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Lessening a Chile Pepper's Burn on Skin or in Mouth

Are there good ways for getting rid of the irritating burn that can happen when you accidentally touch a fresh hot chile?

Capsaicin is the chemical in chiles responsible for their heat. It binds to receptors on the tongue or skin, triggering a pain response. To find out if anything could be done to lessen this burn, we rounded up some brave testers to seed chiles without gloves, smear chile paste onto patches of their skin, and eat scrambled eggs doused in hot sauce. We then tested some home remedies. For the skin, we washed with soap and water and rubbed the affected area with oil, vinegar, tomato juice, a baking soda slurry, and hydrogen peroxide. For the mouth, we swished with (but did not swallow) water, milk, beer, and a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water.

Soap and water helped lessen the burn on skin a bit, but oil, vinegar, tomato juice, and baking soda didn’t help at all. As for the mouth, water and beer failed, too. Milk had only a slight impact. What worked on both the skin and the mouth? Hydrogen peroxide.

It turns out that peroxide reacts with capsaicin molecules, changing their structure and rendering them incapable of bonding with our receptors. Peroxide works even better in the presence of a base like baking soda: We found that a solution of 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 tablespoon of water, and 1 tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide could be used to wash the affected area or as a mouthwash (swish vigorously for 30 seconds) to tone down a chile’s stinging burn to a mild warmth. (Toothpaste containing peroxide and baking soda is a somewhat less effective remedy.) Always keep peroxide, baking soda, and toothpaste away from your eyes.

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