Maybe the Spice Girls reunion made your week during the Olympics, but there’s another way you can “Spice Up Your Life.” Capsaicin, an extract of peppers, is the stuff that makes your delicate parts (small cuts or your tongue, for example) feel like they’re on fire. It seems counterintuitive to put it on your skin, but it’s used as a pain reliever and being used in beauty products.
What is Capsaicin?
Capsaicin comes from red peppers, such as cayenne peppers, and is the alkaloid that gives them their spicy flavor (European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Skin Therapy Letter). It’s used primarily as analgesic, which is a pain reliever. It’s frequently used in treating shingles, rheumatoid arthritis, as well as muscle sprains and strains (Mayo Clinic). It does this by desensitizing nerves, first causing pain and then following with decreased sensitivity when used in high dosages in these creams (Functional Ingredients). A burning or tingling sensation can occur when topically applied creams (particularly arthritis creams because they have so much of it).
But there’s a downside. Capsaicin can also cause skin irritation. In fact, capsaicin is used to test for sensitive skin, so some people who use products containing it will see a negative reaction (Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology).
Capsaicin in Pain Reduction
When the body sustains an injury, the nerve terminals release something called substance P, a peptide transmitter that’s a part of pain transmission, vasodilatation, and the inflammatory process (British Journal of Pharmacology). Capsaicin depletes the sensory terminals where this comes from. It also affects the vanilloid receptors, which are responsible for pain detection and body temperature. This receptor is involved in the feeling of pain as well as the hypersensitivity to harmful stimuli after an injury (Annual Review of Neuroscience). The brain, in turn, releases neuropeptides to calm the body’s response (Functional Ingredients).
With usual neuralgia pain treatments, most patients see a 50% reduction of pain — but a higher proportion of people (about 74%) who used capsaicin-containing Qutenza saw a reduction in pain (Dermatology Times). While some studies have suggested that perhaps the dulling is caused by long-term damage to nerve endings (British Journal of Pharmacology). Other studies done on rats to determine the length of time the dulling lasts find that it’s reversible (Pain).
What does it do for the skin?
The claims about capsaicin in skincare are that it increases blood flow, which promotes healthy skin. A study on the oxidative stress and blood flow of mice treated with capsaicin showed that it could enhance blood flow by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and served as a potent antioxidant (Phytotherapy Research). Other studies have demonstrated that capsaicin increases blood flow to the skin (Pharmacology and Pharmacy). In topical application, studies suggest it’s the warming capsaicin provides that increases blood flow (Regulatory, Integrity and Comparative Physiology).
Another claim is that its super permeability helps it penetrate the skin. Capsaicin has been shown to penetrate the deeper layers of skin (International Journal of Pharmaceutics). It’s also been shown to help naproxen permeate the layers of skin, which means it can help ingredients penetrate better (International Journal of Pharmaceutics).
Capsaicin is used on the skin because it’s a pain reliever that increases blood flow and can help ingredients penetrate to lower levels of the skin. Unfortunately, some people are very sensitive to it and can have a negative reaction — after all, it is used to test for skin sensitive — so be careful when using products that contain capsaicin. The alkaloid that makes your tongue tingle can do great things for you skin, and if you’re thinking of trying it consider products like:
Super Supermodel Legs with Chili Pepper ($24.95, Amazon.com) promises runway ready legs and while you won’t transform into a Victoria’s Secret Angel with a cream, it could have positive results. The capsaicin increases blood flow, and another ingredient, DMAE, has been shown to increase facial firmness and has been hypothesized to improve muscle tone.
[Read More: Spotlight On: DMAE]
Editor and Contributing Writer Natalie K. Bell spent years mining the depths of the Internet, asking doctors absurd questions, and experiencing the unfortunate trial-and-error of adolescence to accumulate beauty and make-up knowledge. Natalie holds a degree in English Writing and Cultural Anthropology. She enjoys cooking and eating exotic food, spoon collecting, both high-brow and trashy literature, unrealistic romantic comedies, bad horror movies, and vintage jewelry.View all Natalie Bell posts.
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