Capsaicin – Spice, Medicine and Pepper Spray


Posted by Sharing Sustainable Solutions

Some people tend to use the terms – capsaicin and oleoresin capsicum interchangeably. They’re not the same.

The most commonly mentioned of the capsaicinoids. All hot peppers contain capsaicinoids. Natural substances that produce a burning sensation in the mouth or on the skin, causing the eyes to water and the nose to run, and even induce perspiration. Capsaicinoids have no flavor or odor, but act directly on the pain receptors. The primary capsaicinoid, capsaicin, is so hot that a single drop diluted in 100,000 drops of water will produce a blistering of the tongue. In pure form it is a white powder with a Scoville heat rating of approx. 16,000,000.

Capsaicinoids are found primarily in the pepper’s placenta, the white `ribs’ that run down the middle and along the sides of a pepper. The seeds are in such close contact with the ribs, they are also often very hot. In the rest of the vegetable, capsaicinoids are unevenly distributed throughout the flesh, so it is likely that one part of the same pepper may be hotter or milder than another part. You can reduce the amount of heat in a chile pepper by removing the ribs and seeds. You may want to wear gloves while doing so. Most particularly when working with Thai or Habenero peppers.

Capsaicin, also known as N-Vanillyl-8-methyl-6-(E)-noneamide, is the most pungent of the group of compounds called Capsaicinoids that can be isolated from chile peppers. It is sparingly soluble in water, but very soluble in fats, oils and alcohol. Capsaicin and Di-hydrocapsaicin together make up 80-90% of the Capsaicinoids found in peppers.

Capsaicinoid content is measured in parts per million. These parts per million are converted into Scoville heat units, the industry standard for measuring a pepper’s punch. One part per million is equivalent to 15 Scoville units. Bell peppers have a value of zero Scoville units, whereas habaneros, the hottest peppers, register a blistering 200,000 to 300,000. The red savina habenero – at 377,000 Scoville units was recognized as the hottest of peppers until recently when some experimentally breed peppers registered hotter.

Oleoresin Capsicum

Oleoresin capsicum, a concentrated essence of hot peppers that is not a synthetic, but a natural food made by an extraction method incorporating techniques similar to the process of making coffee.

An organic solvent called hexane is run through dried ground hot peppers, and the resulting liquid is put through another process to remove the solvent. The remaining oleoresin consists of what is left: the natural oils, color, and heat (capsaicinoids) of the hot peppers. There are several reasons that manufacturers choose to use this product.

One is convenience – they can add a lot of heat to a product with minimum effort. Another is space – oleoresin can be packed into any size of container, from a partial ounce container to a 55-gallon drum, and easily stored. A third reason is stability–this is a sterile product that will remain stable for up to two or three years.

The Scoville Units of this solution can be between 430,000 and 2,000,000. Oleoresin capsicum is an oily liquid containing vegetable oils, coloring agents, and capsaicinoids.

On to the part everyone asks about: How hot is hot?
It was in 1912 whilst working for the Parke Davis pharmaceutical company that Wilbur Scoville developed a method to measure the heat level of a hot pepper. This test is named after him, called the Scoville Organoleptic Test. The unit of measure, Scoville Heat Units, is often abbreviated as SHU.

A dilution-taste procedure. Scoville blended pure ground hot peppers with a sugar-water solution and a panel of testers then sipped the concoctions, in increasingly diluted concentrations, until they reached the point at which the liquid no longer burned the mouth. A number was then assigned to each hot pepper based on how much it needed to be diluted before the panel could taste no heat. The validity and accuracy of the Scoville Organoleptic test have been widely criticized. The American Spice Trade Association and the International Organization for Standardization have adopted a modified version. The American Society for Testing and Materials is considering other organoleptic tests (the Gillett method) and a number of other chemical tests to assay for capsaicinoids. Even so, the values obtained by these various tests are often related back to Scoville Units.

Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) rating of some peppers

Bell and Sweet Italian peppers


Pepperoncini peppers


New Mexico peppers


Poblano & Espanola peppers


Ancho & Pasilla peppers


Rocotillo peppers


Cascabel & Cherry peppers


Jalapeno & Mirasol peppers


Wax peppers


Serrano peppers


de Arbol peppers


Cayenne & Tabasco peppers


Chiltepin peppers


Jamaican Hot peppers


Scotch Bonnet & Thai peppers


Habanero peppers

Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) rating of some other items

Mainline hot sauces


Very Hot sauces (containing less oleoresin)


Super Hot sauces (containing more oleoresin)


Defense pepper spray for people


Defense pepper spray for bears

up to 2,000,000

Oleoresin capsicum


Pure capsaicin

As a note from me concerning hot sauces, to the people who enjoy hot sauces Tabasco is usually considered a mild item. If you ever want to get adventurous there are things like Dave’s Insanity Sauce. Chuckle, not for the timid. Warning, if you think munching a handful of raw jalapeno peppers is hot, stay away from this sauce. It’s at the high end of the super hot sauces. Right up there with Mad Dog Inferno.

Medical Uses

It has medical uses? Yes it does. Used for countless years by various native groups and recently -rediscovered- by doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

There is the old standby most people are familiar with – Heet. Zostrix, 0.025 percent capsaicin, and Axasin, 0.075 percent capsaicin, are creams rubbed on the body for relieving chronic, debilitating pain.

Of course you could get some `HALT’ which is sold in some places to be used as a spray into the eyes of dogs. It contains about 0.35% capsaicin. Mix with vanishing cream and you can make your own such medication.

There used to be packets of a powder sold under the name of FireFoot. Its purpose was to be sprinkled in the socks to keep the feet of hikers, bicyclists, campers and so forth warm. Don’t know if it is still around. To make the equivalent, mix 1 part cayenne powder, 2 parts ginger and 3 parts mustard powder. Put a teaspoon in the toe of your sock before putting it on. In 10 minutes to one hour the capillaries of your toes should dilate and your foot warm up.

A tea made of cayenne peppers works well to clear stuffy noses. It is painful but cayenne powder on a cut starts clotting pretty quick. Old remedies my Grandmother and others used.

Consumption of hot peppers causes an increase in mucous production. Many of the common cough syrups contain an ingredient called `guafensein’ (sp?) which is a synthetic similar to capsaicin and is used to boost mucous production.

Hot peppers have high quantities of vitamins A & C. The dried peppers loose some vitamin C but gain A. By weight, green bell peppers have twice as much vitamin C as citrus fruit; red peppers have three times as much. Hot peppers contain even more vitamin C, 357 percent more than an orange. And red peppers are quite a good source of beta carotene.

Capsaicin and oleoresin capsicum as also used as a rubifacient. Which means they cause an increased circulation to localized sites. Thus their use in arthritis creams. They are also finding use to increase fibrolytic activity (blood clotting)

Currently research is being done into the ability of capsaicin to thicken the stomach lining, possibly making it useful as a treatment for ulcers. For the diet concious person, many of the natural weight loss formulas include capsaicin, oleoresin capsicum or a hot pepper powder as an ingredient. These substances increase the body’s metabolic rate.

Medications containing capsaicinoids are being used as an anti- inflamatory agent as the chemicals causes blood vessels to dialate. Capsaicin or oleoresin capsicum is receiving a lot of attention for use as an anesthetic. Repeated exposure of a site to capsaicinoids renders the site numb. Capsaicin destroys `substance P’ which is the chemical nerve carrier the body uses to transmit pain signals to the brain.

In one test targeted at chronic leg pain in diabetics, an ointment containing high levels of capsaicin was applied over a period of weeks. This was a potent solution. So much so, that the volunteers were given morphine to cope with the pain. But after the application period they reported a permanent decrease in the chronic pain.

Because the activity of capsaicin is so specific and it affects only a particular type of neuron, its main clinical use has been in the form of a skin emollient to successfully treat the pain of shingles, diabetic neuropathy, arthritis, rheumatism, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain.

Capsaicin pastes have been used successfully for ages to treat muscle and joint pains. Today, many people use capsaicin balms for a wide variety of aches and pains, including back pain and tennis elbow.

I’ve used cayenne powder mixed with Baby Oil or mineral oil as a home made balm for years. Another one of those tips I got from Grandmother. Such skin balms to aid in reducing pain typically need to be used 3 to 4 times a day to be effective.

In another application targeted at chemotherapy patients who often develop painful ulcers (sores) in the mouth, a capsaicin containing candy seemed to provide significant relief from pain.

Leslie’s First Aid Kit: Capsaicin Candy Recipe

The sugar in the candy inhibits the burn of capsaicin in the mouth while the capsaicin provides pain relief.
1 cup sugar 3/4 cup light corn syrup 2/3 cup water 1 tbs cornstarch 2 tbs butter or marg 1 tsp salt 2 tsp vanilla 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

In a 2 quart saucepan add sugar, corn syrup, water, cornstarch, butter and salt. Over medium heat, stir constantly till hard ball stage (256F). Remove from heat, stir in vanilla and pepper. When cool enough to handle, butter hands and pull until satiny and stiff. Pull into long strips, cut into 1″ pieces, and wrap with wax paper.

Just for the record, a couple health cautions.

People with sensitive skins and a lot of allergies should approach the use of capsaicin balms with caution. Try it on a small patch of skin at first, then on a slightly larger patch. Each time allowing several hours, 4 to 6, before trying it again. I am NOT a doctor. However, the use of it as an external balm is something I’ve done for many years making my own balm. And I have seen a few occasions where there was an adverse reaction to capsaicin creams and balms.

One poor lady, the wife of my good and long time buddy, used a stronger mixture I make for myself. She had used a less potent commercial product with success. Decided that if it was good, my more potent mixture was better. So she used some while she happened to be in our bathroom without asking me first, on her neck and shoulders. It literally raised blisters on her skin overnight.

Remember – people are different, exposure to a certain concentration of virtually anything can have drastically different reactions from one person to the next.

Capsaicin does cause a slight constriction of the bronchial tubes and esophagus. Normally this constriction is slight enough so as not to poise a problem. Most people don’t even notice it. However, particularly in the case of capsaicin sprays, someone with asthma can be put into real problems. (i.e. use of pepper spray on someone with asthma MAY become a serious medical problem)

There are some urban legends about hot peppers.

Several medical studies have concluded that hot peppers and other spicy foods do not cause ulcers. Nor do hot peppers cause hemorrhoids, as has often been claimed.

Also, as with anything, beware of the claims of some of the more ardent claims of some herbalists and health food stores. Sheesh, I have read claims that tout hot peppers as able to cure just about everything. I won’t bother to list ALL the claims as the list would be very long.

The uses I have mentioned have medical verification. I don’t know, perhaps I’m just an old doubting Thomas, but some of the claims I have read, with NO medically verified evidence, makes me wonder about the ethics of some product sellers. Let me rephrase that, some of the claims make me certain that some sellers have the ethics of a cockroach. Either that, or there are some unbelievably ignorant people out there.

Controlling the -HOT-

Capsaicin, which is an oil, does not mix well with water. When your mouth is burning, drinking water or beer is not the best choice to cool off your mouth. Just sort of spreads the effect around.

The old standby’s are drinking milk or eating cheese or yogurt. The caisen (sp?) in dairy products neutralizes capsaicinoids. Eating bread or rice is helpful as they tend to absorb the oils. Some people get relief from drinking tomato juice or eating a fresh lemon or lime.

There is a reason that some of the above items are commonly included in Mexican meals.

Those who frequently eat hot peppers develop a tolerance for them and can eat increasingly hot levels of food comfortably. I will vouch for this, personally. I eat things in comfort, enjoying the taste, which are so hot to people such as my wife, that she can’t even smell the food without her eyes watering. Cayenne is just a mild spice to me. When I break out the really hot stuff, she vacates the room. My cure for the burning of hot peppers is to eat more of them.

Pepper Sprays

The irritant in the pepper sprays is oleoresin capsicum, an extract from hot peppers. This is NOT the same as pure capsaicin. I am fairly sure that pure capsaicin, at about 16 million SHU, would be deadly to humans.

The manufacturers tend to be a little misleading in their advertising about the potency of their products. Buyer beware. Looking over the advertisements I notice that one will state `17% OC’ (oleoresin capsicum) without specifying the SHU rating of the OC used. Another might say, `10% of 1.5 million SHU OC’. Another might state, `5% of 2 million SHU OC’. And so forth.

Since the specific OC used might have a fairly wide range of SHU rating (from around 430,000 to 2,000,000), and since only a percentage of the contents of the pepper spray is the active irritant, all this can cause a lot of confusion.

Approximate effective SHU ratings for various defensive pepper sprays


Defense pepper spray for dogs


Defense pepper spray for people


Defense pepper spray for bears

Under the category of defense pepper sprays for humans, many places limit by law the allowable maximum rating. With the higher end often limited for sale only to law enforcement people.

I am not sure that a higher SHU rating for use in defense against people would be truly worthwhile anyway. My personal opinion is that the allowable levels are probably strong enough, for the intended purpose. I tend to look for other features than absolute strength. Canister features such as capacity, distance the spray can be projected, and so forth. I am interested in a new product that sprays a foam mixture that will stick to the body being sprayed. Bought a canister of such a product. Now all I have to do is find a test subject. Any volunteers?

In a previous post someone asked about making his or her own pepper spray and I gave a method I have used in the past to extract oleoresin capsicum. Which does work, just ask a fellow I was sort of angry with at the time. Some OC mixed into a person’s aftershave lotion can produce a very satisfying screeching and hopping around.

I found the following instructions for making OC on the net which seemed to be good (better than mine?) and include it here.


15 Habanero peppers 1 quart 200 proof Ethanol Or as close as you can get, try Denatured alcohol from the hardware store.


In a blender, puree the Habaneros in as much Ethanol as possible. Let the mixture sit overnight at room temperature. Longer is better. Pour the resultant sludge through paper towels and place the liquid in a glass container. Begin to the liquid boil slowly using either an electric heating device (naked flames would be dangerous), or a vapor trap to remove the alcohol fumes safely. Continue until 90% of the liquid has evaporated. Remove the pot from the stove and cool. Look for a brick-red oil floating on the surface of the ethanol. If none is present, continue to boil the ethanol away periodically cooling the mixture to look for the red oil on the surface. Once the red oil appears, pour the red oil and the remaining ethanol into a long thin glass cylinder, use an eyedropper to suck off the oil and place it in a clean container. The red oil is fairly pure Capsaicin, probably 40% Capsaicin / 60% Capsaicinoids.

The writer of the above technique stopped there. But if you wish to use this as a spray, one could make about a 10% OC – 90% light mineral oil mixture. Or, you could use isopropyl alcohol.

IMHO, in normal circumstances, one would be better off just buying the commercially produced pepper sprays. More reliable quality, farther projection, safety features on the canisters, etc.

As a last note, capsaicin concentrates of various types can be found in some stores. HALT for repelling dogs, PURE CAP which is sold as a food additive/seasoning, and Squirrel Away (also has various other names) which is used to keep squirrels out of bird food in feeders. Most birds do not -taste- capsaicinoids.


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