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by Kelli Bergthold
Cockroaches, caviar, chocolate, mud, sheets of gold leaf, beer…no, this is not an exotic menu for a wealthy, albeit twisted, cocktail party. These are just a few of the bizarre remedies women have used to achieve flawless skin. For thousands of years, we have been persuaded to slather on purees and compotes containing ingredients one might find on the table and under the sink. Now capsaicin, the compound responsible for delivering the fiery bite in our salsas and hot sauces, can be added to the list of strange-but-effective beauty remedies.
While it might come as a surprise, chile peppers are the new kids on the block when it comes to skin care. While chile peppers may burn going down, numerous studies over the past few decades have revealed the hidden healing properties of capsaicin.
What Is Capsaicin?
Capsaicin is the active heat component in fruiting plants belonging to the genus Capsicum—namely, chile peppers. The compound is one of six capsaicinoids found in the fleshy part of the chile pod, as well as in the soft pith around the seeds. The burning sensation often attributed with eating chile peppers is a result of the capsaicin compound coming into contact with the mucous membranes of the mouth—this is the same reason your eyes burn if you touch them right after handling chile pepper seeds and pods.
Large doses of capsaicin can irritate and inflame the skin, leaving your eyes running and your tongue throbbing, but small doses work in the opposite way. When small amounts of the compound come into contact with nerve endings, those nerves signal the brain to release chemicals that reduce inflammation and relieve pain. In addition, Capsaicin is a vasodilator, increasing topical blood flow, causing your skin to swell slightly. Studies have shown that a topical application of capsaicinoid compounds can alleviate pain associated with peripheral neuropathies (nerve pain outside the Central Nervous System), pain attributed to diabetes, muscle pain, joint pain, fibromyalgia, and osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis.
Capsaicin and Your Skin
What does this mean for skin care? As a natural peptide-producer and anti-inflammatory, capsaicin can help reduce the uncomfortable and visible effects of skin conditions such as acne, dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis and dandruff. Wrinkle balms and creams containing capsaicin are also hot trends in today’s anti-aging skincare market. While products that target serious pain such as arthritis tend to contain higher concentrations of the capsaicin compound, and may burn on application, topical skin-care treatments usually contain between 0.01% and 0.025% of capsaicinoids, meaning there is little to no burning sensation associated with the products.
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