Pepper Spray- How to Choose it and How to Use it

by Greg Ellifritz

Many of the questions I receive from students involve the use of chemical sprays. It seems that nearly everyone carries or is contemplating the carrying of some type of Mace or chemical irritant. Accurate information about the selection and use of these chemicals exists, but it is often difficult to find truth in the sea of lies and misinformation promulgated by the chemical manufacturers. This article will provide a simple step-by-step formula for selecting, carrying, and using a chemical spray deterrent.


There are essentially three different types of chemicals that are marketed to the public for self defense purposes. They each have long chemical names, but they are abbreviated with the initials CN, CS, and OC. CN (the original formula in Mace) and CS (military tear gas) are irritants. They were developed for military use. They work by irritating the mucous membranes causing tearing, coughing, and pain. OC (pepper spray) is a hot pepper extract that is an inflammatory agent. Rather than just irritating the mucous membranes, it causes them to become inflamed. This inflammation makes it difficult to open the eyes or to breathe normally.

Of the three chemicals, OC is the most effective for self defense use. Because the irritant formulas (CS and CN) depend on the attacker's reaction to the pain they cause, sometimes they prove to be ineffective. Many attackers you may face are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs or are mentally ill. These people are likely to have a diminished pain response as compared to a "normal" human being. OC causes inflammation, which is not dependent on the body's pain response. OC also takes effect much faster than the other chemicals.

OC is classified by both its strength and its concentration. The strength (heat) of the peppers used to make OC is graded using Scoville Heat Units (SHUs). The hottest peppers cause the most dramatic effects on the people being sprayed. SHUs range in numbers from 500,000 to 5.3 million. In general you will want a rating of at least one million SHUs for optimal effects.

OC concentration is also listed on many products. The concentration of the product determines how long the effects will last, with the higher concentrations yielding effects over a longer time period. Commercial concentrations normally vary from 1% to 20%. Purchase a spray that has at least a 5% concentration. That will insure that the chemical will affect your attacker for at least 30 minutes.

Some manufacturers also label their products by "Total Capsaicinoids." That is a mathematical expression of the Scoville Heat Units multiplied by the percentage of OC in the can. The highest numbers commonly seen in this measurement are around 1.25%. A good general guideline is to make sure your spray is at least .5% total capsaicinoids if it is a pure OC product (there are some effective products available with lower concentrations, but most mix the OC with another chemical irritant or dye).

If the chemical irritant you are considering for purchase does not list either the concentration, heat rating, or total capsaicinoid concentration you should not purchase it. The product may be very good, but unless you plan on spraying yourself before carrying it, you will never be sure how effective it is. If you have any doubt about your spray's strength, spray a small amount onto a cloth and wipe it on your skin. You should feel a burning sensation within about 10 seconds. I personally recommend Fox, Aerko, Bodyguard, Sabre Red, and Counter Assault brand OC sprays. I've been exposed to each of these brands and can attest to their effectiveness.

One additional note…

Wasp and Hornet Spray is not an acceptable substitute for OC. Yes, the stream travels a long way, but most attacks don't happen from 30 feet away. A good stream formulation OC (like the Sabre Red Crossfire) will reach almost 20 feet. If you need more distance, upgrade to one of the fire extinguisher-sized cans.

We know that OC (and other agents) are reasonably effective and have relatively few long term effects. We simply don't know that about Wasp and Hornet Spray. Just because a chemical happens to be a neurotoxin to insects does not mean that it will stop a human's attack. Wasp spray might work well, but I don't know anyone who has actually tested it in combat. Don't bet your life on an internet myth.


Chemical deterrent sprays range in size from the ubiquitous 1/2 oz. Keychain units to fire extinguisher sized models designed to help police quell riots. Each size has its own unique attributes. The small keychain-type units are convenient and easy to carry. Their downside, however, is that they contain only a small quantity of chemical (usually about five seconds worth) and they only spray a distance of two to five feet. If you choose a keychain model, I would recommend that you carry one that is fully encased in plastic and has a simple-to-operate sliding safety. This type is much easier to use in a stressful situation than the traditional snap leather holster seen on so many key rings. In addition to the poorly-designed holster, older models require a difficult twisting action to disengage the safety before spraying. Both of these factors increase the amount of time it takes to bring the spray into action.

One step up in size from the keychain models is the one to two ounce spray containers. These have much more chemical (up to 30 seconds spray time) and, depending on spray type can reach out to about 15 feet. This is the size I recommend for most people. They are a little harder to carry, but can easily be concealed in a purse, pocket, or belt holster. They are the best balance between ease of carry and effectiveness. These mid-sized canisters also work well for home and vehicle defense.

Canisters larger than three ounces are generally too big for daily carry. They hold an amazing amount of chemical and shoot even farther than the mid-sized models, but are difficult to conceal. They may be better options for home defense where ease of carrying and concealment are less of a concern.

In addition to the traditional types of canisters described above, there are many specialty containers available. One can purchase chemical sprays in containers shaped like firearms, grenades, flashlights, ink pens and even lipstick cases. In general these are not recommended. I have found them to be less reliable and more difficult to get into action than regular canisters.


Unless you have performed extensive spray testing of chemical deterrents, you may not realize that there are different spray patterns available. Manufacturers generally do not label their products with a description of the spray pattern, so you will either have to call the company or test fire any unit you purchase to make sure that your spray pattern suits your needs. Although each company calls each spray patterns by a different name, there are only three real patterns that are marketed.

One pattern is the STREAM. The chemical comes out of the canister in a solid stream, similar to water being shot from a squirt gun. The stream pattern has the longest range of the three common spray patterns. It is also possible to target a single person out of a group if using this pattern. The downside for the stream, however, is the fact that the attacker does not inhale the chemical particles as easily. Without inhalation, there are limited respiratory effects from the chemical. That means that the attacker is likely to be able to fight for a longer time. Unless you anticipate longer-range attacks or live in a very windy area, stream formulations are generally not the most effective choice.

A better choice for the average person would be an AEROSOL SPRAY OR MIST pattern. This pattern exits the canister in a cloud like an aerosol hairspray or insect repellent. With finely dispersed particles in the air, the attacker is more likely to inhale some of the active ingredient. When the attacker gets the chemical in his lungs he will likely find it difficult to breathe and will experience an extreme burning sensation in his throat. He will probably begin coughing uncontrollably.

It has been my experience that the aerosol spray pattern is the most effective for general-purpose use. It does have a few disadvantages, the most important being a lack of range. These sprays will not travel as far as other spray patterns. This isn't usually a big concern, however, because interpersonal violence generally occurs at very close ranges. One other potential problem with this spray pattern is the fact that it is likely to contaminate everyone in the area including yourself and anyone coming to your assistance.

One final spray pattern to consider is FOAM. This formulation comes out in a pattern similar to shaving cream. It has the same disadvantages as the stream pattern with regards to minimal respiratory effects. It is also the slowest to take effect on the skin or in the eyes. I do not recommend this formulation unless you are extremely concerned with cross contamination. The foam pattern is the least likely to expose an innocent person. If you have asthma or some other respiratory ailment, foam might have a place in your arsenal; otherwise you are better off with a stream or aerosol pattern.


Even more important than all of the other items previously discussed is the proper use of the chemical you are carrying. The best chemical and spray pattern in the world will not help you if your attacker takes it away or even worse, uses it against you. Be able to get to your spray quickly! Too many people keep their sprays in their purse or on their key rings where they are virtually inaccessible. Try a little test right now. Grab your spray, disengage the safety if it has one, and prepare it for use. How long did it take you to perform those operations? If it took longer than two seconds, your spray is likely to be of little use to you in an actual attack.

If you are able to get to your spray in an attack situation, do not announce to the attacker that you are going to spray him. He should not know you have the spray until his eyes slam shut and he can no longer breathe. There is no legal requirement to warn a person before spraying and any warning you might give only allows your attacker the time he needs to come up with a plan to avoid your spray or take it away from you.

Use your thumb to depress the button on your canister. This will make your spraying more accurate than using your index finger. It will also give you a stronger grip on your canister to make it more difficult for your attacker to wrest it away from you. Target your attacker’s face with short bursts of spray lasting one to two seconds. Once your attacker’s face is covered, stop spraying! More spray is not more effective. In fact, more spray only washes away the active ingredients from the face, increasing the amount of time it takes for the spray to take effect.

After spraying don't stand around and admire your handiwork! Use the spray as a distraction in order to make your escape. Get away as soon as it is safe to do so.

Have a backup plan. While chemical sprays are effective most of the time, sometimes they just don't work. Sometimes they take a considerable time to put your attacker down. Be prepared for the spray to be ineffective. Consider other weapons options or be ready to fight with your hands and feet. If the spray is not working after a reasonable time period (five seconds or so) throw the can far away so that the attacker cannot gain control of it and use it against you.


Shake your canister on a monthly basis to keep the active ingredients mixed with the carrier agent. Test fire your spray every few months to make sure that the nozzle is not clogged with debris. Replace your spray by the expiration date noted on the canister. If your canister does not have and expiration date, replace it every two years. While the chemical inside will not lose potency, aerosols tend to lose pressure over time.

Chemical spray deterrents add a potent weapon to anyone's arsenal. If you follow the simple steps outlined above, you will dramatically increase your ability to utilize a chemical spray deterrent in the most effective manner possible. Good chemical spray selection, combined with viable tactics and excellent situational awareness will make you into a formidable opponent for any potential attacker.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. Greg has a master's degree in Public Policy and Management and is an instructor for both the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy and the Tactical Defense Institute.

For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.

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