Eye Health

Updated 07 July 2017

Why chopping onions makes you cry

An eye doctor explains how onions release a noxious gas when cut.

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Ever wonder why your eyes fill with tears when you chop an onion?

One eye doctor pinpoints the culprit.

Onions use sulphur in the soil to create amino acid sulfoxides, which are sulphur compounds that readily turn into a gas. When an onion is cut, it releases the sulfoxides and enzymes, which react and create a gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide.

Because onions grow underground, this gas helps deter critters that want to feed on them.

So why do we cry?

But the gas is also what causes your eyes to water when chopping onions, said Dr Robert Rosa Jr., an ophthalmologist at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

"It really is a complicated chemical process that creates the gas," said Rosa. "They all act as precursors that create the lachrymatory processor – or what makes you tear up."

"Your eyes have a set of nerves that detect anything that's potentially harmful to your eyes. Your eyes react to the gas that is formed, and your eyes try to flush it out with tears," Rosa explained in a school news release.

However, onions pose no serious threat to your visual health.

"Chopping onions can cause some burning and irritation and tears. Other than that, it's pretty safe on your eyes. It's a temporary sensation with no known long-term effects, nor will it worsen any other conditions, like pink eye," Rosa said.

Goggles can prevent the gas from reaching your eyes while cutting onions, but they aren't really necessary, he added.

"Some people may cut the onions in a bowl of water," Rosa said. "I'd personally recommend using eye drops, like comfort drops, to help lubricate or rinse the eyes and dilute the gas exposure to the eyes."

onions, health, facts, infographic


Read more:

Curry, onion guards against cancer

Eye doctors debunk 5 fireworks myths

Green, leafy vegetables may keep glaucoma at bay

 

Ask the Expert

Optometrist

Megan Goodman qualified as an optometrist from the University of Johannesburg. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in ocular pathology and evidence based medicine as well as contact lenses.

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