Last February — fed up with the stress and meanness of law school — I started playing capoeira as a way to work out all my negative energy.
Now, seven months later, I’m hooked and am helping my group plan for our annual batizado. We’re flying in mestres and profesors from all over, hiring samba teachers, and trying to convince our friends and family to come watch the event. Everyone in my small but mighty little group is doing our part to raise money so, naturally, I decided to whip up something crafty and sell it at the event.
I’ve been wanting to play with cayenne pepper for a long time, but hadn’t gotten around to it between making wintery salves for runny noses and summery bug sprays. But now I’ve got dozens of capoeristas to appeal to and it seems like the perfect time to tackle the pain-relieving powers of cayenne.
*I write about uses for plants as a novice herbalist, not a doctor or scientist; this isn’t medical advice. If you want to use plant-based remedies, find a doctor you trust and respect who also trusts and respects you so that you can work together to make sure you’re the healthiest version of you.
So: peppers! Peppers are native to America and are all members of the family capsicum. Most peppers contain capsaicin, a chemical that creates a burning sensation in insects and mammals (to protect the plant from being eaten) but not birds (so they they can eat the plant and spread the seeds). Although most people think that the seeds are the spiciest part of the pepper, it’s actually the white flesh that holds the seeds; the seeds themselves don’t contain any capsaicin.
Your body contains proteins called TRPV1 receptors that remain inactive until they’re exposed to very high temperatures (109ºF or 43ºC ). When you touch something hot, TRPV1 sends heat and pain signals to your brain via a chemical called substance P to warn you to stay away. Capsaicin activates TRPV1 and tricks your brain into thinking that you’re experiencing heat and pain (fun fact: even if you didn’t have taste buds, you would experience the heat of chili peppers). After a prolonged exposure to capsaicin, your body becomes depleted of substance P and you can’t feel pain anymore. Ta-da! Complete local pain control.
Capsaicin is an oil soluble compound, make a salve the ideal vehicle to deliver the pain-reducing properties of cayenne. Why cayenne specifically? Cayenne falls in the sweet spot on the Scoville Scale. Pure capsaicin rates a 16 million on the Scoville Scale whereas cayenne falls between 30 and 50 thousand. Research has shown that capsaicin is safe and effective at a .075% concentration in salves. By staying away from a hotter peppers, we can be sure that we’re creating a safe salve.
The menthol crystals in this salve bring a pleasant, cooling sensation that helps distract you from heat and pain caused by your sore muscles or even from the cayenne itself. Peppermint essential oil adds a calming scent and a little menthol boost.
Name-wise, I went with Chilly Pepper because I can’t pass up a pun and because every other name I considered was just missing something: “Icy Thot,” (too risqué) “Siracha Balm,” (potentially trademarked?) and “Tapafrío” (what if people have never heard of the hot sauce?!)
Sore Muscle Salve
Rather buy than make? Head over to Etsy and pick up a container.
- Heat-safe measuring cup
- Nut milk bag or fabric scraps
- Container for storage
To make a different amount, make your own copy of the spreadsheet below (“File” > “Make a copy” > “OK”). Enter the amount of salve (in grams) you want to make in the pink box and the spreadsheet will auto-calculate ingredient amounts for you.
The second tab, “Price,” will calculate price of the final product based on the ingredient sources that I use.
- The capsaicin in cayenne pepper soothes by tricking your body into thinking it’s experiencing heat. Since the protein that senses heat is the same one that senses pain, exposing it to cayenne wears out its chemical stores and prevents you from feeling pain.
- Menthol brings you a pleasant, cooling sensation that helps distract you from the heat and pain.
- Beeswax turns herb-infused olive oil into a salve
- Peppermint essential oil has a calming scent and contains a bit of menthol, but if you don’t have any it’s fine to leave it out.
First make your cayenne-infused olive oil.
- Combine 1 heaping tablespoon of cayenne powder or dried cayenne peppers with 1/2 cup of olive oil in a heat-safe glass measuring cup.
- Fill a pot with water, put the rag in the bottom of the pot, and place the measuring cup in the water to create a double boiler.
- Bring the water to a boil on the stove and then allow the oil and cayenne it to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours to 2 weeks. I find that simmering for 2 hours and then allowing the mixture to sit on the stove until it cools to room temperature is plenty of time.
- Strain out the spent cayenne powder using a nut milk bag or fabric scraps. Dispose of the spent cayenne and store your oil in a labeled, air-tight container in a dark place.
One you have cayenne-infused oil, you’re ready to turn it into a salve.
- Measure and combine the infused oil, beeswax, and menthol in a heat safe measuring cup.
- Cook in a double boiler until the beeswax and menthol have completely melted.
- Remove from the heat, stir in the essential oil, and immediately pour the liquid into a container to cool and harden.
Rubbing this salve on achy muscles, joints, or nerves will provide instant heating and cooling relief. For some types of pain such as arthritis, it may take up to two weeks to experience pain reduction.
This salve can also help keep your feet warm, so slather some on your toes to stay warm next time you go outside this winter.
Avoid using this salve on open wounds as it will sting. After using it, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before touching your eyes, nose, mouth, or any other mucous membrane because the stinging can be intense and painful. Vinegar or oil may help remove it faster if soap and water aren’t working fast enough.