Why does cutting onions make us cry?

Here’s a teaser from our “50 amazing facts about the human body” article in issue 27 of How It Works, on sale tomorrow!

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Why does cutting onions make us cry?

Onions make your eyes water due to their expulsion of an irritant gas once cut. This occurs as when an onion is cut with a knife, many of its internal cells are broken down, allowing enzymes to break down amino acid sulphoxides and generate sulphenic acids. These sulphenic acids are then rearranged by another enzyme and, as a direct consequence, syn-propanethial-S-oxide gas is produced, which is volatile. This volatile gas then diffuses in the air surrounding the onion, eventually reaching the eyes of the cutter, where it proceeds to activate sensory neurons and create a stinging sensation. As such, the eyes then follow protocol and generate tears from their tear glands in order to dilute and remove the irritant. Interestingly, the volatile gas generated by cutting onions can be largely mitigated by submerging the onion in water prior to or midway through cutting, with the liquid absorbing much of the irritant.

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