How to use pepper spray

Despite being somewhat ineffective, pepper spray is one of the most popular less-than-lethal safety tools out there. While it won’t save your life, it can create an opportunity to escape or even to prepare a stronger defense. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to use it properly, and not understanding the correct way to use something is almost as bad as not having it in the first place. Just like with a firearm, knife, or other self-defense tool, you need to know how to use pepper spray the right way if you want any chance to escape from an attacker.

What Is Pepper Spray?

When people talk about pepper spray, what they’re actually referring to is oleoresin capsicum spray, or OC spray. OC is the component in certain peppers that makes them hot or spicy, and it’s this active ingredient that gives pepper spray its trademark burning effect. But not all pepper sprays are the same, and there’s more behind their intensity than simply the amount of oleoresin capsicum found in them. There are different kinds of pepper spray (pepper foam, gel, spray, and stream), although none are really recommended as lifesaving defense weapons. If you do decide to carry some form of pepper spray, you’ll need to research the brand and specific spray you’re considering for the best understanding of its strength.

Pepper Gel Spray

A newer tool on the self-defense market is pepper gel spray. Pepper gel uses the same ingredients as normal pepper sprays, but in a sticky gel formula instead of a liquid stream or spray (imagine if syrup were in a spray can). Pepper gel has a few benefits over a spray—it sticks better to your target and is less likely to be affected by wind—but ultimately requires an even closer range than pepper spray. Pepper gel spray and standard pepper spray have similar canisters, so they’re used in almost the same way.

Smart Pepper Spray

A recent innovation in the OC spray world is the smart pepper spray. This is just regular pepper spray in a Bluetooth® canister that can connect to your smartphone with an app. Specific features depend on the brand, but most allow for location sharing and notifications to emergency contacts when you’ve used the spray. Some even have the capability to initiate emergency phone calls.

How To Use Pepper Spray In 5 Steps

Step 1: GripPSimage2 2

Unfortunately, many people hold their pepper spray the wrong way. You should NOT hold it like you would a can of spray paint or hairspray, with your pointer finger on the actuator (spray button or trigger). The correctway to hold pepper spray is to hold it upright in the palm of your dominant hand and form a firm fist around it, with your thumb pressing the actuator when using the spray. Having a strong grip like this makes it harder for an attacker to grab or knock the spray canister out of your hand. It also helps you maintain accuracy while spraying during high-stress situations like self-defense.

Depending on your exact pepper spray canister, you may have to “unlock” the actuator before you can spray. Many popular pepper sprays from brands like SABRE® and DPS use “twist tops,” which require you to turn the actuator before being able to press it down and spray. Brands like MACE® and Fox Labs almost exclusively use “flip tops” on their pepper spray products, which require you to lift a cap to access the actuator before pressing it down to spray. If you grip your pepper spray correctly, both models should be relatively easy to make ready for self-defense. However, flip-top canisters are better if you carry pepper spray in your bag or pocket, as it’s harder for accidental discharges to occur.

Step 2: Aim

Obviously, you want to position the canister so that you spray your attacker and not yourself. But you’d be surprised how often people accidentally spray themselves! Make sure you’re aware of where the nozzle is on your pepper spray so you can always aim it in the right direction.

Secondly, you want to aim for your attacker’s face, if possible. Coming in any sort of contact with pepper spray will still leave them with a burning irritation, but if you want to delay their attack and create an opportunity to escape or ready a real defense, you should aim for the face. Otherwise, all you’ve done is make them angry.

Step 3: Warn

One of the most important elements of a lawful self-defense is a verbal warning, IF SAFELY POSSIBLE. Telling an attacker that you will use pepper spray to defend yourself if they continue has a few benefits; it:

  • lets the attacker know you’re not that easy of a target;
  • alerts anyone nearby of the situation (potentially getting their help); and
  • shows authorities you tried to avoid an altercation, but the attacker didn’t care.

Of course, every self-defense situation is unique. So, you should give a warning only if you can do so safely, and only after you’ve prepared to defend yourself. You should also note, warning an attacker that you’ll use pepper spray on them is not likely to stop them the same way warning them about using a firearm would.

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Step 4: Spray

If you’re familiar with your specific pepper spray, the previous three steps should be instinct and take just a few quick seconds—and now you’re ready to spray. As mentioned earlier, a proper grip means your thumb should be on the (unlocked) actuator, ready to spray as soon as necessary. You want to press down firmly and hold long enough for a full spray (at least 1-2 seconds). Every brand and canister sprays differently, so you should be aware of how your specific pepper spray disperses and act accordingly. Sometimes the sprayis more of a stream, and other times it can be a true mist-type spray. Either way, make sure you’re familiar with the pepper spray you carry.

Step 5: EscapePSimage1 2

The final step when using pepper spray is escaping. Pepper spray is not a safety tool that can fully stop a threat to your life. But it can delay a threat and allow you to escape or prepare a more effective defense. Once you’ve used pepper spray against your attacker, you’ll have a few brief moments when they’ll react to its painful sting; this is your chance to escape. Remember: always move sideways. The most pepper spray can do is temporarily blind someone. Yet, even blinded, an attacker can still lunge forward to the last place they saw you. Escaping backward keeps you in a range where they can possibly still reach you. Moving sideways gives you a much better chance at a successful escape.

If You Spray Yourself…

If the wind blows the spray back at you, or you somehow spray yourself, it will sting. But it’s crucial you follow these steps to minimize the pain:

  1. DO NOT RUB YOUR EYES! It will make things so much worse.
  2. Wash your hands with soap as soon as safely possible.
  3. Wash the clothes you’re wearing as soon as possible. (Be careful not to get spray on your body or other clothing.)
  4. Check your pepper spray—some brands will list specific instructions if you spray
  5. Be careful when you shower…the spray will run with the water, and it will

Tips On Using Pepper Spray

Pepper or OC spray can only do so much for your self-defense, and knowing the correct way to use it is only the beginning. To get the most out of pepper spray, there are some tips you should follow:

  • Always carry it on you (when possible). Pepper spray can’t do anything for you at all if you don’t even have it.
  • Always put pepper spray somewhere easily accessible. (Hint: If you have to dig for it, it’s not accessible!)
  • Practice, practice, practice! Not all pepper sprays are the same. Some brands have practice canistersyou can purchase to train with. The moment you need pepper spray is not the time to learn how yours works.
  • Do NOT use expired pepper spray! It won’t be effective, and most won’t even spray at that point.
  • Be mindful of the situation before you use it. Pepper spray requires a much closer range than other personal self-defense tools, and using it could make things worse for you depending on the threat.
  • Always carry another self-defense Pepper spray isn’t foolproof, and it isn’t going to stop a life-threatening attack.

Is Using OC Spray Legal?

When it comes to having and using pepper spray for self-defense, there aren’t too many legal requirements. In fact, pepper spray is legal in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., for anyone 18 years or older (the age limit is lower in some states). This is because pepper spray is widely viewed as a “relatively safe” less-lethal safety tool and not a weapon that causes lasting injury. Of course, you should always check your state and local laws before deciding on any self-defense plan—even ones involving less-effective tools.

At U.S. LawShield®, we realize that sometimes using your gun just isn’t an option. That’s why we cover any legal weapon. And while pepper spray isn’t the best or most effective secondary self-defense tool out there, it can be handy at times if you use it properly. So, however you prefer to (lawfully) protect your life, you can rest easy knowing U.S. LawShield is on your side.

How To Use Pepper Spray FAQ’s

Pepper or OC spray is considered a less-lethal personal safety tool that doesn’t cause any lasting harm. But while pepper spray won’t necessarily stop an attack, it can create an opportunity for you to escape.

Pepper sprays are aerosol products in canisters that lose pressure over time, causing the spray to not be as strong or to not work at all. Most pepper sprays expire after two years, but best practice is to replace your pepper spray every 18 months.

Pepper sprays can be used more than once. Depending on the brand and volume, each canister contains about 25-35 one-second sprays. The number of times you can spray is greatly reduced after the expiration date passes.

Being pepper-sprayed in the face can make your eyes burn intensely and swell shut, causing temporary blindness. Once you’ve rinsed your eyes and the effects have worn off, your vision should be restored.

The average range a spray or stream can reach is 8-12 feet. However, factors such as brand, weather conditions, and aim all affect spray distance.


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The information provided in this publication is intended to provide general information to individuals and is not legal advice. The information included in this publication may not be quoted or referred to in any other publication without the prior written consent of U.S. LawShield, to be given or withheld at our discretion. The information is not a substitute for, and does not replace the advice or representation of a licensed attorney. We strive to ensure the information included in this publication is accurate and current, however, no claim is made to the accuracy of the information and we are not responsible for any consequences that may result from the use of information in this publication. The use of this publication does not create an attorney-client relationship between U.S. LawShield, any independent program attorney, and any individual.