Pepper spray, self-defense spray, mace - there are lots of names for those canisters of spray you can carry around and use to deter an assailant. But what are the differences between sprays? Which one is best?
There's a surprising amount of detail and options in choosing the right self-defense spray and in this article our goal is to explain the differences between the common options, how to pick the best one for your needs, debunking some myths, and everything you need to know to use self-defense spray effectively.
Why Get A Self-Defense Spray?
The first, and biggest, is the barrier to entry for pepper spray is almost non-existent. You don’t need any special paperwork or licenses to own it, it’s legal in every state (although sometimes with restrictions), and pepper spray is very cheap.
Pepper Spray is also less-lethal and it works, which is the other major reason why we recommend it so often. It is incredibly effective against attackers even though it won’t cause any lasting damage. More importantly, should you lose it or get it taken away from you, it also won’t cause any lasting harm to you or anyone else.
And lastly, a small but still important benefit to carrying pepper spray is that it is lightweight and many canisters are also small, making them easy to carry around. This can also work to their detriment, but overall I consider it a benefit.
For Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana Residents: There are no restrictions on the sale, size, formula, or possession of pepper spray. We recommend individuals in other states to always check their local and state regulations before making a purchase.
How to Pick The Right Spray
To pick the right kind of pepper spray or gel, you need to consider a few things - the formula, the strength, the size, and whether you want a spray or a gel.
The formula is the most important piece of choosing the right spray. There are three types of chemicals available on the general market for self-defense: CN (Phenacyl chloride), CS (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile), and OC (oleoresin capsicum). CN and CS are irritants originally developed for military use - you may know some of the formulas that use one or both of these, such as tear gas and Mace (a specific branded formula of CN).
CN and CS work by irritating the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs causing tearing, coughing, sneezing, difficulty breathing, and burning pain. In some cases, it can even cause vomiting and disorientation. It's less common but skin exposure to these chemicals, especially in a higher concentration, can also cause chemical burns. At very close range it can also scar the cornea causing permanent eye damage. Symptoms usually appear after 20-60 seconds of exposure and usually clear up after 30 minutes to an hour.
OC (pepper spray/capsicum) causes the mucous membranes to become inflamed, not just irritated, and also causes immediate closing of the eyes, difficulty breathing, tears, runny nose, coughing, burning sensations on the skin, and upper body spasms. Symptoms are typically immediate upon exposure. The worst symptoms usually subside after 30-50 minutes, with diminished effects lasting up to several hours.
Of self-defense spray formulas, OC is the best for self-defense. CS and CN depend on the attacker’s reaction to the irritation, and the reaction can often be overcome or non-existent due to the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. OC causes inflammation so no matter what your mental or physical state is, your body will react to it. The degree depends on the person, strength of the formula, how much actually contacts them, and furthermore, if they’ve ever encountered it before or if they have trained themselves to be able to fight through it. It’s not a magic bullet but it is the best of the choices available.
Most pepper sprays only contain one of the three chemicals listed above, however there are also some that contain a blend of the different formulas.
Strength of the formula for OC spray depends on both heat/strength of the peppers used and concentration. The heat of the peppers used to make OC are graded using Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and range from 500,000 to 5.3 million. The more SHUs, the stronger the reaction the spray will cause. Ideally, look for at least 1 million SHUs.
Concentration of OC spray is listed on most products, varying from 1% to 40%. A concentration of 5% will typically affect a person for about 30 minutes, so look for sprays 5% or higher. Some companies label their sprays by “total capsaicinoids” or “true heat indicator” which is a calculation of the combined concentration and SHU. The highest numbers commonly seen by this measurement are around 2%.
If the spray you are looking at does not list the formula alongside either the concentration, the SHU, or the total capsaicinoids, don’t buy it. Ideally, you want one with the highest combination of OC percentage and SHU.
Self-defense sprays come in all sizes, from keychain rings to large spray canisters for police use. The keychain units are convenient, cheap, and easy to carry everywhere but since they are so small, they usually only contain a few seconds worth of spray and often cannot spray more than five feet.
Sprays also often come in 1-3 ounce containers which can offer much more spray time and often can cover a greater distance too (15-20 feet). They aren’t as convenient to carry around, but personally I like this size most for everyday carrying since they are a good balance of convenience and usefulness.
As mentioned, self-defense sprays do come in larger containers which are impractical for carrying around but are ideal when concealment and ease of carrying isn’t a concern, such as keeping in the home as a defense tool.
The final thing to consider in a spray is the spray pattern and whether it is a spray or a gel. Each has its own pros and cons you’ll have to weigh when choosing which one to purchase.
The stream pattern comes out in a single, solid stream, similar to a water gun. Streams have the longest range and best targeting, however require the owner to be more precise with their firing in order to ensure the attacker actually inhales the chemical. Similarly, pepper gels often come in the stream pattern and have all of the same pros and cons but with the added benefit of being a gel so the chance of blow back is significantly decreased.
Another option is the aerosol spray, fog, or mist pattern. This spray pattern creates a cloud of pepper spray into the air so the attacker is more likely to inhale the active ingredients in the spray. While this pattern is more likely to affect the target and requires less precision in firing, there is a great variability in spread so it will affect anyone who happens to be in the cloud. Additionally, being smaller particles they also linger in the air longer and so the risk of being accidentally contaminated from blow-back is higher.
The last common spray pattern we’ll look at is foam. The name is pretty descriptive, as the consistency of foam sprays are like common liquid foams you’ve probably encountered. Foams have similar advantages and disadvantages to gels and sprays with the stream pattern, are very sticky, and can cover an opponent’s face extremely well. However, they are also the slowest to take effect. I would only recommend pepper foams and gels if you are greatly concerned with contamination (which for certain health concerns, such as asthma, you would want to consider) with the added note that these types of pepper spray require a greater amount of practice.
Plan How You Will Carry It
Once you know what to look for in a self-defense spray, the next step is to plan how you will carry it. You can also get multiple canisters for different occasions - one for when you are out on a jog, hike, or bike ride, one for when you are out running errands or with friends, and so on.
Knowing what occasions you will be carrying your spray with you will help you figure out the best place to carry it on you, as well as a deployment plan if it becomes necessary to use.
Don’t keep your spray at the bottom of your purse, on a keychain (even if it is a keychain unit), or anywhere not quickly accessible! Test out the places you will carry your spray - start a timer and test how long it takes you to get your spray out, disengage the safety if it has one, then aim and prepare to spray. Were you able to do all of this in two seconds or less? If not, find another place to keep it. In an attack, every second matters and if it takes you too long to deploy or if you have to fumble to access your canister, you might as well not even have it.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Being able to use pepper spray effectively requires that you are comfortable with it, can access it quickly, and can hit your target. Thusly, you should practice with your spray every so often until it becomes as natural to you as riding a bike.
Every brand has their own operational design, so it’s important that you are familiar and comfortable with the particular one you choose to carry. Does it have a safety? How does the trigger work? Is it easy to tell by feel which direction the nozzle is facing?
An easy way to practice on your own is to have your spray on you where you would most likely keep it and set up some paper plates in your backyard or in a field at varying distances and heights (but around where an attacker’s head might be.) Then you can practice deploying and firing at the plates. Bonus points if you time it.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can also have someone spray you so you know what to expect and can prepare yourself if you ever get accidentally contaminated during an encounter.
Side note: accidentally get some pepper spray on you? There’s a 99% chance it won’t be the end of the world, but it does suck. Unfortunately, the best thing to do for treatment is to just wait and try not to touch the affected areas. If you have a respiratory condition and get contaminated by any form of self-defense spray, seek medical attention immediately.
Pepper Spray Tactics
Shut up and spray them. If you are in a sketchy situation or attacked, don’t announce your actions or that you have pepper spray on you. The less an assailant knows about you and your capabilities, the better. Don’t give them the opportunity to anticipate what you might do, don’t give them the opportunity to preempt you or stop you from defending yourself.
There is no legal requirement to announce that you are going to spray them. It’s highly unlikely that it will cause them any long-term ill effects. Spray them and run away.
Spray and run. Hanging around someone who intends you harm, even if you did get the spray into their face and they are suffering the effects of it, only increases your chance of getting hurt further. Sometimes the spray doesn’t work, sometimes it effects them for a few seconds, sometimes a whole minute. These details aren’t important to you, getting to safety is. Spray them and get out of there as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Aim for the Face. This should go without saying, but it’s still a key element to keep in mind with self-defense sprays. The spray has to get in their eyes and lungs to be effective, so you can’t just spray willy-nilly and hope for the best.
Don’t waste spray. Once the spray is in the assailant’s face continuing to use more spray is not more effective. It’s wasteful and can potentially weaken what has gotten into their face, increasing the amount of time for the chemical to take effect.
Don’t get any closer than you have to. The closer you get to the attacker, the greater the risk of having the canister taken away from you. Use it as soon as you feel it is necessary, back away and create distance if you can.
Consider backup plans. Pepper spray is effective most of the time. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it takes a while for it to affect the attacker. It’s possible that you miss them entirely. Point is, be prepared for things to go sideways and you’ll need to have a backup plan.
If you spray for five seconds and it doesn’t have any effect, throw it away as far as possible so the attacker has to chase after it if they want to take it and use it against you.
Pepper Spray Maintenance
Yep, I said pepper spray maintenance. There are a few things you need to know in order to make sure your canister will work if and when you need it:
Shake your canister monthly. This will ensure the active ingredients will stay mixed with the carrier agent.
Test fire your spray every two-to-three months. The nozzles are small but debris can still find its way in there, so make sure the nozzle is clear and can still fire as expected.
Pepper Spray Expires! Be sure to replace it by the date on the package. If there is no date on the package, replace every two years. The pepper in the spray will still be potent, but aerosols lose pressure over time. A pepper spray that can’t spray is of no use to you.
Self-defense sprays are an excellent and potent option for anyone looking for a way to protect themselves. They’re cheap, easy to carry, legal in most states, and don’t require the same amount of training a more lethal option would.
Consider your habits, pick the OC spray right for you, practice, and maintain your canisters for the best results. Combine this with good situational awareness and you’ll have the best chances of getting out of a bad situation.
Bonus: Side notes and Recommended Sprays
I’ve seen a lot of people recommend things like wasp spray and hairspray as alternatives to pepper spray. Why, when they are less easy to carry and cost the same, I just don’t know. Furthermore, there is even less of a guarantee that they will be effective. Buy what has been proven to work and don’t waste your money.
Similarly, be careful buying a canister with a novelty shape. Companies market sprays in a variety of novelty containers like lipstick, pens, flashlights, grenades, and even firearms. Carrying around pepper spray in a canister shaped like a firearm is a terrible idea on many levels, but worse still is that some of these shapes, while unique, are often less reliable and more difficult to deploy than regular canisters.
Bear Sprays actually use the same chemical as OC self-defense sprays, and it’s commonly thought are actually stronger than most OC self-defense sprays. This idea seems plausible considering that an angry bear is much larger and stronger than any human and therefore must require a stronger spray to deter, right? Thanks to this line of thinking (and few people actually bothering to check) it’s oft repeated that Bear Spray is stronger than self-defense spray.
If you can’t guess from my tone, this is false. Bear Sprays are rarely stronger than OC self-defense sprays. Of course this varies from product to product and you will have to compare packaging, but to summarize it quickly bear spray is regulated by the EPA and must conform to a set of standards (self-defense sprays aren’t heavily regulated) such as they must be 1-2% OC, in canisters of around 8 oz, be able to cover 25 feet, among a handful of other standards. Point is: it’s well regulated, a very effective deterrent for bears, but not always a better option for deterring another human.
Without further ado, here are a few sprays we like:
Sabre Red Runner Spray - Small (.75 oz) and made with an adjustable strap for easy holding the Sabre Red Runner Gel is a great option for when you are out on a jog. At 10% OC and 2 million SHU, it’s also on the higher end of the strength spectrum. They also have a UV dye in them to help identify suspects. It is a gel, so be sure to practice your targeting! These generally run $10-15 and can be purchased directly from Sabre, from Amazon.com, or you can support us and purchase from us.
Fox Labs Mean Green - The Mean Green line of Fox Labs’ comes in 15 gram to 3 oz canisters, 6% OC, and multiple stream patterns (splatter stream, stream, and cone fog). These are small but powerful sprays with a green dye in them to help identify suspects. The average price range on these is $14-30 and can be purchased via Fox Labs or Amazon.
1-3 ounce containers
Fox Labs Five Point Three - Fox Labs’ Five Point Three line comes in 1.5-3 oz canisters, all at 2% THI, and your choice of spray pattern (fog, foam, stream). They also have a flip-top to prevent accidental discharges. Additionally, these sprays contain a UV Dye to help suspect identification. Price ranges from $18-$25, and these can be purchased directly from Fox Labs, as well as on Amazon.
Fox Labs Five Point Three Tactical Unit - The big brother of the Five Point Three line, these monsters come in at 12 oz and in Fog or Stream patterns. They’re usually around $60 and can also be found on Amazon.
If you can’t tell, we really like Sabre Red and Fox Labs. They both make quality products, but they aren’t the only companies out there. There are plenty of other manufacturers of OC spray, so be sure to read reviews and check the packages when making a decision.
Not to sound too much like a sales ad, but if you are serious about buying a self-defense spray, as I noted above it’s ideal to train with it.
Don’t want to waste product and money spraying OC spray everywhere? Look for inert training units - particularly from the same company your OC spray is from, so the canister design will be as similar as possible. These are usually cheaper than their active cousins, so your wallet won’t hurt too much from it.
Do you have a brand of spray you like or a unique method of training? Feel free to share your recommendations with everyone in the comments below.