Pepper spray

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Pepper spray
Heat Peak (SR: 500,000-1,000,000)

Pepper spray, also known as OC spray (from "oleoresin capsicum"), OC gas, and capsicum spray, is a lachrymatory agent (a chemical compound that irritates the eyes to cause tears, pain, and temporary blindness) used in policing, riot control, crowd control, and personal self-defense, including defense against dogs and bears.[1][2] Its inflammatory effects cause the eyes to close, taking away vision. This temporary blindness allows officers to more easily restrain subjects and permits people using pepper spray for self-defense an opportunity to escape. Although considered a less-than-lethal agent, it has been deadly in rare cases, and concerns have been raised about a number of deaths where being pepper sprayed may have been a contributing factor.


The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, which is a chemical derived from the fruit of plants in the Capsicum genus, including chilis. Extraction of oleoresin capsicum from peppers requires capsicum to be finely ground, from which capsaicin is then extracted using an organic solvent such as ethanol. The solvent is then evaporated, and the remaining waxlike resin is the oleoresin capsicum.

An emulsifier such as propylene glycol is used to suspend the OC in water, and pressurized to make it aerosol in pepper spray. The high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) method is used to measure the amount of capsaicin and major capsaicinoids within pepper sprays.

Determining the strength of different manufacturers of pepper sprays can be confusing and difficult. Statements a company makes about their product strength are not regulated. A method using the Capsaicin and Related Capsaicinoids (CRC) content of the product is unreliable as well, because there are 6 different types of Capsaicinoids, causing different levels of irritation (Capsaicin). Manufacturers do not state which particular type of Capsaicinoids are used. Personal pepper sprays can range from a low of 0.18% to a high of 3%. Most law enforcement pepper sprays use between 1.3% and 2%. The federal government of the United States has determined that Bear Attack Deterrent Sprays must contain at least 1.0% and not more than 2% CRC. CRC does not measure the amount of Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) within the formulation. Instead, CRC is the pain-producing component of the OC that produces the burning sensation.

The federal government of the United States makes no mention of SHU (Scoville heat units) or OC in their requirements, only CRC (only for Bear Attack Deterrent Sprays). But, there are countries (Italy, Portugal and Spain - see below, under "Legality") and a few states within the US (Michigan and Wisconsin with a 10% OC limit) that do mention OC limitations. Some manufacturers may show a very high percentage of OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) and, although OC is the active ingredient within the formulation, it does not indicate pepper spray strength. High OC percentage also indicates that a spray has more oil content; which, can possibly use lower grade pepper oils (but, more of it), or lower grade Capssaicinoids (within the Major CRC) and also has less ability to soak and penetrate skin than a formula with a less, but higher-quality, pepper oil, because oil has hydrophobic properties.

The OC percentage measures only the amount of chilli oil extract contained in the defense spray, not the strength, pungency or effectiveness of the product. Other companies may show a high SHU. The SHU is a measurement of the base resin compound and not what comes out in the aerosol. The rated irritant effect of the resin may be diluted depending on how much of it is put in the can.[citation needed]


There are several counterparts of pepper spray developed and legal to possess in some countries:

  •  United Kingdom: desmethyldihydrocapsaicin (known also as PAVA spray)
  •  Russia: Pelargonic acid morpholide (MPK)
    • Widely used as a self-defense chemical agent spray in Russia.
    • Its effectiveness compared to natural pepper spray is unclear.
  •  Brazil: PSI ("Poly Spray Imobilizante" - immobilizing poly spray in Portuguese)
    • A defensive spray that uses non-controlled chemical compounds, extracted from lemons and onions
    • Legal to possess in Brazil
  •  Brazil: ACDC ("adesivo para controle de distúrbios civis" - civilian disorder control adhesive in Portuguese)
    • A non-toxic adhesive foam compound that block the nostrils and keep the eyes closed
    • Legal to possess in Brazil
  •  PRC: Police use tear gas ejector ("警用催泪喷射器" in Chinese)
    • Could be used with multiple chemical component such as OC, CS or SN gases
    • Used by Chinese police units and security guards, however there are examples that citizens and Chengguan purchased and used such sprays illegally.


Pepper spray demonstration
US Marines training after being exposed to pepper spray.

Pepper spray is an inflammatory agent. It causes immediate closing of the eyes, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and coughing.[3] The duration of its effects depends on the strength of the spray, but the average full effect lasts around thirty to forty-five minutes, with diminished effects lasting for hours.

The Journal of Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science published a study that concluded that single exposure of the eye to OC is harmless, but repeated exposure can result in long-lasting changes in corneal sensitivity. They found no lasting decrease in visual acuity.[4]

The European Parliament Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) published in 1998 "An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control"[5] with extensive information on pepper spray and tear gas. They write:

The effects of pepper spray are far more severe, including temporary blindness which lasts from 15–30 minutes, a burning sensation of the skin which lasts from 45 to 60 minutes, upper body spasms which force a person to bend forward and uncontrollable coughing making it difficult to breathe or speak for between 3 to 15 minutes.

For those with asthma, taking other drugs, or subject to restraining techniques that restrict the breathing passages, there is a risk of death. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1995 at least 61 deaths associated with police use of pepper spray since 1990 in the USA.[6] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented 27 people in police custody who died after exposure to pepper spray in California since 1993.[7][8][9] However, the ACLU report counts any death occurring within hours of exposure to pepper spray. In all 27 cases, the coroners' report listed other factors as the primary cause of death, though in some cases the use of pepper spray may have been a contributing factor.[7]

The US Army concluded, in a 1993 Aberdeen Proving Ground study, that pepper spray could cause "[m]utagenic effects, carcinogenic effects, sensitization, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as possible human fatalities. There is a risk in using this product on a large and varied population".[10] However, the pepper spray was widely approved in the US despite the reservations of the US military scientists after it passed FBI tests in 1991. As of 1999, it was in use by more than 2,000 public safety agencies.[11]

The head of the FBI's Less-Than-Lethal Weapons Program at the time of the 1991 study, Special Agent Thomas W. W. Ward, was fired by the FBI and was sentenced to two months in prison for receiving payments from a peppergas manufacturer while conducting and authoring the FBI study that eventually approved pepper spray for FBI use.[9][12][13] Prosecutors said that from December 1989 through 1990, Ward received about $5,000 a month for a total of $57,500, from Luckey Police Products, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company that was a major producer and supplier of pepper spray. The payments were paid through a Florida company owned by Ward's wife.[14]

Pepper spray has been associated with positional asphyxiation of individuals in police custody. There is much debate over the actual "cause" of death in these cases. There have been few controlled clinical studies of the human health effects of pepper spray marketed for police use, and those studies are contradictory. Some studies have found no harmful effects beyond the effects described above.[15]

Direct close-range spray can cause more serious eye irritation by attacking the cornea with a concentrated stream of liquid (the so-called "hydraulic needle" effect). Some brands have addressed this problem by means of an elliptically cone-shaped spray pattern.

Acute response

For individuals not previously exposed to OC effects, the general feelings after being sprayed can be best likened to being "set alight." The initial reaction should the spray be directed at the face, is the completely involuntary closing of the eyes (sometimes described as leading to a disconcerting sensation of the eyelids "bubbling and boiling" as the chemical acts on the skin), an instant sensation of the restriction of the airways and the general feeling of sudden and intense, searing pain about the face, nose, and throat. Coughing almost always follows the initial spray.[citation needed]

Subsequent breaths through the nose or mouth lead to ingestion of the chemical, which feeds the feeling of choking. Police are trained to repeatedly instruct targets to "breathe normally" if they complain of difficulty, as the shock of the exposure can generate considerable panic as opposed to actual physical symptoms.[citation needed]


Capsaicin is not soluble in water, and even large volumes of water will not wash it off. In general, victims are encouraged to blink vigorously in order to encourage tears, which will help flush the irritant from the eyes.

A study of five often-recommended treatments for skin pain (Maalox, 2% lidocaine gel, baby shampoo, milk, or water) concluded that:[16]

...there was no significant difference in pain relief provided by five different treatment regimens. Time after exposure appeared to be the best predictor for decrease in pain...

To avoid rubbing the spray into the skin, thereby prolonging the burning sensation, and, in order to not spread the compound to other parts of the body, victims should try to avoid touching affected areas. There are also wipes manufactured[17] for the express purpose of serving to decontaminate someone having received a dose of pepper spray. Many ambulance services and emergency departments use baby shampoo to remove the spray and with generally good effect. Some of the OC and CS will remain in the respiratory system, but a recovery of vision and the coordination of the eyes can be expected within 7 to 15 minutes.[18]

Some "triple-action" pepper sprays also contain "tear gas" (CS gas), which can be neutralized with sodium metabisulfite (Campden tablets, used in homebrewing), though it is not water-soluble either and must be washed off using the same procedure as for pepper spray.

Pepper spray antidotes exists - Capsazepine, Ruthenium red and other TRPV1 antagonists.


Pepper spray typically comes in canisters, which are often small enough to be carried or concealed in a pocket or purse. Pepper spray can also be purchased concealed in items such as rings. There are also pepper spray projectiles available, which can be fired from a paintball gun. It has been used for years against demonstrators. Many such canisters also contain dyes, either visible or UV-reactive, to mark an attacker's skin and/or clothing to enhance identification by police.


Pepper spray is banned for use in war by Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of all riot control agents in warfare whether lethal or less-than-lethal.[19] In the US, when pepper spray is used in the workplace, OSHA requires a pepper spray "Material Safety Data Sheet" (MSDS) be available to all employees.[20]


  • Bangladesh: Forbidden for civilians, it is used only by the police.
    • Bengal Police started using pepper spray to control opposition movement.
  • China: Forbidden for civilians, it is used only by law enforcement agencies.
  • Hong Kong: Forbidden for civilians, it is legal to possess and use by only the members of Disciplined Services when on duty.
    • Such devices are classified as "arms" under the "Laws of Hong Kong". Chap 238 Firearms and Ammunition Ordinance. Without a valid licence from the Hong Kong Police Force, it is a crime to possess and can result in a fine of $100,000 and to imprisonment for 14 years.[21]
  • India: Legal[22] and does not require any licence
    • They are sold via government-approved companies after performing a background verification.[23]
  • Iran: Forbidden for civilians, it is used only by the police.[citation needed]
  • Philippines: Possession and usage for self-defense is legal, and it is freely available in stores.
  • Indonesia: It is legal, but there are restrictions on its sale and possession.
  • Mongolia: Possession and usage for self-defense are legal, and it is freely available in stores.
  • Thailand: Usage for self-defense is legal, and it is freely available in stores.
    • Possession in a public place can be punished by confiscation and a fine.
  • Taiwan: Legal for self-defense, it is available in some shops.
  • Malaysia: Use and possession of pepper spray for self-defense are legal.
  • Vietnam: It is forbidden for civilians and used only by the police.
    • It is an offence to use a pepper spray on anyone for reasons other than self-defence.
  • Saudi Arabia: Use and possession of pepper spray for self-defense are legal.
    • It is an offence to use a pepper spray on anyone for reasons other than self-defence.
  • South Korea: Pepper sprays containing OC are legal.
    • Gas-gun types need a licence to own.
    • CS is available only for police and private security firms.[citation needed]
  • Japan: There are no laws against possession or use, but using it could result in imprisonment, depending on the damage caused to the target.
  • Singapore: Travellers are prohibited from bringing pepper spray into the country, and it is illegal for the public to possess.[citation needed]
  • Israel: OC and CS spray cans may be purchased by any member of the public without restriction and carried in public.
    • In the 1980s, a firearms license was required for doing so, but these sprays have since been deregulated.


  • Austria: Pepper spray is classified as a self-defense device.
    • Pepper sprays may be owned and carried by adults without registration or permission.
    • Justified use against humans as self-defense is allowed.
    • Police also encourage vulnerable groups like pensioners and women to carry pepper spray.
  • Belgium: Pepper spray is classified as a prohibited weapon.
    • Possession is illegal for anyone other than police officers, police agents (assistant police officers),[24] security officers of public transport companies and custom officers to carry a capsicum spray. is also authorised after obtaining permission from the Minister of Internal Affairs.[25]
  • Czech Republic: Possession is legal.
    • Police also encourage vulnerable groups like pensioners and women to carry pepper spray.[26]
    • Carrying during demonstrations and into court buildings is illegal.
  • Denmark: Possession is illegal for private citizens.[27] As of 2008, police officers began to carry pepper spray as part of their standard equipment.
  • France: It is legal for anyone over the age of 18 to buy a pepper spray in an armoury or military surplus store.
    • It is classified as a Category 6 Weapon in French law and if the aerosol contains more than 100ml, it is classed as an offensive weapon; possession in a public place can be punished by confiscation and a fine.
      • However, if it contains less than 100ml, while still a Category 6 Weapon, it is not classed as a punishable offence for the purposes of the Weapons law, so if you are controlled, it will be confiscated with maybe a verbal warning given.
  • Finland: Possession of pepper spray requires a license.
    • Licenses are issued for defensive purposes and to individuals working jobs where such a device is needed such as the private security sector.[28]
      • However, the Finnish Supreme Court has recently ruled in KKO:2010:7 that owning a pepper spray is in itself not a punishable act; but, on the other hand, carrying one can be punished as a device capable of harming other people.
  • Germany: Pepper sprays labeled for the purpose of defense against animals may be owned and carried by anyone (even minors). Such sprays are not legally considered as weapons §1. Carrying it at (or on the way to and from) demonstrations may still be punished.[29]
    • Sprays that are not labelled "animal-defence spray" or do not bear the test mark of the Materialprüfungsanstalt (MPA, material testing institute) are classified as prohibited weapons.
      • Justified use against humans as self-defense is allowed.[30]
        • CS sprays bearing a test mark of the MPA may be owned and carried by anyone over the age of 14.[31]
  • Greece: Such items are Illegal. They will be confiscated and possession may result in detention and arrest.
  • Hungary: Such items are reserved for law enforcement (including civilian members of the auxiliary police).
    • Civilians may carry canisters filled with maximum 20 grams of any other lachrymatory agent.
      • However, there is no restriction for pepper gas pistol cartridges.[32]
  • Iceland: Possession of pepper spray is illegal for private citizens.
    • Police officers carry pepper spray as part of their standard equipment.
    • Members of the riot police use larger pepper-spray canisters than what is used by a normal police officer.
  • Ireland: Possession of this spray by persons other the Garda Síochána (national police) is an offence under the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act.[33]
  • Italy: Any citizen over 16 years of age without a criminal record could possess, carry and purchase any OC-based compounds and personal defence devices that respond to the following criteria:
    • Containing a payload not exceeding 20 ml., with a percentage of Oleoresin Capsicum not exceeding 10% and a maximum concentration of capsaicin and capsaicinoid substances not exceeding 2,5%;
      • Containing no flammable, corrosive, toxic or carcinogenic substances, and no other aggressive chemical compound than OC itself;
        • Being sealed when sold and featuring a safety device against accidental discharge;
          • Featuring a range not exceeding 3 metres.[34]
  • Latvia: Pepper spray is classified as a self-defense device.
    • It can be bought and carried by anyone over 16 years of age.
    • Pepper spray handguns can be bought and carried without any license by anyone over 18.
  • Malta: It is illegal for use by the general public
    • There have been cases where the police force has been provided with it.[citation needed]
  • The Netherlands: It is Illegal for civilians to own and carry pepper spray.
    • Only police officers trained in the specific use of pepper spray are allowed to carry and use it against civilians and animals.
  • Norway: It is illegal for civilians.
    • Police officers are allowed to carry pepper spray as part of their standard equipment.
  • Poland: Called precisely in Polish Penal Code "a hand-held disabling gas thrower", sprays are considered a weapon.
    • They can be carried by anyone over 18 without further registration or permission.[35]
  • Portugal: Civilians who do not have criminal records are allowed to get police permits to purchase from gun shops, carry, and use OC sprays with a maximum concentration of 5%.
    • CS is considered a weapon and is not permitted.
  • Romania: Pepper spray is banned at sportive and cultural events, public transportation and entertainment locations (according to Penal Code 2012, art 372, (1), c).
  • Russia: It is classified as a self-defense weapon and can be carried by anyone over 18.[36]
    • Usage against humans is legal.
      • OC is not the only legal agent used. CS, CR, PAM (МПК), and (rarely) CN are also legal [37] and highly popular.
  • Serbia: Pepper spray is legal under the new law as of 2016 and can be carried by anyone over the age of 16. Use against humans in self-defence is legal.[38]
  • Slovakia: It is classified as a self-defense weapon.
    • It is available to anyone over 18.
  • Switzerland: It is classified as a self-defense device (not a weapon) and can be carried by anyone after a registration as a user of such sprays.
    • Use against humans is legal.[39]
  • Spain: Approved pepper spray made with 5% CS is available to anyone older than 18 years.
    • OC pepper spray, recently adopted for some civilian use (e.g., one of 22 grams, with no registration DGSP-07-22-SDP, is approved by the Ministry of Health and Consumption).
Police, like this Swedish police officer in riot gear at a 2007 demonstration, may use pepper spray to control civilians.
  • Sweden: Pepper spray falls under firearm laws.
    • It may be carried only by police officers, prison officers, some security officers, and soldiers actively serving in the armed forces.
  • Turkey: It is illegal for civilians.
    • Police forces usually use it.
  • United Kingdom: Pepper spray is illegal[40] under Section 5(1)(b) of the Firearms Act 1968: "A person commits an offence if [...] he has in his possession [...] any weapon of whatever description designed or adapted for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other thing."

North America


Pepper spray designed to be used against people is considered a prohibited weapon in Canada. The definition under regulation states "any device designed to be used for the purpose of injuring, immobilizing or otherwise incapacitating any person by the discharge therefrom of (a) tear gas, Mace or other gas, or (b) any liquid, spray, powder or other substance that is capable of injuring, immobilizing or otherwise incapacitating any person" is a prohibited weapon.[41]

Only law enforcement officers may legally carry or possess pepper spray labeled for use on persons. Any similar canister with the labels reading "dog spray" and/or "bear spray" is regulated under the Pest Control Products Act—while legal to be carried by anyone, it is against the law if its use causes 'a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person' or harming the environment and carries a penalty up to a fine of $500,000 and jail time of maximum 3 years.[42] Carrying bear spray in public, without justification, may also lead to charges under the Criminal Code.[43]

United States

  • California: Container holding the defense spray must contain no more than 2.5 ounces (71 g) net weight of aerosol spray.[44]
  • Massachusetts: Before July 1, 2014, residents may purchase defense sprays only from licensed Firearms Dealers in that state, and must hold a valid Firearms Identification Card (FID) or License to Carry Firearms (LTC) to purchase or to possess outside of one's own private property.[45] New legislations allow residents to purchase pepper spray without a Firearms Identification Card starting July 1.[46]
  • State of Michigan: Allows "reasonable use" of spray containing not more than 10% oleoresin capsicum to protect "a person or property under circumstances that would justify the person's use of physical force".[47] It is illegal to give a "self-defense spray" to a person under 18 years of age.
  • State of New York: Can be legally possessed by any person age 18 or over
    • It must be purchased in person (i.e., cannot be purchased by mail-order or internet sale) either at a pharmacy or from a licensed firearm retailer (NY Penal Law 265.20 14 (a)), and the seller must keep a record of purchases.
      • The use of pepper spray to prevent a public official from performing his/her official duties is a class-E felony.
  • New Jersey: Non-felons over the age of 18 can possess a small amount of pepper spray, with no more than three-quarters of an ounce of chemical substance.
  • State of Washington: Persons over 18 may carry personal-protection spray devices.
    • Persons over age 14 may carry personal-protection spray devices with their legal guardian's consent.[48]
  • Wisconsin: Tear gas is not permissible.
    • By regulation, OC products with a maximum OC concentration of 10% and weight range of oleoresin of capsicum and inert ingredients of 15-60 grams are authorized. This is Lua error in Module:Convert at line 452: attempt to index field 'titles' (a nil value). spray. Further, the product cannot be camouflaged, and must have a safety feature designed to prevent accidental discharge. The units may not have an effective range of over 20 feet and must have an effective range of six feet.
      • In addition there are certain labeling and packaging requirements, it must state cannot sell to anyone under 18 and the phone number of the manufacturer has to be on the label. The units must also be sold in sealed tamper-proof packages.[49][50]

In many (but not all) other states, pepper spray can be purchased at various stores and carried legally by anyone over 18. However, other states do not have requirements about age.

South America

  • Brazil: Classified as weapon by Federal Act n° 3665/2000 (Regulation for Fiscalization of Controlled Products). Only law enforcement officers and private security agents with recognized Less Lethal Weapons training certificate can carry it.
    • A Brazilian firm named Poly Defensor developed defensive sprays that uses non-controlled chemical compounds, making them being legal for civilian use.
  • Colombia: Can be sold without any kind of restriction to anyone older than 14 years.
    • Use has not been inducted on the law enforcement officer's arsenal.


  • Northern Territory: Prescribed by regulation to be a prohibited weapon under the Weapons Control Act.[51]
    • This legislation makes it an offence for someone without permit, normally anyone who is not an officer of Police/Correctional Services/Customs/Defence, to carry a prohibited weapon.
  • Tasmania: possession of pepper spray by unauthorized persons is illegal, under an amendment of the Police Offences Act 1935, being classified as an, "Offensive weapon". Likewise, possession of knives, batons and other any other instrument that may be considered, "Offensive Weapons" if they are possessed by an individual, in a Public Place, "Without lawful excuse". This has led to confusion within the police force over what constitutes "legal excuse," self-defense as a legal excuse to carry such items varies from one officer to the next. P
    • Pepper spray is commercially available without a license. Authority to possess and use Oleo-resin Capsicum devices remains with Tasmania Police Officers (As part of general-issue operational equipment), and Tasmanian Justice Department (H.M. Prisons) Officers.
  • South Australia: in South Australia, possession of pepper spray without lawful excuse is illegal.[52]
  • Western Australia: The possession of pepper spray by individuals for self-defence subject to a "reasonable excuse" test has been legal in Western Australia following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Hall v Collins [2003] WASCA 74 (4 April 2003).[53]
  • It is illegal to possess pepper spray in the remaining states.

New Zealand

  • Classed as a restricted weapon.[54]
    • This means people would need a permit from the police to obtain or carry pepper spray.
    • Front-line police officers have routinely carried pepper spray since 1997. New Zealand Prison Service made OC spray available for use in approved situations in 2013.
    • The Scoville rating of these sprays are 500,000 (sabre MK9 HVS unit) and 2,000,000 (Sabre, cell buster fog delivery). This was as a result of excessive staff assaults and a two-year trial in ten prisons throughout the country.[55]

Notable civilian use advocates

In June 2002, West Australian resident Rob Hall was convicted for using a canister of pepper spray to break up an altercation between two guests at his home in Midland. Despite being sentenced to a good behaviour bond and granted a spent conviction order, Hall appealed to the Supreme Court, and Justice Christine Wheeler ruled in Hall's favor, thereby legalising pepper spray in the state on a case-by-case basis for those who are able to show a reasonable excuse.[53][56]

On 14 March 2012, an individual "dressed in black including a black scarf wrapped around his or her face" entered the public gallery of the New South Wales Legislative Council and launched a paper plane into the air in the form of a petition to Police Minister Mike Gallacher calling on the government to allow civilians to carry capsicum spray.[57]


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  44. California Penal Code, Section 12403.7
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  53. 53.0 53.1 Anne Calverley, 'Judge clears use of pepper spray', The West Australian, 28 March 2003, 1.
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