish grannies would always recommend yogurt. And unfortunately tooth paste too, which causes more harm than relief 🙂

  19. Suzy says:

    All of these suggestions, make sense. My husband has been drying the last of our Habaneros. He didn’t want to put them in the coffee grinder in case it left the taste behind. So he crushed them with his hands. Before bed he washed his face, and commented that he was stupid, as now his face was on fire. I wanted him to do something right then, in case he rubbed his eyes in his sleep. Well, he didn’t rub his eyes, it was further south. He was miserable. Kind of a sensitive area. What is his best action at 2 am to solve this? Also, we questioned spraying his hands with Brake Cleaner (he’s a mechanic) this stuff is used as a de-greaser, and then washing with a creamy pumice wash. Would that work?

  20. Tabitha says:

    Ok… definitely continuing to use gloves!

    I’ve only just started using Jalapenos (yesterday actually!) as we have heaps growing in our garden, and no one in the house eats them. Apparently my brother just wanted to see if they would grow haha- well they did!

    So rather than waste them I decided to experiment and use the tomatoes also growing in the garden and make soup… wasn’t expecting to like it, but it was AMAZING!
    Just had to get rid of the seeds and white pith… for which I’ll continue to wear gloves to do so, like my mother told me to, after this post lol 🙂

  21. Eric says:

    If your hands are burning, use sugar, then strong soap.

    Milk and acidic juices will only help temporarily because they’re cold. Very little will end up neutralized. Vinegar is alright in removing some of the oil, but sugar water will neutralize. Thank you chemists. Use orange heavy-duty hand wash to remove oil from hands and surfaces afterwards. Don’t use oils; they will help trap the capsaicin oil on your skin.

    e of the Grump

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