Whether you call it pepper spray, O.C. spray, mace—or even “hot sauce”—it’s pretty stout stuff.
But just what is it? How does it work? And is it entirely legal?
WHAT IS IT?
Most pepper spray or O.C. spray contains the active ingredient capsaicin, which is extracted from plants from the Capsicum family—like chilis and peppers.
After the chilis or peppers are very finely ground, the capsicum is extracted with a solvent like ethanol.
At that point, the solvent is evaporated, resulting in a waxy resin.
After an emulsifier suspends that resin in water, it’s pressurized to create an aerosol spray. That’s oleoresin capsicum, or O.C.
Originally, the spray was created to ward off bears, wolves, or other aggressive wildlife.
The content and strength of sprays from various manufacturers is not easily determined due to the large variety of peppers that the spray is created from—all with differing levels of irritation. Personal pepper sprays range from 0.18% and 3% capsaicinoids and related capsaicinoids (CRC). Most law enforcement pepper spray is between 1.3% and 2%.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Pepper spray is a lachrymatory agent. That’s the technical term for a substance causing irritation to eyes, along with burning, pain, and temporary blindness. It also irritates other mucous membranes.
The irritation is caused by the properties of those peppers—which anyone who’s accidentally touched their face after handling a pepper, or taken one of the many viral “pepper challenges” such as the “ghost pepper challenge” can attest to.
The spray inflames mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Whether a person has been voluntarily or involuntarily sprayed, they will definitely experience difficulty seeing, breathing, and will likely have some associated coughing and congestion.
The tears and mucous are the human body’s reaction to rid itself of the irritation. And, because that irritation is persistent, there’s a prolonged abundance of tears and mucous.
The effects traditionally last from 15 to 90 minutes, but some irritation and inflammation could continue for up to 24 hours.
For those wishing more detail, this article goes into more detail on the medical impact and physical effects.
And here’s a video on how law enforcement trains to function if they’re pepper sprayed in the line of duty:
First, keep in mind when reading O.C. spray labeling or product information:
CRC (capsaicin and related capsaicinoids) content does not distinguish the type or level of irritation.
Percentage of OC in a product doesn’t indicate the strength of the OC.
SHU (Scoville heat units) measure the base resin and not what comes out in aerosol. Effectiveness of the resin may be diluted depending on how much is put in the aerosol can.
And, it’s best to know exactly how to properly use pepper spray to a) effectively deter the person you’re spraying and b) avoid spraying YOURSELF.
How to hold pepper spray. Movies and TV shows frequently show people using O.C. spray like they would spray paint. Gripping it between thumb and fingers, save for the index finger which is used to work the spray button. WRONG.
Pepper spray should be gripped with all four fingers wrapped around the spray, while the spray button should is depressed by the THUMB. This provides a much more secure method of holding the spray, and protects the user from having it wrestled out of their hand to be used against them.
The range of your pepper spray will be determined by the type of spray and dispersal methods you’re using. But, a good rule of thumb is a maximum distance of 10 feet.
There are several dispersal methods available. The most common is a stream. Others include fog/mist, foam (which is somewhat like shaving cream), and gel. Each method has advantages and disadvantages. For example, a stream has a good range, and is less affected by wind, but requires good aim. Fog doesn’t require as accurate an aim, but is greatly affected by wind.
HOW LEGAL IS IT?
First of all, you can’t bring it on a commercial aircraft, or through the metal detectors at an airport. That’s a federal offense, although up to 4 ounces is allowed in checked baggage.
Pepper spray can be bought and carried in all the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. However, there are states with restrictions like these:
California. A pepper spray dispenser may not hold more than 2.5 ounces in net weight of aerosol spray. Anyone under the age of 16, convicted felons, individuals convicted of assault or misusing pepper spray, along with those convicted of certain drug offenses cannot possess pepper spray in California.
Florida. A container with over 2 ounces of pepper spray requires a permit. Under two ounces of pepper spray is considered “self-defense chemical spray” and is not considered a weapon under Florida law.
Michigan. “Reasonable use” of pepper spray solution containing 18% or less of oleoresin capsicum in order to protect “a person or property under circumstances that would justify the person’s use of physical force” is allowed. It’s against the law to distribute “self-defense spray” to anyone under 18 years of age.
New York. Restricted to no more than 0.67% capsaicin content. Can be legally possessed by any person 18 or over. Must be purchased in person at a pharmacy or from a licensed firearms dealer. Sellers must keep a record of sales. Using pepper spray to prevent a public official from their duties is a Class E felony.
Washington. Those over 18 can carry personal-protection spray devices, and those over 14 may carry with a legal guardian’s consent.
Wisconsin. O.C. products with a maximum O.C. concentration of 10% with .50 to 2.12 ounces of oleoresin capsicum are authorized. However, products cannot be camouflaged and must employ a safety feature to prevent accidental discharge. Range may not exceed 20 feet but must have an effective range of at least 6 feet. Cannot be sold to anyone under 18—and the phone number of the manufacturer must be on the label. Must be sold in tamper-proof packaging.
Make sure to check your own state laws for definitive pepper spray restrictions, if any.
Pepper spray can be a handy and effective self-defense tactic to employ. It’s usually easily acquired, easily concealed, and easily deployed. Although it can sometimes require a little time for maximum effect, it is something to consider adding to your self-protection portfolio of tactics.
And, it’s also worth remembering that Firearms Legal Protection membership covers all defensive uses of legal weapons—including pepper spray. Or, if you prefer, the hot sauce.