Monday, August 22, 2011

Homemade Mace

A freshly cut habanero with color enhancement on the left to show the potent oil (in yellow)

Ciera and I had the most difficult dinner I have ever made. Not because there was anything particularly difficult about it. Except for the chili oil. Fred Meyer was selling chili's at a severely reduced price and I couldn't pass on the opportunity to cook with the exotic fruit.

Here's the deal. Chili peppers have a few oil-based chemicals on them called capsaicinoids. They are named after the plants they derive from capsicum—chilis. This potent chemical is excreted by the plant and irritates mammals, especially humans. Birds however do not become irritated by capsaicin or its associated chemicals. It has been conjectured that this is evolutionary; humans and mammals with molars crush the seeds and do not disperse them, but birds swallow the seeds whole and distribute them. It is in the chili's best interest to keep mammals out and birds in.

Now capsaicin is potent stuff. If it gets on the skin, especially sensitive skin, then it causes a severe burning sensation. It is recommended that when someone works with these plants, they wear gloves because the thick skin on the hands can mask the presence of the oil.

Ciera found that out firsthand when she touched her finger to her nose and experienced that very distinct burning sensation. I laughed at her until I realized that I had it all over my hands and the cutting board and the knife. Everything I touched had it on there, including my face. It burned horribly. I can only imagine what mace feels like, which comes in at up to 5.3 million on the Scoville (spiciness) scale; by contrast the average jalapeno is about 8,000 at its hottest.

This stuff burns. It felt like the color orange was pushing its way through my face. Ciera and I tried to rap up our cooking but it was quickly turning into a fiasco. The peppers were too spicy, the tortillas were burning, and everything was turning a very unpleasant orange. In very large quantities capsaicin can cause death—don't worry, I wasn't anywhere near that.

I talked to my cousin Rader, who works a farm, and he told me that he always wore gloves when handling large amounts of chilis, but that even by the end of the day the colorless, flavorless, waxy substance is layered on his gloves thickly.

Capsaicin is an oily substance of the vanilloid family (yeah, vanilla) and is basically impervious to water—making it hydrophobic (big shout-out to all of the chemists in my life). Water will only spread the chemical. So the typical solution is find something that binds to it and makes it water soluble or to put it in a solution that can be easily removed.

The common answer that people give on the internet is to use milk. That is a fairly effective treatment. Ciera can attest to that as she rubbed yogurt all over her face, and she said it relieved the burning fairly well. She was covered in yogurt though. It is also possible to rub the area with an oil-based substance (vegetable oil, petroleum jelly, or most creams). Another solution is to put any sort of soap or detergent on the irritated area and to wash it away. Aloe has been shown to be effective as well and may be worth a try. This works for any of the chemical that has not worked its way into your skin.

Once you start feeling the burning, the capsaicin may already be in your skin and you have to just wait out the burn in a lot of ways. It is worth it to scrub off the excess capsaicin, but if you are feeling the burn on your hands it very likely will have to work its way through your body. The nerves in your fingers are under several layers of skin whereas the nerve endings on your face are right at the surface. It is worth it to vigorously apply and repeat to feel some relief. It is also probably going to take a while to subside. Just be prepared.

Do not use vinegar, bleach, alcohol, or almost any other home remedy. Often they can have an exacerbating effect or even come with their own medical problems. Wikipedia says so.

As a final aside I would like to note that this would be one of the better substances to use for a prank because it is fairly harmless despite the pain caused and it is flavorless, odorless, and colorless. Just don't sneak it into any of my stuff. The good news is that the dinner was a success. Dinner tasted amazing. I just have to remember to watch out for those chilis.