Everything You Need to Know About Pepper Spray

Pepper Spray is one of the most widely used and popular products used for self-defense.  In fact pepper spray is widely carried and used by both law enforcement and civilians.  Pepper is easy to use and does not require extensive training or knowledge.  This fact means that many people purchase pepper spray for self-defense and never give it much of a second thought.  In this blog, we want to provide you with some history and knowledge about pepper spray.

A Brief History of Pepper Spray

  • Early Chinese and Japanese warriors developed ways to wrap pepper and spices to be thrown at an attacker

  • First developed in early 1960’s, by inventor Alan Littman after a co-worker of his wife was mugged in Pittsburgh, PA

  • 1974 -pepper spray for law enforcement use was developed in Florida

  • 1980’s- Postal workers began to carry pepper spray to protect themselves from aggressive dogs

  • 1990- pepper spray was issued to FBI agents

  • 1991-approximately 3,000 law enforcement agencies followed the FBI and began to issue pepper spray to police officers.  The number continued to increase until pepper spray became standard issue for law enforcement.

What is Pepper Spray?

The main active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum or “OC.”  Actually, because of this fact law enforcement refers to pepper spray as “oc spray.”  Oleoresin Capsicum is mixture derived primarily from cayenne peppers.  The “OC” is then added to a water based solution and then pressurized so that it can be used as an aerosol spray.  Pepper spray or OC spray comes in a variety of sizes and different deployment types.  There are also slight variations that will affect the actual strength or heat of the pepper spray.

What Are the Effects of Pepper Spray?

The effects of pepper spray can be very painful and disorienting but usually subside after approximately 45 minutes.  The effects of pepper spray include:

  • Involuntary eye closure
  • Drying out of eyes
  • Burning sensation
  • Swelling to eyes/mouth/throat/mucus membranes
  • Excessive mucus in nose
  • Tightness in chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Disorientation

Exceptions to Pepper Spray Effects.

While the effects of pepper spray are very painful, not everybody reacts the same way.  There is a very small percentage of the population that can withstand the effects of pepper spray with very little noticeable reaction.  Also, people under the influence of certain narcotics may not react to pepper spray while under the influence.  When I was just starting out in my law enforcement career I came across an individual that showed very little reaction to being pepper sprayed.  Because I had just graduated from the police academy and recently been sprayed myself I knew all too well how painful and disorienting it was to be pepper sprayed.  When I sprayed this individual, I was in disbelief that he handled it so well.  This caused me to spray multiple times when I should have recognized that there was no effect and transitioned to something else.  Being aware that there is a small percentage of the population that can tolerate pepper spray will allow you to more quickly transition to another defensive tool if needed.

What Are the Different Types of Pepper Spray?

Pepper Spray comes in many different sizes and types.  We will discuss the main differences that can be seen between different pepper sprays and also discuss the advantages and weaknesses of these differences.

Pepper spray on jeep bumper

Pepper Spray Sizes

Pepper Sprays come in a multitude of different sizes.  Generally, there are key chain pepper sprays which are generally about .5 oz., 2 oz. pepper sprays, 9 oz. pepper sprays, and 16 oz. pepper sprays.  There are pepper sprays on the market that are different sizes than the 4 I have listed but they are close enough in size to the listed pepper sprays that their advantages and disadvantages will be the same.   Listed below are the advantages and disadvantages of each pepper spray:

0.5 oz Key Chain Pepper Spray


  • Highly concealable
  • Easy to carry in pocket/purse
  • Ability to attach to keyring so its always with you


  • Limited number of sprays (5-6 burst)
  • Limited range (6-10 ft)
  • Not ideal for multiple attackers
2 oz. Pepper Spray


  • Approximate size carried by police officers on duty belt
  • Easy to conceal in purse or carry on belt
  • Capacity for multiple sprays 
  • Effective against multiple attackers/ threats (small group)
  • Good range (10-12 ft.)


    • Not capable of spraying large number of threats/attackers
    • Range is limited compared to larger size pepper sprays
      9 oz. Pepper Spray


      • Large Capacity 
      • Good range (15-20 ft.)
      • Capable of spraying larger group of attackers/threats


        • Size makes it difficult to conceal
        • Not easily carried in purse/on person
        • Large size makes it prohibited in multiple states (check laws for your state: FAQ's)
          16 oz. pepper Spray


          • Large Capacity
          • Extended Range (up to 25 ft.)
          • Capable of incapacitating large number of threats/attackers
          • Same style used by police in riots


            • Size makes it difficult to conceal
            • Not easily carried in purse/on person
            • Large size makes it prohibited in multiple states

            spraying pepper spray towards attacker

              Pepper Spray Deployment Types

              There are multiple ways in which pepper spray can be deployed.  Generally, the deployment methods are stream, cone/fog, gel, foam.  During my law enforcement career I have used all four of these methods.  This has caused me to have my own personal preferences which I will discuss after listing the objective advantages and disadvantages of each deployment method.

              Cone/Fog Pepper Spray

              This deployment method is similar to how hair spray comes out when the canister is depressed.  It dispersed small particulates that spread out and cover a large area.


              • Covers large area
              • Not easy to block spray or avoid
              • Precise aiming not required
              • Effective against multiple attackers or crowds
              • Easily gets in lungs of attacker to affect respiration


                • Greatly affected by wind direction
                • Not ideal for confined spaces
                • Gets in ventilation if used indoors
                  Cone Fog Deployment

                  Allow me to clarify some of the bullet points for the cone/fog deployment.  Some of the listed disadvantages in certain cases can actually be advantages.  However, for most situations they are disadvantages with certain exceptions, this is why they are listed in the disadvantage category.  Let's start with the fact that it is greatly affected by wind direction.  If you were to spray an attacker and happened to spray into the wind then the attacker would get the majority of the spray.  However, there would also be a fair amount of spray that would carry back to you because of the wind direction and you would get some of the effects of the spray.  This can also be an advantage in certain situations.  For example, if you had multiple attackers or even an aggressive crowd then if you utilized the wind  to your advantage the spray will carry and effect a larger number.  In spraying with the wind the cone/fog will carry and a large number of people in the crowd will be affected by the spray.  This would be true for people that did not even get directly sprayed or had several people between them and the source of the spray.

                  Cone Fog Application Variables

                  Cone/Fog not being ideal for confined spaces can also be an advantage in certain situations.  There have been occasions when I have used this to my advantage as a police officer.  For example, if we have someone who refuses to exit a vehicle it can be dangerous for both myself and the suspect if we engage in a physical altercation and attempt to forcefully remove the person.  It is far easier to deploy pepper spray and let it fill the cabin of the vehicle.  This works even if the person is not sprayed directly.  Every time I have utilized this technique the person eventually voluntarily exits with no injuries since the effects of pepper spray are temporary.  This is just as effective at clearing out a small room or home as long as enough spray is deployed to fill the space.

                  Stream Pepper Spray


                  • Not greatly affected by wind
                  • Will not get into ventilation systems
                  • Better suited for confined spaces
                  • Good distance
                  • Ability to pinpoint spray


                    • Stream can be blocked
                    • Greater chance of missing target
                    • Not as effective on large groups as cone/fog
                      Stream Pepper Pro's and Con's

                      The advantages and disadvantages of stream deployment also need some extra context and clarification.  First, stream pepper spray will generally not get into a ventilation system as easily as cone/fog.  Since the deployment is a concentrated stream, individual pepper spray particles don’t get airborne as easily as cone/fog.  However, if the stream were sprayed near a vent or sprayed in an extremely confined space (like a car) then it could potentially get into the ventilation system although not to the extent that cone/fog would.

                      Additionally, the ability of an attacker to block the pepper spray stream can be negated by utilizing a figure 8 motion when spraying.  This will also cover a larger portion of your attacker to ensure they feel the maximum effects of the spray.

                      Gel Pepper Spray


                      • Not greatly affected by wind
                      • Will not get into ventilation systems
                      • Better suited for confined spaces


                        • Can be wiped off with clothing/hands
                        • Attacker can potentially throw get back at you

                          Foam Pepper Spray


                          • Not greatly affected by wind
                          • Will not get into ventilation systems
                          • Better suited for confined spaces


                            • Can be wiped off with clothing/hands

                            Pepper Spray Triggers

                            Many people may not consider what type of trigger a pepper spray has when purchasing pepper spray for self defense.  However, considering trigger type is an important factor to consider in your selection.  Ensuring that you can easily and quickly engage the trigger is important.  Additionally, in high stress situations people lose fine motor skills so selecting a trigger that requires gross motor skills will help ensure that you are able to deploy your pepper spray when you need it.  Lastly, you definitely don't want your pepper spray accidentally deploying (trust me I have had this happen and it's not fun).  A good safety mechanism to prevent your pepper spray from accidentally deploying. 

                            Flip Top Pepper Spray


                            • Does not require fine motor skill
                            • Good safety mechanism to prevent accidental spray
                            • Point and spray


                              • Safety cover means you must rely on tactile senses to depress the trigger when spraying

                              safety cover on pepper spray

                              Twist Top Pepper Spray


                              • Trigger is red with black background making it easy to see
                              • Fairly easy to use


                                • Twist feature requires more fine motor skills
                                • Trigger can accidentally be bumped off safety making accidental discharge more like

                                twist top on pepper spray for locking container for accidental misfire

                                  Pistol Grip Pepper Spray

                                  The pistol grip is only available on larger pepper sprays such as the 9 oz. and 16 oz. The grip extends downward and is held in the same style as a pistol.  However it is actually deployed by pushing the actuator with your thumb like the flip top.  However, there is no protective cover to flip up but instead there is a pin that must be pulled in order to allow the pepper spray to deploy.  Pulling the pin is required for the pepper spray to become operable.


                                  • Held in similar fashion to pistol (experienced shooters will be familiar)
                                  • Grip allows for good retention of the pepper spray
                                  • Very ergonomic and allows to grip and hold for extended periods


                                    • May forget or not have time to pull pin in high stress situation
                                    • May be difficult to hold and utilize in individuals with smaller hands

                                    pistol grip pepper spray container for better handling and aiming

                                      Using Pepper Spray on Aggressive Animals

                                      There are many sprays on the market that are marketed as ‘bear sprays” or sprays for aggressive wildlife.  I have found no fundamental difference between these sprays and pepper spray marketed for defense against criminals.  There are some differences but they are minimal.  Some of the differences that I have found are: bear (animal) spray does not have UV marking dye which is common in regular pepper sprays.  Bear (animal) spray is regulated by the EPA.  Pepper spray used for protection from animal attacks has a limit to how “hot” it can be made.  Regular pepper spray does not have this added EPA regulation. 

                                      How Pepper Spray Applicators effect Aggressive Animals

                                      Another difference is you will not find bear spray in the smaller size canisters.  I think the reasoning is pretty obvious.  If you need to spray a bear in self-defense you want a lot of spray and you want to be able to spray from as far away as possible.  The larger canisters provide both of these options.  Bear spray is usually found in the 16 oz. and/or 9 oz. options.  Personally, I wouldn't even consider carrying less than a 9 oz. if a bear attack was a concern.  Now if you are concerned about aggressive dogs in your neighborhood than I think the 2 oz. spray if suitable.  I have had to enter the backyard of many houses when executing a search warrant to ensure that no one ran out the back.  In doing so I have come across many aggressive dogs and used my duty carry pepper spray (2 oz.) to successfully stop them from attacking.  

                                      defending yourself from animals like dogs with pepper spray

                                      Pepper Spray Wrap Up

                                      I have tried to outline the different styles and features of most pepper sprays and even provide a little history.  I believe that if you are going to carry any items for self defense that you must be knowledgeable of how they work and how to use them.  Hopefully, this will serve to educate some people and encourage them to give some thought to different situations and the strengths of limitations of pepper spray and other self-defense tools in those situations.  As far as pepper spray is concerned, I am often asked which is the best type to carry?  My answer is it depends on the situation.  Some of the pepper sprays are designed for more narrow range of uses but if used in those select circumstances they are highly effective. 

                                      For example, I don’t carry around a 16 oz. pistol grip pepper spray because its not very practical.  However, if I had a large angry crowd surround me and wanted to disperse them without using deadly force, then 16 oz. pepper spray would be my go

                                      to choice.  I will tell you this, I carried a 2 oz. flip top pepper spray for many years while on the streets as a road patrol deputy.  I found it to be highly effective and very ubuqiutous in its ability to be deployed in a myriad of different situations.  It was small enough to easily carry on my duty belt.  It had enough distance to spray an attacker and still maintain distance.  It also had enough capacity to spray multiple attackers effectivley.  Which pepper spray is right for you will depend on you and your circumstances.  You may just find that just like with firearms the situation will dictate the best choice.  This means that to carry the “best pepper spray” you need to have pepper spray options.  Stay safe and remember your most powerful self defense weapon is your mind!!

                                      a variety of sizes and containers for all users to make it easier to protect themselves with pepper spray


                                      John Hill is a 20 year law enforcement veteran and co-owner of Shield Protection Products.  Learn more about the owner of Shield Protection Products: https://shieldprotectionproducts.com/pages/about-uss


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