Choosing a Defense Spray – Pepper Spray or Tear Gas

Over the last several years, the popularity of self defense sprays, mistakenly called tear gas or Mace, has grown tremendously. The rising rate of violent crime, the publicity and media coverage of such crimes and the reasoning that “if it’s good enough for the police, it is good enough for me” has led more and more citizens to rely on these devices. The demand for defense sprays has become so great that today there is literally dozens of different brands, types, and size to choose from. And, to make matters worse, there are three basic chemical compositions used, only one of which is worth considering for civilian self-defense.

Chemical Composition

There are three basic chemical compounds used in self defense sprays:
– CS (Orthoclorobenzalmalonitrile)
– CN (Alphachloroacetaphenone)
– OC (Oleoresin Capsicum)

OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) is the newest of the three, by far the most effective, and one you should definitely consider for self defense use.

Comparative Effects

CS and CN are irritants to membrane tissues. They cause stinging pain and tearing, and take from 5 to 30 seconds to be effective. In cases of persons who are drunk, on drugs, suffering a psychotic episode, or otherwise cannot feel pain, there may be no effect at all. For years, the field experiences of police officers have been riddled with accounts of total failure of CN and CS products when used as a self defense spray. The reduced ability of CS and CN to subdue those who can’t feel pain, coupled with their delayed effectiveness (5 seconds is an eternity if you’re being attacked with a knife), make these two chemicals too unreliable for use by untrained, possibly physically limited, persons. OC is not an irritant. It is an inflammatory agent; and this makes all the difference in the world. When a person is sprayed with OC, two things happen instantly. First, the person’s eyes clamp shut, instantly. If they do manage to force them open, they still can’t see because the OC dilates the capillaries and causes temporary blindness. Second, an immediate fit of uncontrollable coughing doubles the person over since the OC causes instant inflammation of the breathing tissues, restricting all but life support breathing. OC, in effect, puts up a brick wall between an assailant and the victim. As one police trainer has put it, “It’s like being hit with a flame thrower!” An assailant, who’s sprayed with OC stops what they’re doing, stops what they’re thinking – period. This is true even for those who are drunk, on drugs, or psychotic. OC works extremely well on animals, although most versions are not made for this purpose.

Other Considerations

In addition to not being as effective as OC, CN and CS take longer to wear off and the chemical residue can last for days. They are both man-made chemicals and are identified as possible carcinogenic agents. Long term skin problems and toxic reactions have also been documented. OC, on the other hand, is a natural chemical derivative of various hot peppers. It has not been found to be toxic in any way, and absolutely does not harm delicate tissues. The effects of OC, depending on the concentration and the availability of fresh air, take about 20 to 30 minutes to wear off. The assailant makes a full recovery, with no after-effects unless the OC spray contains an identifying dye. This usually lasts a week or more, but is harmless.


For the reasons outlined previously, we recommend a defense spray containing OC in any formulation and concentration over a CN- or CS- based spray for self defense by law enforcement and civilians. Combination sprays are very effective as long as it contains a good quantity of pepper spray.

Purchase Considerations

Once proven that OC was superior to CN and CS (the number of suppliers and brands of OC spray multiplied quickly. And with their increased numbers, came different concentrations, formulations, sizes, nozzle types, and spray patterns. Even if a buyer of defense spray chooses OC, there are still several other critical considerations.

Size and Capacity

Size generally ranges from approximately one half ounce up to four ounces. Small units work well as a key chain or clipped onto a pocket. A medium-size 2 oz. unit works well in a purse or on a belt. The large 4 oz. size can also be carried in a purse or on a belt, but tends to be bulky. These are made primarily for law enforcement purposes. The size of the unit generally determines its capacity- how much compound can be sprayed for what length of time. Other capacity indicators are the number of shots per unit and how far the unit will shoot. This is where it may get confusing. To simplify things, two factors are fairly flexible: the range and the number of shots available. The range needs only be 6-to-8 feet, the distance at which most personal assaults take place. Keep in mind, that the greater the distance the unit is fired from, the more accurate the aim must be, something that can be difficult in a time of stress. The number of shots available is not critical, as a good one- to two-second burst will disable almost any assailant. Even the smallest units have enough compound in them to handle multiple attackers if done correctly.

Nozzle and Spray Pattern

Much more important than capacity, is the spray pattern and dispersal-density of the unit. There are generally two types of spray patterns: a stream pattern which gives good range but requires aiming directly at the face; and a cone mist, also known as a fogger, which has a shorter range but does not require true aiming. In addition to these factors, there are two other important comparisons. First, if there is a breeze, the stream spray is more controllable. The cone mist can be blown off target or even back at the sprayer. The second question is how easily the mist can be inhaled. OC works best when it hits the eyes and when inhaled. The cone mist is inhaled instantly while the stream may require longer exposure to cause coughing spasms. With all types of sprays, it is critical to hit the attacker in the face!


OC normally comes in concentrations of 10% and 50%. Due to a number of formulation differences, the percent of concentration is not always a good indicator of effectiveness. One of the biggest misconceptions about defense spray is that the higher the percentage, the better it will work. The percentage has nothing to do with the actual “heat” the spray, as that is rated in terms of Scoville Heat Units.


Although each individual should purchase what they feel is best for them, a medium-size with a cone-mist spray is probably the overall best choice for most people. Since most people carry a keychain, a keychain unit is a good choice. In addition, a large fogger type unit & unit with a cone spray should be in the home, either at bedside or by the front door. This will be covered later.

Legal Considerations

As nice as it would be to think we have the right to protect ourselves with a non-injurious device no matter where we are, such is not the case. Despite the fact that OC spray has never been found to injure anyone, and in fact has been responsible for preserving life and limb of law enforcement officers and civilians alike, there are still some jurisdictions that have outlawed all defense sprays. Most of these laws are based on the history and perception of old-style tear- gas sprays. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you check with local law enforcement officials before purchasing, carrying, or possessing a defense spray of any kind.

Age Consideration

At what age should a person be allowed to carry a personal defense spray? The answer depends on several factors. First, the maturity of the person should be considered. The young person must understand that defense sprays are to be used for defense purposes only. They are not toys, or something to brag about to their friends. And they’re certainly not to be used to play practical jokes, etc. Second, the environment of the young person should be considered. If they regularly live, work, attend school, etc. in an area where they are at risk, then a defense spray could provide the protection they need. Parents need to understand the need and personality of their child before they allow him/her to carry defense sprays. If the parents of a 16-year-old girl feel their daughter is mature enough to go out on dates, she should be mature enough to carry a defense spray. This, provided, she’s been taught how and when to use it. Those same parents may have a wild, sometimes uncontrollable 17-year-old son who, if given a spray, would likely show it off to his friends, spray people as a prank, and might even possibly use it to commit an assault on someone else. The key question a parent must ask, is whether or not their child needs the spray, and whether or not they have the maturity to respect and use the device for self-protection only. Another consideration is your local and state laws. These need to be checked before you purchase defense spray for yourself or your children.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: Copyright By D. Lamb


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