Leave it to nature to provide remedies for the things that ail us. This particular one grows wild in Mexico and has become a staple here in California and throughout the southwest. Known as being some of the hottest peppers on earth, they are not for the faint of heart. Before this summer I had never considered applying that heat externally until reading an herb book about its use for arthritis pain. I have suffered from osteoarthritis in my wrist and so know that tale tell pain in the bone. My arthritis flares up in times of stress and has been under control of late (by controlling the stress) but arthritis is complicated with many causes and I do know a number of people who struggle with it daily. I read a bit more about this traditional remedy and then cooked up a salve and passed it around. I am quite pleased with the reports.
Realistically, you cannot expect a natural remedy to aid everyone, especially with a condition as complicated as arthritis. However, my father and a neighbor ended up using the salve for arthritis pain and both gave me an honest review: it really did provide relief.
Research on the capsicum in hot peppers and arthritis pain relief
There is promising research suggesting that topical use of capsicum in reducing the pain of osteoarthritis (Deal et al. 1990; Altman 1994) A 2004 study (Mason et al.) found only a small improvement in pain with a capisicum treatment but suggested it could be an option if no other remedies appear to relieve the arthritis pain. This salve is simple to make and is worth a try if you suffer from the pain of osteoarthritis. If it does not provide relief, you have lost some pepper powder and a bit of time.
The best pepper type for your salve
There are some really hot peppers out there and, for the most part, the hotter the pepper, the higher the content of capsicum. Of course, many of us are not going to run around sampling peppers to determine their heat. Based on research on capsicum in peppers, these are your best bets given what is commercially available in the United States.
- Capsicum chinese. Most notably “Umorok” stands out in one capsicum study but basically any habanero will set you on fire. (Davis et al. 2007)
- Capsicum annuum. The variety “Tepin” was the winner in another study but here too, keep out of reach of children and anything flammable because, whoa. (Seriously.) (Sanatombi and Sharma 2008.)
Personally, I would not spend a lot of time sourcing your pepper variety, certainly not at first. I would just get a really hot pepper, make the salve, and see if it provides you any relief at all. These pepper powders ought to do the trick (here).
How to use the pepper salve
Based on reading of testimonials and some actual research on this arthritis relief tool, I warned my friends and family that the same heat that can work on the pain can also set your skin on fire. Basically, I told them that they will experience some heat on their skin when they apply the salve. If it’s too much heat, I suggested that they just stop using the salve. If they can tolerate the heat, their skin would likely get used to it and the application would be tolerable in a week or so. (They could also potentially dilute the salve with another oil to dilute the heat.)
I also suggested that they apply it to their arthritic areas twice a day for a week before expecting any results. In fact, I gave them one of my usual introductions: “Arthritis is a complicated disease with a lot of different causes. This remedy has been used for centuries in traditional cultures but it may not help with yours. Give it a try and see if it works for you.”
I suggest the same to you.
Of course, I’ll add: This is salve made from really hot peppers and it could burn like crazy when you apply it. Really, keep the salve away from sensitive skin areas. Don’t even mess around with that. You’re not likely to injure yourself but you will experience a burning you will never forget.
The “don’ts” of pepper salve
In addition to the important advice above — don’t use on sensitive skin — don’t use the salve on broken skin. Really, you would only do this once anyway, but zero times is optimal.
In James Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, he also recommends not using it on toddlers and babies. Duke has a fairly conservative view of how much pepper should be in the salve, an approach I took with this recipe. There are recipes on the Internet that have quite a bit more pepper in the salve. It is difficult with these do-it-yourself projects what the actual ceiling should be. I do gravitate towards a more conservative approach.
This recipe is a snap if you’ve made a salve before. It is a salve with pepper powder. Boom. Done.
If you have not made salve, it is still simple. You melt the oil and beeswax together and add the pepper. The key to a successful salve is not to burn the oil. A double-boiler really is your key tool. A double-boiler is simply one pot nested in another with water in the bottom pot with the water level reaching at least the level of the second pot which is nested just above. The water bath in the lower pot distributes the heat more evenly into the upper pot, giving you better temperature control and reducing the chances that you will burn your oil. If you think about adding oil to a skillet and how easy the oil burns if you are not paying attention, a double boiler makes you job easier by reducing hot spots in your pot, though you should also take care not to overheat your project.
You can make-shift a double boiler if you have one pot that will nest easily in another. You can also use a bowl on the top if you happen to have a bowl that nests well in a pot. I have used double boiler “hacks” before and they definitely work, but I far prefer to use an actual doubler boiler and keep two within arms reach of my stove. They save a lot of “fuss.”
Pepper Salve Recipe
- 2 cups coconut oil (or olive oil)
- 1/4 cup beeswax
- 1 tablespoon habanero powder
Pepper Salve Steps
- Add oil and beeswax to the top pot in your double boiler. Warm over medium heat.
- As the oil and wax mixture melts, stir them to integrate them.
- Add the pepper powder. Stir.
- Optional: Strain the mixture through cheesecloth while it’s still liquid to remove the small pepper solids. (The solids will otherwise collect on the bottom of your salve which is not the end of the world.)
- While warm, pour your salve into your salve containers. Allow to cool. Use.
Take care in allowing the salve to cool and set before handling. If you move them while they are warm, the salve itself can “swish” a bit in the container. It’s not a big problem, but you will not end up with a clean-looking top. (This is probably only an issue for gifts where presentation is important.)
Store extra in the refrigerator but this salve easily lasts a month. If you are applying it twice daily you will easily use a half-pint container in that time. My dad used that quantity in about 10 days. The neighbor used it in just over two weeks.
Go forth and give it a try.
Further Capsicum Reading
Altman, R. D., Aven, A., Holmburg, C. E., Pfeifer, L. M., Sack, M., & Young, G. T. (1994, June). Capsaicin cream 0.025% as monotherapy for osteoarthritis: a double-blind study. In Seminars in arthritis and rheumatism (Vol. 23, No. 6, pp. 25-33). WB Saunders.
Cichewicz, R. H., & Thorpe, P. A. (1996). The antimicrobial properties of chile peppers (< i> Capsicum species) and their uses in Mayan medicine. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 52(2), 61-70.
Davis, C. B., Markey, C. E., Busch, M. A., & Busch, K. W. (2007). Determination of capsaicinoids in habanero peppers by chemometric analysis of UV spectral data. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 55(15), 5925-5933.
Deal, C. L., Schnitzer, T. J., Lipstein, E., Seibold, J. R., Stevens, R. M., Levy, M. D., Albert, & Renold, F. (1990). Treatment of arthritis with topical capsaicin: a double-blind trial. Clinical therapeutics, 13(3), 383-395.
Mason, L., Moore, R. A., Derry, S., Edwards, J. E., & McQuay, H. J. (2004). Systematic review of topical capsaicin for the treatment of chronic pain. Bmj, 328(7446), 991.
Sanatombi, K., & Sharma, G. J. (2008). Capsaicin content and pungency of different Capsicum spp. cultivars. Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca, 36(2), 89-90.