U.S. Marines being subject to pepper spray
Pepper spray
Heat Exceptionally hot
Scoville scale1,250,000[a] SHU

Pepper spray, oleoresin capsicum spray, OC spray, capsaicin spray, or capsicum spray is a lachrymator (tear gas) product containing the compound capsaicin as the active ingredient that irritates the eyes to cause burning and pain sensations, as well as temporary blindness. Its inflammatory effects cause the eyes to close, temporarily taking away vision. This temporary blindness allows officers to more easily restrain subjects and permits people in danger to use pepper spray in self-defense for an opportunity to escape. It also causes temporary discomfort and burning of the lungs which causes shortness of breath. Pepper spray is used as a less lethal weapon in policing, riot control, crowd control, and self-defense, including defense against dogs and bears.[5][6]

Pepper spray was engineered originally for defense against bears, mountain lions, wolves and other dangerous predators, and is often referred to colloquially as bear spray.

Kamran Loghman, the person who developed it for use in riot control, wrote the guide for police departments on how it should be used. It was successfully adapted, except for improper usages such as when police sprayed peaceful protestors at University of California, Davis in 2011. Loghman commented, "I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents", prompting court rulings completely barring its use on docile persons.[7][8][9]


The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, which is derived from the fruit of plants in the genus Capsicum, including chilis in the form of oleoresin capsicum (OC). Extraction of 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 capsaicin.[10]

An emulsifier such as propylene glycol is used to suspend OC in water, and the suspension is then pressurized to make an aerosol pepper spray. Other sprays may use an alcohol (such as isopropyl alcohol) base for a more penetrating product, but a risk of fire is present if combined with a taser.[11]

Determining the strength of pepper sprays made by different manufacturers can be confusing and difficult. Statements a company makes about their product strength are not regulated.


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 inflames the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.[15] It causes immediate closing of the eyes, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and coughing.[16] The duration of its effects depends on the strength of the spray; the average full effect lasts from 20 to 90 minutes, but eye irritation and redness can last for up to 24 hours.[17]

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.[18]

The European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) published in 1998 "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control"[19] The STOA appraisal states:

"Past experience has shown that to rely on manufacturers unsubstantiated claims about the absence of hazards is unwise. In the US, companies making crowd control weapons, (e.g. pepper-gas manufacturer Zarc International), have put their technical data in the public domain without loss of profitability."
"Research on chemical irritants should be published in open scientific journals before authorization for any usage is permitted and that the safety criteria for such chemicals should be treated as if they were drugs rather than riot control agents;"

For those taking drugs, or those subjected to restraining techniques that restrict the breathing passages, there is a risk of death. In 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported at least 61 deaths associated with police use of pepper spray since 1990 in the USA.[20] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented 27 people in police custody who died after exposure to pepper spray in California since 1993.[21][22] However, the ACLU report counts all deaths occurring within hours of exposure to pepper spray regardless of prior interaction, taser use, or if drugs are involved. In all 27 cases listed by the ACLU, the coroners' report listed other factors as the primary cause of death; in a few cases the use of pepper spray may have been a contributing factor.

The US Army performed studies in 1993 at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and a UNC study in 2000 stated that the compound in peppers, capsaicin, is mildly mutagenic, and 10% of mice exposed to it developed cancer. Where the study also found many beneficial effects of capsaicin, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released statements declaring exposure of employees to OC is an unnecessary health risk. As of 1999, it was in use by more than 2,000 public safety agencies.[23]

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 pepper-gas manufacturer while conducting and authoring the FBI study that eventually approved pepper spray for FBI use.[24][25] 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.[26]

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.

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.[27] Due to these studies and deaths, many law enforcement agencies have moved to include policies and training to prevent positional deaths.[28][29] However, there are some scientific studies that argue the positional asphyxiation claim is a myth due to pinpoint pressure on a person. The study by two universities stressed that no pressure should be applied to the neck area. They concluded that the person's own weight is not scientifically enough to stop a person's breathing with the rest of their body supported.[30]

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 involuntary closing of the eyes, 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. This is due to irritation of mucous membranes. Many people experience fear and are disoriented due to sudden restriction of vision even though it is temporary. There is associated shortness of breath, although studies performed with asthmatics have not produced any asthma attacks in those individuals, and monitoring is still needed for the individuals after exposure.[31] 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, only dilute it. 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: "...there was no significant difference in pain relief provided by five different treatment regimens. Time after exposure appeared to be the best predictor for a decrease in pain...".[32]

Many ambulance services and emergency departments carry saline to remove the spray. 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.[33]

Some "triple-action" pepper sprays also contain "tear gas" (CS gas), which can be neutralized with sodium metabisulfite (Campden tablets), though it is not for use on a person, only for area clean up.[34]


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 or similar platform. It has been used for years against demonstrators and aggressive animals like bears. There are also many types such as foam, gel, foggers, and spray.[35]


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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.[36] Depending on the location, it may be legal to use for self-defense.




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.[70]

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" 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.[71] Carrying bear spray in public, without justification, may also lead to charges under the Criminal Code.[72]

United States

It is a federal offense to carry/ship pepper spray on a commercial airliner or possess it in the secure area of an airport. State law and local ordinances regarding possession and use vary across the country. Pepper spray up to 4 Oz is permitted in checked baggage.[73]

When pepper spray is used in the workplace, OSHA requires a pepper spray Safety Data Sheet (SDS) be available to all employees.[74]

Pepper spray can be legally purchased and carried in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.[75] Some states regulate the maximum allowed strength of the pepper spray, age restriction, content and use.[76]

South America


New Zealand

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. He was sentenced to a good behavior bond and granted a spent conviction order, which he appealed to the Supreme Court. Justice Christine Wheeler ruled in his favor, thereby legalizing pepper spray in the state on a case-by-case basis for those who are able to show a reasonable excuse.[94][99]

On 14 March 2012, a person dressed entirely in black 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.[100]

See also


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