How Dangerous Are Champagne Corks, Really?
Champagne corks can quite literally take your eye out, but it doesn't happen that often.
You've probably heard the warnings every year come December 31. If your New Year's Eve plans include shaking up a bottle of champagne, popping the cork with two thumbs, and blasting the wine over a crowd of people in a vaguely pornographic spray of foam, you might want to reconsider. It could quite literally take your eye out.
"Because these corks, when they're flying out of the champagne bottle, carry so much energy they typically will cause a shockwave that can lead to a hemorrhage, disruption of tissues, a cataract, even retinal damage," said Dr. Andrew Iwach, a San Francisco ophthalmologist and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
The AAO has long advocated for more caution when opening bottles of champagne and even has a step-by-step video guide to properly opening a champagne bottle that more closely resembles an etiquette lesson than a medical PSA:But here's the rub: eye injuries from champagne corks are really rare. Iwach told me he's never actually seen such an injury in his practice and Dr. Kelly Bookman, the director of the emergency department at the University of Colorado hospital, also told me she has never seen a single case of champagne cork-related eye injury in 21 years of practice.
What little data there is on the topic shows it happens only a few times a decade. One study from 2004—look, there's not a lot of research into people taking champagnes cork to the eye—found only six people in the US who suffered severe eye injuries due to champagne corks, between 1982 and 1999. In Hungary, over roughly the same time period, 37 people reported serious, cork-caused eye injuries.
You could chalk the cork-eye-danger hype up to well-timed publicity for Big Ophthalmology to get people thinking about eye protection in general. But it's also true that when these rare injuries occur, they can be really bad. Iwach told me roughly 25 percent of the injuries that do happen result in making the victim legally blind.
And when you look at the physics involved, it's not hard to see how a rogue cork could do some damage. Your average bottle of champagne holds 6.2 bar (about 90 psi) of pressure, about three times the pressure in a car tire and enough of a punch to fire the cork 42 feet, according to the study. That's not something you want coming at your face from a few inches away.
"There's a reason the eye is protected on all sides, except where it's exposed, by a bony cage," Iwach said. "It doesn't do well when it has a projectile hit it and especially with such velocity."
Other showy methods of uncorking can be equally dangerous. Lopping off the cork (along with some of the bottle) with a knife, sword, or axe not only launches the cork but can also cause the bottle to shatter. Then there's people who open their champagne with a rifle:Okay, fine, that video is pretty cool. But even if you're willing to take the risk with your eye health, the champagne snob within you can appreciate that these flashy ways of opening a bottle come with other drawbacks: they waste bubbles, affecting the taste of the champagne, and often result in a glass or two's worth of fizz winding up on the hardwood instead of in your tummy. And if you want to get really snobby about it: it's more than a little gauche.
So how can we elevate ourselves, ditch our plebeian, bottle-popping ways, and protect ourselves from freak eyeball accidents? There's a pretty standard formula for properly opening a bottle of bubbly, which, when executed well, will protect your eyes, carpet, and dignity:
- Chill the bottle to 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm bottle builds more pressure, making the cork more likely to fire.
- Carefully remove the wire cage from the top.
- Place a towel over the top half of the bottle and tilt it (this also eases pressure).
- Grasp the cork, twist the bottle (not the cork) slowly until you feel the cork start to loosen.
- When the cork is almost free, press down on it to counteract the pressure pushing it up.
- Serve and enjoy your champagne.
Happy New Year, ya hooligans.