Understanding Why Onions Make You Cry: The Science Behind the Tears

Emma Wilson

Updated Sunday, June 16, 2024 at 12:56 PM CDT

Understanding Why Onions Make You Cry: The Science Behind the Tears

The Science of Onion Tears

Onions are a staple in many kitchens around the world, adding flavor and depth to countless dishes. However, anyone who has ever chopped an onion knows the familiar sting of tears that follow. This phenomenon occurs because onions release a gas as a defense mechanism when their cell walls are damaged. This gas acts as an irritant, reaching your eyes and activating tear glands.

When you slice into an onion, you break its cell walls, releasing enzymes called alliinases. These enzymes react with sulfur-containing compounds within the onion to form sulfenic acid. This acid quickly becomes aerosolized, acting as a weak organic tear gas known as lacrimators. These volatile chemicals break down rapidly, affecting the taste of fresh versus cooked garlic and onion.

How Onions Irritate Your Eyes

The irritant properties of onions are due to a specific chemical reaction. Syn-propanethial-S-oxide is produced when the enzymes in onions come into contact with air. This chemical is volatile and breaks down to produce sulfuric acid upon contact with water, such as the moisture in your eyes. The sulfuric acid formed is enough to cause a pain reaction and trigger tear production.

Tiny droplets of sulfuric acid reach your eyes, causing a stinging sensation. The water produced by your eyes to flush out the irritant converts sulfuric acid to hydrogen sulfate, which also stings. Although the amount of sulfuric acid released by onions is not dangerous, it causes enough discomfort to make you cry.

Defense Mechanisms in Plants

Interestingly, onions are not the only plants that have evolved such defense mechanisms. Peppers, for example, produce a spicy compound called capsaicin that irritates mammals but not birds. This allows birds to eat the peppers and disperse their seeds, while mammals are deterred from consuming them.

Onions belong to the allium family, which includes garlic and leeks. Allium plants release alliinases when their cell walls are damaged. These enzymes break down to create sulfenic acid, which has both a spicy flavor and irritant properties. These chemical reactions are a natural defense mechanism to deter animals from eating them.

Tips to Minimize Tears

There are several methods to reduce the eye irritation caused by cutting onions. Using a sharp knife reduces cell damage and minimizes gas release. Keeping the onion together while cutting also reduces the surface area available for gas release. Additionally, wearing goggles or using a fan can protect your eyes from the irritating gas.

Onions absorb sulfur from their environment, incorporating it into various amino acids. When you cut an onion, these sulfur-rich amino acids combine with enzymes to form sulfuric acid. This is the primary reason why cutting onions causes you to cry.

Final Thoughts on Onion Chemistry

Understanding the chemistry behind why onions make you cry can help you take steps to minimize the discomfort. While the sulfuric acid and other compounds released are not harmful, they are effective enough to trigger tears as a defense mechanism. By using a few simple techniques, you can enjoy cooking with onions without the tears.

Noticed an error or an aspect of this article that requires correction? Please provide the article link and reach out to us. We appreciate your feedback and will address the issue promptly.

Check out our latest stories