How Does Pepper Spray Work? – Pepper Spray Information

What Is Pepper Spray?

Pepper spray normally comes in aerosol-type containers, some no larger than a lipstick container. Some are small enough to attach to a key chain. Most of these non-lethal sprays can be fired several times and have a range of between 8 and 20 feet, depending on model and size.

The active ingredient in pepper spray is OC or oleoresin capsicum. The OC is derived from Cayenne peppers – some of the hottest peppers in the world. OC is a reddish-orange, oily liquid, insoluble in water. The OC agent is dispersed by the aerosol in the container

One of the misconceptions about pepper sprays is, that the higher the percentage, the hotter and better it works. In most cases this is not true, most of the best, fastest incapacitating sprays in the world are from 2-10%. The lighter the fluid, the faster it penetrates the membrane.

What Does Pepper Spray Do to an Attacker?

When sprayed into someone’s eyes and face, it irritates the upper respiratory tract, skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. Coughing and choking may be experienced. It is very uncomfortable and there is pain associated with it.

The end result is temporary incapacitation, mostly due to not being able to see. Attackers are too preoccupied with the blinding and painful experience to even attempt to do anything violent to you. If properly contaminated with pepper spray, an attacker will not be able to open their eyes for between10 minutes to an hour, allowing you plenty of time to escape safely.

Body size and weight, asthma, smoking, make little or no difference to the effectiveness of the spray. There may however be a small increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and ventilation. Because OC (oleoresin capsicum – chili peppers) is an inflammatory agent and not an irritant, it is still effective on those who feel no pain such as psychotics and those under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

All OC plants, of which there are many different types contain a very powerful substance, an alkaloid called capsaicin. Humans can detect capsaicin even when diluted to one part in ten million.

If you can imagine a really bad case of facial sunburn, a burning sensation in the back of your mouth, and VERY hot and sore eyes – you will have some idea of the effects a pepper spray will have on your attacker.

Pepper spray (OC) has also proven to be the best deterrent available against attacking dogs and the control of wild animals.

Is it Legal?

Pepper spray is used by many law enforcement agencies because it is more effective than tear gas and Mace™ and because it does not cause direct permanent harm.

However, there are some areas and countries where its use by the general public is restricted. It is also a crime to carry pepper spray on a commercial aircraft. But, according to the TSA guidelines you are permitted to carry one, up to 4oz container in your checked luggage.

You should check for restrictions in your locality. Click here for Pepper Spray Laws.

How Should Pepper Spray Be Used?

If you have to use your pepper spray in self-defense, make sure that you have some distance between you and your attacker(s) if possible (you don’t want the spray to affect you). Aim the spray at the attacker’s eyes and facial region, then release a 1 to a 2-second burst of spray. After you have done this, move away, but watch the attacker(s) carefully as you do so. By watching your attacker(s) reactions, you will be able to tell if a further burst of spray is required. REMEMBER spray and move, spray and move. Once the attacker has been incapacitated seek help and call the police.

Shelf Life and Testing

Most pepper sprays have a shelf life of 3-4 years although some expire after two years. The expiration date should be marked on the canister. Any use of the spray beyond the expiration date is not advised.

Although the spray will work indefinitely, it will lose its potency over time.

Sprays should be tested by firing with half-second bursts, both after purchase and then on a regular basis of every 90 days. Testing must always be done outside with any wind blowing from behind you.

Remember that all activations will reduce the contents of the canister. You should replace smaller capacity models every 9-12 months if these testing procedures are adhered to. Always check manufacturers testing and replacement recommendations.


  • The size of the pepper spray unit generally determines its capacity.
  • Pepper sprays are not the same as mace or tear gas sprays.
  • Law-abiding citizens are realizing that they have to depend on devices like this to protect themselves and their families. There are around 40 manufacturers of this type of spray, which offer various sizes, formulations, and spray types. However, there is only one chemical composition, which should be considered for use by the general public in a self-defense situation.
  • It is estimated that at least 15,000,000 Americans now carry personal defense sprays, the majority of which are OC pepper sprays.

You should always carry a self defense product such as Mace, pepper spray, a stun gun, personal alarms or a Taser.


With almost 20 years working in Law Enforcement and service in the United States Marine Corps, I've learned a lot about self-defense and personal protection. From hand-to-hand combat to firearms and impact devices, I've trained with them all and I'd like to share my knowledge with you.

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