Updated: Jul 22
Pepper spray is one of the most popular non-legal self-defense tools in the U.S. and an effective way to disable attackers, but what exactly does it feel like? Keep reading to learn more about what it’s like to be sprayed by pepper spray and how to use this effective but dangerous weapon.
How Does Pepper Spray Feel?
Pepper spray is known to cause irritation, pain, redness, swelling, and itching to the eyes, skin, and mucus membranes. It may cause temporary blindness and make it difficult to open the eyes.
One recipient of pepper spray described it this way: “First, it stung, really bad. Then my eyes started to seriously tear up and my face felt like the worst sunburn I’ve ever had. My nose started to run with copious amounts of mucous falling out. I tried to reduce the effect on my eyes by keeping them shut but they didn’t want to open anyway. My breathing was labored as I tried to work through the pain. Since most pepper spray is oily, this stuff slowly dripped into my mouth and it stung and tasted horrible all at the same time.”
Fortunately, for most pepper spray recipients, the serious effects last for about 20 to 30 minutes provided you can hose off with cold water. Warning: Warm water only exacerbates the effect, and a warm shower allows the oily residue to move south and provides a whole new experience when it reaches the genitals. If sprayed while the recipient is wearing contact lenses, the spray will adhere to the contact and then leech through to the eye — a truly painful experience since the lens actually keeps the spray on the eye itself. Most spray effects dissipate within 24 hours, although a skin “glow” might last longer.
The effects of pepper spray may not be as severe for those who are heavily under the influence of drugs or accustomed to being pepper sprayed.
How badly does pepper spray hurt on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst pain imaginable? On Quora, one former OSHA employee, who had been tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and shot with a pepper ball gun in the course of his training, rated pepper spray a 10 and said it was the worst of everything he was subjected to.
But as Michael Teig, the CEO of TigerLight pepper spray points out, “The delivery method makes a huge difference. When we watch people take a hit on YouTube, especially with a stream spray, and they are standing there with their eyes closed, holding their breath, I would say that the difference in physical and psychological effect between this and being sprayed by an accelerated cone spray, like that in TigerLights, when you are not prepared and your eyes and mouth are open and you are breathing, is like the difference between being hit by your little sister and being hit by Mike Tyson, then immediately being choked out by Royce Gracie, while Mike is still hitting you!
How Hot Is Pepper Spray?
It’s not hard to see why pepper spray is so horrendously painful. After all, it’s about as close as you can get to capsaicin, the compound in peppers responsible for giving them their heat. On the Scoville heat unit scale, which measures the “heat” level of chili peppers in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), the typical brand of pepper spray can range between 2 million and 5.3 million SHU. To put that into perspective, that’s about 300 to 1000 times hotter than a jalapeño or about 10 to 30 times hotter than a habanero pepper. As a matter of fact, pepper spray is hotter than any type of pepper in the world, including the Trinidad moruga scorpion and the ghost pepper.
Is Pepper Spray Good for Self-Defense?
So with all this in mind, how effective is pepper spray for self-defense? It’s important to keep in mind that while this weapon deters, it does NOT necessarily incapacitate. All police cadets get pepper sprayed directly in the face by a law enforcement-grade product. Then they run a modified obstacle course, punch, kick, and knee various pads, and finally get decontaminated with cold water. The pepper spray deters them from other activities. Alternatively, a 12-gauge shotgun slug to the kneecap would incapacitate them. See the difference?
Hence the common advice to students concerning the use of multiple weapons: “If you only got one, you ain’t got none.” Translation: Any single weapon may not function, be dropped, or rendered ineffective to some extent. Specific to pepper spray, over time the efficacy of the spray may diminish, or the spray nozzle might clog. This is where other self defense tools such as a self-defense keychain come in.
Looking for a safe backup for pepper spray? The MUNIO Self-Defense Keychain is discreet, travel-friendly, and stylish for everyday carry — and anyone can use it easily to overwhelm an attacker.
Pepper Spray Self-Defense Tips
Finally, here are a few best practices for using pepper spray for self-defense:
Test your pepper spray OUTSIDE occasionally to make sure it works. If it really smells, it’s working up to its potential!
Know what product you bought. Some sprays come out in a single line. Others have a foam that shoots out, etc. Each has a different range, so know what that is.
Practice what to do if it doesn’t work. Just like a handgun, a can of pepper spray is a small machine. Machines are fallible.
A little preparation is a good thing. Spray a little bit into a piece of cloth and see what it smells like. If you use this stuff in the wind, it might blow back at you.
Always have another self-defense product at the ready. I recommend the MUNIO Self Defense Keychain, which is the best self-defense keychain you can get to keep yourself safe. You simply strike the assailant with MUNIO’s point like you would a kubotan, or swing your keys at them, like you would swing a monkey fist. MUNIO’S defense features are legendary among users and, as a former law enforcement officer and current martial arts instructor, I can attest to its efficacy.
Looking for more self-defense tips? Watch our free 10-video series, “Simple Self-Defense Moves Everyone Should Know.”
Are you a self-defense instructor? Empower your students with real-life self-defense techniques using MUNIO, the leading safety keychain solution. Learn more about MUNIO instructor certification.
About the Author
Dr. Art Amann is an instructor in both Karate and Kung Fu, with over forty years of experience in the martial arts. He has a doctorate in education and has spent close to 20 years as an instructor and director of the Police Academy and the Public Safety Institute at Mercyhurst University. He is also the former Erie County Prison warden and chief adult probation/parole officer with a lot of experience to share from it. He is a Certified instructor for the MUNIO Self Defense Workshops, a PA Act 120 Academic Instructor, PA Act 235 Classroom and Defensive Tactics Instructor, PA Municipal Police Defensive Tactics Instructor, NRA Basic Pistol Instructor, and Pressure Point Control Tactics Instructor.