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Your Ultimate Guide for Pepper Spray Protection and Self-Defense

by Matt Collins

Pepper spray, tear gas, and other lachrymatory agents are some of the most commonly used nonlethal weapons in the world.

And with good reason—because they work.

Pepper spray is almost universally effective, instantly incapacitating a target on contact. It attacks the mucous membranes in your eyes and respiratory system, causing burning, itching, swelling, and tearing up in the eyes. Though the resulting pain and irritation are relatively mild, the effects of these chemicals are enough to take you out of the fight for anywhere between a few minutes and a few hours.

Pepper spray and other lachrymatory agents are most commonly used by police officers in riot control scenarios. 

These chemicals can be freely deployed for crowd control without the risk of lasting injuries or adverse health effects. 

They're also recommended for civilian defense and even used as "bear spray" for fighting off hostile wildlife.

But what if you get caught in the crossfire?

Whether you're navigating your way through civil unrest or caught in an unexpected attack, pepper spray can be a genuine threat, especially in urban situations.

So today, we're taking a deeper look into the history of pepper spray—and looking at some modern gear that can protect you from potential exposure…

Table of Contents

  • 01

    The Ultimate Non-Lethal Defense Weapon

  • 02

    Si vis pacem, para bellum

  • 03

    Using Pepper Spray for Civilian Self-Defense

  • 04

    Riot Control Survival Guide

  • 05

    A Limited Threat is Still a Threat

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions about Pepper Spray

The Ultimate Non-Lethal Defense Weapon

Ancient Chinese documents from around 200 BC describe ground-up cayenne pepper combined with other substances to create a rudimentary form of pepper spray. Even back then, people realized it was ideal for safely disorienting and incapacitating attackers.

Ancient warriors were also known to use a mixture of chili pepper and other spices for protection in battle.

But it wasn't until the 1980s that Kamran Loghman helped the FBI develop weapons-grade pepper spray that could reliably be deployed in the field. That was a significant turning point for pepper spray. Law enforcement agencies immediately recognized its potential as a less-lethal alternative to traditional methods of subduing suspects. 

Kamran Loghman, the inventor of pepper spray.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the inventor of pepper spray. (Image courtesy of Kamran Loghman)

In 1983, the FBI officially adopted pepper spray for use in controlling unruly individuals. The widespread adoption by law enforcement agencies around the world followed, cementing pepper spray's place in the arsenal of non-lethal force options.

Modern pepper spray is still the same defensive weapon as that ancient Chinese pepper powder. The powder is reduced to a highly potent, waxlike distillate called oleoresin capsicum (OC, hence the name “OC spray”). To make the OC into a spray, it's mixed with an emulsifier and suspended in water.

Liquid pepper spray works similarly to an aerosol canister, spraying a concentrated blast of ultra-fine pepper droplets in the direction of your target. This liquid blast is subject to environmental factors, though. Rain, for example, can reduce effectiveness, and a heavy wind can blow the pepper spray back in your direction. It's also not ideal for enclosed spaces.

In response to these issues, manufacturers began offering pepper gel in addition to pepper spray. These gel weapons fire a more concentrated stream, often with a slightly shorter range. A much larger quantity of the OC hits your intended target, which maximizes the resulting irritation.

When pepper spray comes into contact with the eyes, nose, and respiratory system, capsaicin activates pain receptors, leading to an immediate and intense burning sensation. This irritation causes involuntary closure of the eyes, difficulty breathing, and an overwhelming desire to escape the source of the discomfort.

When using pepper spray in self-defense, your goal is temporarily incapacitating an individual, giving yourself time to escape and law enforcement time to intervene. 

The effects are typically short-lived, lasting anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour, depending on the concentration of OC and the individual's sensitivity. 

It's important to note that pepper spray elicits a heightened physiological response. No amount of drugs, rage, or stupidity can prevent that. Even in states of extreme intoxication, a direct shot of pepper spray will still reduce an attacker to a crying mess.

That's why pepper spray and other lachrymatory agents are perfect for riot control.

Instead of using handheld pepper spray canisters, riot control officers will often fire shoulder-launched tear gas canisters at angry mobs. These larger munitions spew massive amounts of tear gas into the surrounding area—forcing anyone who isn't protected to take shelter.

Since there's virtually zero risk of lasting damage, law enforcement frequently deploys pepper spray in these situations. Some would say they use it too often.

During an infamous incident from the 2011 protests at the University of California Davis, campus police officer John Pike casually sprayed pepper spray directly into the faces of a line of seated demonstrators. Video of the incident immediately went viral, sparking significant and vocal backlash. 

A similar event occurred at the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The use of pepper spray in this context raised questions about the balance between maintaining public order and respecting the right to peaceful protest.

But despite the temporary inconvenience (and the potential violation of First Amendment rights), no one was hurt in either of these incidents. That's true of virtually all usages of pepper spray in civilian settings.

And even though it might sound counterintuitive, a weapon's ability to reliably not hurt your opponent can be a massive advantage…  

Si vis pacem, para bellum

If you've ever taken firearms training, or if you're a regular concealed carrier, then you already know how defending yourself in America can be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

There are countless stories where armed Americans have been attacked, mugged, or carjacked—only to find themselves sued for firing back in defense. 

Defensive gun use is a daily occurrence in the United States, but it still counts as the application of lethal force. So, after the fact, you need to be able to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that your own life was in danger. 

Pepper spray, on the other hand? Pepper spray is not a lethal weapon. So, there are generally fewer limitations on the situations in which you can use it to defend yourself. 

Note that laws will vary from state to state, often from municipality to municipality, so it's essential to consult your local regulations before buying any pepper spray. But in many cases, pepper spray can be a practical self-defense tool to add to your arsenal.

When allowed by law, pepper spray is often regulated by the amount of OC spray inside the container—with 2 ounces and 2.5 ounces as the limit in many states. In many states, pepper spray can also be carried without a concealed weapons permit.

Sabre Red, popular option for pepper gel.

Sabre Red is a popular choice for pepper gel. (Image courtesy of Sabre)

For the reasons mentioned above, it's best to favor pepper gels over pepper sprays if available. That’s because they're just more effective in more different scenarios. Though they don't have the same spread as an aerosol pepper spray, the benefits outweigh the downsides for self-defense.

Buying your pepper spray from established vendors and top manufacturers is also essential. As any hot sauce aficionado will tell you, peppers aren't always consistent. Sometimes, a "bad batch" can lead to less effective pepper spray. And you might not find that out until it's too late. Higher-end pepper spray manufacturers will quality-test each batch to ensure maximum effectiveness.

Another critical benefit to look for in pepper spray is ultraviolet marking dye. Though it's not something you'd initially think of, a few brands offer it. An assailant who is hit with dye-infused pepper spray will glow under a blacklight—which can make law enforcement's job much easier afterward.

You can buy some of the best pepper spray brands in the world for under $25, and they typically come with a shelf life of three to four years. (It should be marked with a manufacturing date.) 

Although more exotic forms of pepper spray are available, you should avoid things like a pepper spray keychain, pepper spray gun or "blasters." Traditional canister-style pepper spray is still the way to go. 

And there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind if you ever need to use it…

Using Pepper Spray for Civilian Self-Defense

Pepper spray can be a highly effective self-defense weapon. But it still has a few limitations.

Most civilian pepper spray canisters have a range of 18-25 feet. That's not bad, but if an assailant is charging you at full speed, they can close that distance in just a few seconds. So you'll need to be ready to act fast and defend yourself.

In other words, if your pepper spray is buried at the bottom of your purse or backpack, it won't do you any good. It needs to be readily available at a moment's notice if it will be effective. 

Though some pepper spray canisters come with a holster mounted to your belt, you could also carry it in your hand in most cases. Pepper spray can often be brandished out in the open without issue. No one, after all, notices a small pepper spray canister in your hand the way they'd notice a handgun.

If and when you're attacked, you'll want to bring the canister up and aim directly at your attacker's face. Fire in short bursts of about one second each, trying to sweep back and forth ear-to-ear across the eyes of your target. Your goal is to get as much of that OC compound onto their nose and eyes as possible.

Sabre Pepper Spray Target

Pepper spray target. (Image courtesy of Sabre Red)

If you can purchase a few extra canisters of pepper spray, it helps to train with the product before using it in a high-anxiety situation. You can print out a few handy targets and test-fire the spray in your backyard, so you'll know what to expect when the unexpected happens.

Many experts also recommend shouting alpha commands like "STOP" or "DOWN" as you fire since these commands can at least distract your target while the pepper spray does its job.

It must be stressed that you'll almost inevitably experience some blowback and exposure to the spray on your end. Whether it's physical contact with your attacker or a strong gust of wind, you will feel the effects of the spray. But you generally won't feel them as intensely as your target—and that's what matters.

Pepper spray takes effect almost instantaneously and will leave the target completely incapacitated long enough for you to make an escape or take critical action.

Of course, there's also the question of what you should do if you're ever caught in the middle of an "administrative" use of pepper spray… 

Riot Control Survival Guide

During the summer and fall of 2020, cities all across America saw widespread protests and demonstrations that, in some cases, slid into riots and civil unrest. Law enforcement often stepped up to maintain the peace, and countless urban Americans were caught in the middle.

In several cases, OC gas and similar agents were deployed to keep rowdy crowds under control. And while no one was hurt by the use of these agents, they can still be a severe nuisance whose lingering effects can last into the next day.

The obvious answer in terms of protection is a full-face gas mask that can cover the soft tissue of the eyes, mouth, and nose to prevent any exposure in the first place. A gas mask like the CM-6M is perfect here, with its wide panoramic visor, rugged butyl rubber construction, and proven, feature-packed design.

MIRA Safety CM-6M Tactical Gas Mask

Though a gas mask like the CM-6M isn't the easiest thing to incorporate into your everyday carry, it's a must for practical protection from riot control agents. You can comfortably fit a gas mask inside a normal backpack or, better still, a drop-leg gas mask pouch that can be stored in your vehicle or office.

The real challenge with pepper spray protection comes with the filter… 

Riot control agents generally come in the form of liquids, gels, or dense vapor clouds. So even though they're not lethal, they'll soak through commonly used paper filter media—rendering even a brand-new filter unusable after just a few minutes. So, a typical P3 particle filter just won't cut it.

Instead, the P-Can Police Filter is our #1 recommendation for protection from these threats.

P3 particle filter

It's a certified P3 particle filter, engineered specifically for use against riot control agents and manufactured using special hydrophobic paper that won't get wet or soak through contact with liquids. 

These filters are also ideal against other particulate threats, including common bacteria and viruses, so they're a tremendously flexible choice to add to your PPE kit.

Finally, we recommend the MIRA Safety PROFILM visor tear aways for your CM-6M gas mask. 

MIRA Safety PROFILM visor tear aways

These transparent, adhesive sheets stick directly onto your visor, and then you can peel them off without leaving any residue. Dirt bike riders use a similar product to keep their visors clear and mud-free. This is the same basic principle, except instead of dirt and mud, you might be peeling away layers of pepper gel residue or one of the milkshakes commonly thrown at police during recent protests.

A Limited Threat is Still a Threat

Pepper spray ranks pretty low on the list of CBRN threats… but it's still a threat.

While the effects of the spray itself may not be lasting, a pepper spray attack could leave you vulnerable to robbery, mugging, or even worse.

Cunning thieves have even started using pepper spray to rob retail shops—hosing down the employees with massive amounts of pepper spray before grabbing the cash and making a dash.

Christian Phillips, the alleged 'Spray and Prey' bandit.

Alleged “Spray and Prey” bandit Christian Phillips. (Image courtesy of Newsbreak)

At the same time, pepper spray is a potent tool for practical self-defense when a knife, firearm, or other weapon might not be the right choice.

In the end, modern pepper spray is simple, straightforward, and easy to use, but you still have to know how to use it if you're going to make it work. If pepper spray training classes are locally available, they might not be a bad idea.

And with the ever-present threat of rising civil unrest, it's always a good idea to keep some PPE on hand in case worse ever comes to worst. After all, you can never be too careful.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does it hurt to be pepper sprayed?
Does pepper spray expire/go bad?
What does pepper spray taste like?