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Arizona Desert-How to Remove the Spines of Desert Cacti

Updated on January 9, 2012

Living in the low-lying Arizona deserts, there is one experience you are sure to have at some point: Being pricked or stuck by some species of desert cacti. Cacti are abundant in Arizona’s deserts and many species leave stems on or grow on the ground. When you get one or a cluster stuck in your skin, the reversed barbs on the end expand, making them difficult to pull out. What can you do if a cluster of thorns finds it way under your skin? Here are some victim-tested suggestions:


-Use a pair of tweezers to work the thorn out. Don’t try to yank it straight out, use a slow, angled, or side-to-side motion as you pull. Pulling too hard may break the thorn and leave barbs under the skin.

-Use glue. Spread white paste glue over the area for smaller thorns, especially the fine spines from ‘Angel Wings’ or “Cinnamon Cacti.” Let the glue dry and then pull it off. For stronger thorns, consider super glue, but read the dangers of this first.

-A safer, and perhaps more effective option is to use tape. Scotch tape will work well for clusters of fine spines, but for larger, or more deeply embedded thorns, try packing or duct tape. Put the tape on against the direction the spines went in and pull the tape away with the grain of the skin, if possible.

-Use a waxing kit. A home hair-waxing kit is sworn to by many cactus thorn victims. As with the glue, follow directions to let the wax set before pulling it off. If possible, put wax on against the direction the barbs went in.

Potential Dangers

Cactus spines left in the skin may work themselves in deeper and cause infection. Once the visible spines are removed, use a magnifying glass to hunt for any remnants. Clean the area well with soap and water, and then use Neosporin or another triple antibiotic on the area to prevent infection.

When pain or itching persists, it is time to see the doctor, who can numb the area and pull or cut out any remaining barbs. Other dangerous signs of infection include swelling, fever, and red streaks away from the wound.


People and animals should avoid brushing up against cactus to prevent getting poked. This is often easier said than done, especially when you are out walking the dog/s or hiking and there are teddy bear cholla stems all over the ground. Still, use caution and don’t let dogs off the leash if you want to avoid an ugly incident. It is not uncommon to see dog owners trying to remove tennis ball-sized cholla stems, or several, from a dog’s snout.

Never touch a cactus paddle with an unprotected hand even if it looks smooth. Some varieties of cactus, such as Indian Fig, look as smooth as rubber. However, even though they are largely spineless, some spines can grow, and you won’t see them until you feel them.


If you have to hike on a wild or poorly maintained trail in the desert, be sure to wear tough, long pants and long-sleeved shirt. Consider carrying gloves and always wear tough-soled shoes. Many cactus thorns are capable of going straight through a rubber sole, and mesquite tree thorns from dead or fallen branches are like sharp nails.

Bring a small first aid kit with tweezers or needle nose pliers, and pack a magnifying glass or strong magnifier glasses. Be sure to have a small bottle of glue or some wax strips, as well. They could save the day if you get stuck by a cactus and do not take up much space. Have alcohol wipes and triple antibiotic in the kit for immediate wound treatment that discourages infection.

Cactus are a beautiful if sometimes irritating fact of desert life. We love their vibrant and powerful flowers, the sometimes alien shapes of their sculptural beauty. It is no fun getting stuck by one, though, so be prepared and use the tips above if you find yourself in the desert with cactus spines in your skin.


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    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      Ha! That's how we all learn I think, I'll bet you're careful now! Great hiking area out there, so many place to go off trail. Thanks for commenting cheers.

    • midnightbliss profile image

      Haydee Anderson 6 years ago from Hermosa Beach

      I could have used your advice a couple months back while hiking Granite Mountain in Prescott; wore shorts and traveled off trail. Big mistake!! Thank you.

    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      Hi there Shelly! I know what you mean, I used to work landscaping out here and cactus thorns were a fact of life. Usually I got them after the gloves were off, when I grabbed something that had brushed up against one. The tiny ones are the worst! Cheers.

    • Shelly McRae profile image

      Shelly McRae 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Good instructional advice here. I'm forever getting stuck by cacti and have used the tape trick frequently, especially when I'm in the garden department at work :0

    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      Hi Donna, lots of beautiful things to see and do here, and that's coming from a native Southern California boy :-) As far as the allergies, I don't know, a lot of people's allergies kick into high gear here. The real draw is that it's 70 degrees in January! Cheers.

      Singernurse, thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment, have a great day!

    • thesingernurse profile image

      thesingernurse 6 years ago from Rizal, Philippines

      Very useful tips and guides when you're going to such place. :)

    • DonnaCosmato profile image

      Donna Cosmato 6 years ago from USA

      Wow, good tips! I've never been to Arizona but a trip there is on my bucket list as I've heard that the dry climate is good for allergy sufferers. If/when I make it, I'll know how to protect myself. Voted up!


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