Pepper spray, also known as OC spray, OC gas and capsicum spray, is a lachrymatory agent (chemical compound that irritates the eyes to cause tears, pain and temporary blindness) and can be used in self-defense, including defense against dogs and bears.
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.
The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, which is a chemical derived from the fruit of plants, including chilies. An emulsifier such as propylene glycol is used to suspend the OC in water and pressurized to make it aerosol in pepper spray.
The OC percentage measures only the amount of chili oil extract contained in the defense spray, not the strength, pungency or effectiveness of the product. Some are very high in SHU (Scoville heat units) or OC in products designed specifically as bear deterrents.
The initial reaction, should the spray be directed at the face, is the completely involuntary closing of the eyes (sometimes described as 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 around the face, nose and throat. Coughing almost always follows the initial spray. Subsequent breaths through the nose or mouth lead to ingestion of the chemical, which feeds the feeling of choking.
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.
Pepper spray typically comes in canisters, which are often small enough to be carried or concealed in a pocket or purse. Pepper spray also can be purchased concealed in items such as rings.
Mace is sometimes confused with pepper spray, but it might contain OC pepper, tear gas or both.
Defense sprays should only be purchased by those 18 years of age or older. Certain other restrictions might exist in your jurisdiction. Be aware that use of the product for other than self-defense purposes might result in a citation or criminal charges depending on several factors.
Tina Ransom is a dispatcher with Boulder City Police Department. She is coordinator of the Boulder City Citizen’s Academy.