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Is Pepper Spray Hazardous And What Is It Used For?

Feb 21

Pepper spray is an aerosol spray that contains capsaicin, an inflammatory chemical. When it comes into contact with a person's eyes, it produces burning, agony, and tears.

Commercial pepper sprays are available for personal defense against assailants. Pepper spray is used by law enforcement forces in the United States for policing, crowd control, and suppressing rallies and demonstrations. The usage of pepper spray is still debatable.

This page looks at what's in pepper spray, how hazardous it is, and how to deal with pepper spray poisoning.

What is pepper spray, and how does it work?

Pepper spray is a lacrimator, which means it increases the production of tears in the eyes. It usually comes in the form of an aerosol or a spray bottle.

The oil oleoresin capsicum is the major ingredient in pepper spray. Chili peppers belong to the genus Capsicum, which produces this oil.

Capsaicin, the molecule that gives chili peppers their distinctive spiciness, is the active ingredient in pepper spray. Capsaicin levels in pepper spray are significantly higher than in chili peppers.

Bear spray, an aerosol designed to protect humans who come into contact with a bear, is made from capsicum oil.

On the Scoville heat units (SHU) scale, which evaluates the "hot" of peppers, pepper spray has an extremely high score. On the Scoville scale, it's as follows:

  • A bell pepper has no SHU
  • A jalapeo pepper has between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville heat units (SHU)
  • The amount of pepper spray used by police enforcement officials ranges from 500,000 to 2 million SHU, with some brands measuring as high as 5.3 million SHU

Most pepper spray used by law enforcement has a capsaicin content of 5–10 percent. The effects of a higher concentration persist longer.

The use of pepper spray by law enforcement officers is contentious, especially when it is used on civilian protestors.

The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the use of riot-control agents like pepper spray and tear gas in combat. Law enforcement forces, on the other hand, employ pepper spray and tear gas to disperse crowds and put down protests.

Pepper spray can be purchased over-the-counter for self-defense, while several jurisdictions in the United States limit its sale.

Physical consequences

Pepper spray produces quick eye closure, extreme eye pain, and temporary blindness when it comes into contact with a person's eyes. A bubbling or boiling sensation, as well as extreme discomfort, has been reported by some persons.

The following are some of the other consequences that pepper spray can have:

  • A dry cough or wheezing shortness of breath or inability to breathe correctly gagging a runny nose gasping for air fear an inability to talk
    consciousness loss
  • Contact with the skin causes rashes, blisters, or burns
  • In roughly 10% of cases, people report scratches to the eyeball, often known as corneal abrasions. These scrapes are only transitory and might occur when someone rubs their eyes

In most cases, the symptoms, while painful, are self-limiting. They usually resolve themselves within 30 minutes. Trusted Source and do not generally necessitate medical attention.

Coughing or shortness of breath can last for a long time, especially in patients who have lung problems. People who suffer from asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may have more severe breathing problems.

Pepper spray can induce cyanosis, a bluish staining of the skin caused by a lack of blood flow and oxygen, in rare situations.

Complications are rare, but prolonged exposure might result in more serious harm to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

If an exposed person's symptoms last longer than 45 minutes or if the person requests it, the Police Policy Studies Council recommends taking them to the hospital.

If someone shows signs of distress after being exposed to pepper spray, the organisation recommends dialing 911.

  • A temporary loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain and trouble breathing

Although death from pepper spray is uncommon, some studies have linked exposure to fatal consequences in asthmatics.


Although there is no fast cure for pepper spray exposure, people can frequently minimize the duration and severity of their symptoms by doing the following:

  • Relocating into a fresh air environment, and if possible, rinsing the affected area with a large amount of water to remove the contaminants
  • Removing clothing that may have come into contact with the spray to disinfect and prevent re-contamination avoiding using soap around the eyes as it is an irritant
  • Removing clothing that may have come into contact with the spray to decontaminate and prevent re-contamination
  • Avoid touching the affected area because it is possible to transfer the oil-based solution to other parts of the body. Blinking rapidly to assist flush out the chemical

Baby shampoo, milk, antacids, and lidocaine are all popular methods for eliminating pepper spray. A 2008 study that compared these tactics to water found no evidence that they were more successful.

According to a 2018 analysis from Trusted Source, there is no difference between baby shampoo and water alone when it comes to reducing the effects of tear gas and pepper spray.

To help ease the symptoms of pepper spray exposure, emergency responders can utilize wipes and saline treatments.

Diphoterine, a saline solution, is an effectiveTrusted Source emergency treatment for numerous chemicals in contact with the eyes or skin, yet research has shown that it does not adequately remove pepper spray.

Pepper spray symptoms usually go away in 10–30 minutesTrusted Source and don't require medical attention.


Since the early 1980s, law enforcement officers in the United States have utilized pepper spray for crowd control and policing.

When pepper spray is sprayed in the face, it causes temporary blindness as well as extreme agony and discomfort. This enables authorities to apprehend and detain suspects, disrupt protestors, and put down protests.

The use of pepper spray by cops is still debatable. Amnesty International expressed grave concerns during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests that law officers had violated protestors' human rights by using unneeded and often excessive force, including pepper spray.

These concerns revolve on the use of pepper spray, tear gas, and other methods as "a first resort approach against peaceful protestors rather than in response to any type of actual threat or violence," according to the report.

Between May and June, Amnesty International identified 21 cases of unlawful police use of pepper spray and 89 occurrences of tear gas across 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Furthermore, according to a 2016 Harvard University study, police in the United States are more likely to deploy pepper spray on Black individuals than white people. This is only one of the many major concerns concerning racial discrimination and systematic racism in law enforcement.

The relative advantages and hazards of deploying pepper spray for crowd control have been studied. In a 2017 reviewTrusted Source, 31 studies from 11 countries looked at the health implications of utilizing chemical irritants in this setting.

While pepper spray has a limited function in crowd control, the researchers determined that it had a "high potential for misuse, resulting in avoidable morbidity and mortality."

Is it possible for pepper spray to be lethal?

Pepper spray is classified as a "nonlethal weapon," meaning it is not capable of killing people. While fatalities are uncommon, reports have linked the use of pepper spray to a number of deaths.

Pepper spray was directly involved in the deaths of two persons in custody, according to a 2003 Department of Justice report on an examination into 63 fatalities of people in custody. All of the people were arrested using pepper spray by the police.

The investigation blamed the pepper spray for the fatalities, noting pre-existing asthma as a contributing factor. Other research participants died as a result of drug use, sickness, positional asphyxia, or a combination of causes.

The same report came to the following conclusion:

"Even when accompanied with positional constraint, pepper spray inhalation alone does not offer a major danger of respiratory compromise or asphyxiation."