Pepper spray

This article is about the chemical compound. For devices used to dispense it, see Pepper-spray projectile.
Pepper spray
Heat Peak (SR: 500,000–15,000,000)

Pepper spray (Also known as mace) is a lachrymatory agent (a chemical compound that irritates the eyes to cause tears, pain, and temporary blindness) used in policing, riot control, crowd control, against protestors,[1] and personal self-defense, including defense against dogs and bears.[2][3] Its inflammatory effects cause the eyes to close, taking away vision. This temporary blindness allows officers to more easily restrain subjects and permits people using pepper spray for self-defense an opportunity to escape. Although considered a less-than-lethal agent, it has been deadly in rare cases, and concerns have been raised about a number of deaths where being pepper sprayed may have been a contributing factor.


The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, which is a chemical derived from the fruit of plants in the Capsicum genus, including chilis. Extraction of oleoresin capsicum (OC) from peppers requires capsicum to be finely ground, from which capsaicin is then extracted using an organic solvent such as ethanol. The solvent is then evaporated, and the remaining waxlike resin is the oleoresin capsicum.

An emulsifier such as propylene glycol is used to suspend OC in water, and pressurized to make it aerosol in pepper spray. The high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) method is used to measure the amount of capsaicin and major capsaicinoids within pepper sprays.

Determining the strength of different manufacturers of pepper sprays can be confusing and difficult. Statements a company makes about their product strength are not regulated. A method using the capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC) content of the product is unreliable as well, because there are six different types of capsaicinoids, causing different levels of irritation. Manufacturers do not state which particular type of capsaicinoids are used. Personal pepper sprays can range from a low of 0.18% to a high of 3%. Most law enforcement pepper sprays use between 1.3% and 2%. The federal government of the United States has determined that bear attack deterrent sprays must contain at least 1.0% and not more than 2% CRC. CRC does not measure the amount of OC within the formulation. Instead, CRC is the pain-producing component of the OC that produces the burning sensation.

The federal government of the United States makes no mention of Scoville heat units (SHU) or OC in their requirements, only CRC (only for bear attack deterrent sprays). But, there are countries (Italy, Portugal and Spain - see below, under "Legality") and a few states within the US (Michigan and Wisconsin with a 10% OC limit) that do mention OC limitations. Some manufacturers may show a very high percentage of OC and, although OC is the active ingredient within the formulation, it does not indicate pepper spray strength. High OC percentage also indicates that a spray has more oil content; which, can possibly use lower grade pepper oils (but, more of it), or lower grade capssaicinoids (within the major CRCs) and also has less ability to soak and penetrate skin than a formula with a less, but higher-quality, pepper oil, because oil has hydrophobic properties.

The OC percentage measures only the amount of chili oil extract contained in the defense spray, not the strength, pungency or effectiveness of the product. Other companies may show a high SHU. The SHU is a measurement of the base resin compound and not what comes out in the aerosol. The rated irritant effect of the resin may be diluted depending on how much of it is put in the can.


There are several counterparts of pepper spray developed and legal to possess in some countries:


Pepper spray demonstration
US Marines training after being exposed to pepper spray.

Pepper spray is an inflammatory agent. It causes immediate closing of the eyes, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and coughing.[4] The duration of its effects depends on the strength of the spray, but the average full effect lasts around thirty to forty-five minutes, with diminished effects lasting for hours.

The Journal of Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science published a study that concluded that single exposure of the eye to OC is harmless, but repeated exposure can result in long-lasting changes in corneal sensitivity. They found no lasting decrease in visual acuity.[5]

The European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) published in 1998 "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control"[6] with extensive information on pepper spray and tear gas. They write:

The effects of pepper spray are far more severe, including temporary blindness which lasts from 15–30 minutes, a burning sensation of the skin which lasts from 45 to 60 minutes, upper body spasms which force a person to bend forward and uncontrollable coughing making it difficult to breathe or speak for between 3 and 15 minutes.

For those with asthma, taking other drugs, or subject to restraining techniques that restrict the breathing passages, there is a risk of death. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1995 at least 61 deaths associated with police use of pepper spray since 1990 in the USA.[7] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented 27 people in police custody who died after exposure to pepper spray in California since 1993.[8][9][10] However, the ACLU report counts any death occurring within hours of exposure to pepper spray. In all 27 cases, the coroners' report listed other factors as the primary cause of death, though in some cases the use of pepper spray may have been a contributing factor.[8]

The US Army concluded, in a 1993 Aberdeen Proving Ground study, that pepper spray could cause "[m]utagenic effects, carcinogenic effects, sensitization, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as possible human fatalities. There is a risk in using this product on a large and varied population".[11] However, the pepper spray was widely approved in the US despite the reservations of the US military scientists after it passed FBI tests in 1991. As of 1999, it was in use by more than 2,000 public safety agencies.[12]

The head of the FBI's Less-Than-Lethal Weapons Program at the time of the 1991 study, Special Agent Thomas W. W. Ward, was fired by the FBI and was sentenced to two months in prison for receiving payments from a peppergas manufacturer while conducting and authoring the FBI study that eventually approved pepper spray for FBI use.[10][13][14] Prosecutors said that from December 1989 through 1990, Ward received about $5,000 a month for a total of $57,500, from Luckey Police Products, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company that was a major producer and supplier of pepper spray. The payments were paid through a Florida company owned by Ward's wife.[15]

Pepper spray has been associated with positional asphyxiation of individuals in police custody. There is much debate over the actual "cause" of death in these cases. There have been few controlled clinical studies of the human health effects of pepper spray marketed for police use, and those studies are contradictory. Some studies have found no harmful effects beyond the effects described above.[16]

Direct close-range spray can cause more serious eye irritation by attacking the cornea with a concentrated stream of liquid (the so-called "hydraulic needle" effect). Some brands have addressed this problem by means of an elliptically cone-shaped spray pattern.

Acute response

For individuals not previously exposed to OC effects, the general feelings after being sprayed can be best likened to being "set alight." The initial reaction should the spray be directed at the face, is the completely involuntary closing of the eyes (sometimes described as leading to a disconcerting sensation of the eyelids "bubbling and boiling" as the chemical acts on the skin), an instant sensation of the restriction of the airways and the general feeling of sudden and intense, searing pain about the face, nose, and throat. Coughing almost always follows the initial spray.

Subsequent breaths through the nose or mouth lead to ingestion of the chemical, which feeds the feeling of choking. Police are trained to repeatedly instruct targets to "breathe normally" if they complain of difficulty, as the shock of the exposure can generate considerable panic as opposed to actual physical symptoms.


Capsaicin is not soluble in water, and even large volumes of water will not wash it off. In general, victims are encouraged to blink vigorously in order to encourage tears, which will help flush the irritant from the eyes.

A study of five often-recommended treatments for skin pain (Maalox, 2% lidocaine gel, baby shampoo, milk, or water) concluded that:[17]

...there was no significant difference in pain relief provided by five different treatment regimens. Time after exposure appeared to be the best predictor for decrease in pain...

To avoid rubbing the spray into the skin, thereby prolonging the burning sensation, and, in order to not spread the compound to other parts of the body, victims should try to avoid touching affected areas. There are also wipes manufactured[18] for the express purpose of serving to decontaminate someone having received a dose of pepper spray. Many ambulance services and emergency departments use baby shampoo to remove the spray and with generally good effect. Some of the OC and CS will remain in the respiratory system, but a recovery of vision and the coordination of the eyes can be expected within 7 to 15 minutes.[19]

Some "triple-action" pepper sprays also contain "tear gas" (CS gas), which can be neutralized with sodium metabisulfite (Campden tablets, used in homebrewing), though it is not water-soluble either and must be washed off using the same procedure as for pepper spray.

Pepper spray antidotes exists - Capsazepine, Ruthenium red and other TRPV1 antagonists.


Pepper spray typically comes in canisters, which are often small enough to be carried or concealed in a pocket or purse. Pepper spray can also be purchased concealed in items such as rings. There are also pepper spray projectiles available, which can be fired from a paintball gun. It has been used for years against demonstrators. Many such canisters also contain dyes, either visible or UV-reactive, to mark an attacker's skin and/or clothing to enhance identification by police.


Pepper spray is banned for use in war by Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of all riot control agents in warfare whether lethal or less-than-lethal.[20] In the US, when pepper spray is used in the workplace, OSHA requires a pepper spray "Material Safety Data Sheet" (MSDS) be available to all employees.[21]



Police, like this Swedish police officer in riot gear at a 2007 demonstration, may use pepper spray to control civilians.

North America


Pepper spray designed to be used against people is considered a prohibited weapon in Canada. The definition under regulation states "any device designed to be used for the purpose of injuring, immobilizing or otherwise incapacitating any person by the discharge therefrom of (a) tear gas, Mace or other gas, or (b) any liquid, spray, powder or other substance that is capable of injuring, immobilizing or otherwise incapacitating any person" is a prohibited weapon.[42]

Only law enforcement officers may legally carry or possess pepper spray labeled for use on persons. Any similar canister with the labels reading "dog spray" and/or "bear spray" is regulated under the Pest Control Products Act—while legal to be carried by anyone, it is against the law if its use causes 'a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person' or harming the environment and carries a penalty up to a fine of $500,000 and jail time of maximum 3 years.[43] Carrying bear spray in public, without justification, may also lead to charges under the Criminal Code.[44]

United States

As of 2016, pepper spray can be legally purchased and carried in some form in all 50 states. Some states have requirements about age.

South America


New Zealand

Notable civilian use advocates

In June 2002, West Australian resident Rob Hall was convicted for using a canister of pepper spray to break up an altercation between two guests at his home in Midland. Despite being sentenced to a good behaviour bond and granted a spent conviction order, Hall appealed to the Supreme Court, and Justice Christine Wheeler ruled in Hall's favor, thereby legalising pepper spray in the state on a case-by-case basis for those who are able to show a reasonable excuse.[54][58]

On 14 March 2012, an individual "dressed in black including a black scarf wrapped around his or her face" entered the public gallery of the New South Wales Legislative Council and launched a paper plane into the air in the form of a petition to Police Minister Mike Gallacher calling on the government to allow civilians to carry capsicum spray.[59]

Notable use by law enforcement


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  34. {}
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  44. Vancouver police warn of criminal charges for carrying bear spray in the city
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