The Science Scoop

By Will Owen /// Staff Writer

Why doesn’t drinking water alleviate the burning sensation of chili peppers?

The answer lies in the chemistry of spiciness. When you eat something spicy, the painful (or pleasurable) feeling in your mouth is caused by your mouth’s reaction to a molecule called capsaicin.

Capsaicin has a long hydrocarbon tail, resembling those of oil molecules, which makes it insoluble in water due to the forces of attraction between molecules. Water and capsaicin don’t mix in the same way that oil and water make separate layers when you add them together. Just like how water alone doesn’t wash grease (another oil) off your hands, it can’t wash the capsaicin out of your mouth.

So, what’s the deal with milk?

Milk has a lot of fat as well as casein, both of which are happy to mingle with the molecules of capsaicin. This friendly interaction is what washes the capsaicin down your throat and out of your mouth, removing the source of the spiciness.

So… is milk the only thing you can drink to put out that fire in your mouth?

Well, as it turns out, capsaicin is very soluble in ethanol, which is the type of alcohol that we drink. So, if you’re not going to be driving any time soon, you could always down a couple shots of vodka. You’ll feel that pain go away in more ways than one!

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Illustration by Will Owen

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