When we eat hot and spicy food made with hot peppers, the burn we are experiencing is from capsaicin, an active compound in the hot peppers responsible for the “heat.” Capsaicin is an irritant for most mammals, including humans, causing a burning sensation in the tissue with which it comes into contact. The compound is likely a method of protection and survival for the plant, as it dissuades many animals and fungi from enjoying its fruit. While many peppers possess bright hues and aromas, pure capsaicin is both odorless and colorless and very hard to avoid when handling hot peppers.
The Risk of Jalapeño Hands
While the heat produced by the capsaicin in hot peppers is actually enjoyable for many in food (in moderation, of course), it is not so pleasant when it comes into contact with the skin, eyes, or ears when preparing the peppers for cooking. Home cooks are especially at risk for “jalapeño hands,” or the prolonged stinging and burning of the skin after it comes into contact with the capsaicin-rich oils of the pepper when slicing or chopping fresh hot peppers.
The “jalapeño hands” effect can last for hours as the oil containing the capsaicin is not easily washed away. But this risk should not be a deterrent from cooking with these peppers, you just need to be prepared.
Tips for Avoiding Jalapeño Hands
- Always wear gloves! We cannot stress this enough. When we say glove, we don’t mean just latex surgical gloves, but rather the thicker rubber gloves because the capsaicin can seep through thick latex. Yes, you can use the right yellow ones you use when washing dishes, just use a fresh new pair that you designate for hot pepper prep.
- Do not touch your eyes or nose while cutting hot pepper—with or without gloves. There is nothing more unpleasant than being temporarily blinded by a burning eye or nostril. People commonly touch their eyes and nose while cutting peppers because of the irritation of the smell, but the irritation that ensures when capsaicin actually comes into contact with the eyes or nose is immensely worse.
- Along that same vein, if you have cut hot peppers without gloves, do not take out or insert contact lenses for a while.
How to Stop the Burn
While it is generally little you can do to relieve the burn if you chop hot peppers without gloves, there are a few remedies worth trying to get some relief.
- Olive oil: Oil can help dissolve the hot chili oil causing the burning sensation. Rub the affected area with a small amount olive or vegetable oil to help relieve the burn. Some even say that rubbed a little oil on your hands before handling the hot pepper can help evade jalapeño hands!
- Rubbing alcohol: Rubbing alcohol also works to an extent on the skin, as the capsaicin and chili oil are more soluble in alcohol than in water.
- Dish soap: Washing your hands vigorously with dish soap can work to dissolve the oils better than regular hand soap and as dish soaps are formulated to cut through grease.
- Baking soda paste: You can also make a thick paste with baking soda and water and apply it directly to the affected skin. Just leave it on until it dries, then wash away.
If the pain is too severe (and especially if the capsaicin has come into contact with the mucous membranes of the eyes or nose), go to the ER. While there isn't much more they can do, pain medication can be a last resort for relief when you feel like you are on fire.