pepper spray

The Best Non-Lethal Alternative: Pepper Spray

If you're going to carry a less-lethal or non-lethal weapon as an alternative or supplement to a handgun, the best across all dimensions is pepper spray. However, not all pepper sprays are created equal.

What should you know about pepper spray, if considering having it on hand? Let's dive right in. Grab a glass of milk because it's about to get spicy!

How Does Pepper Spray Work?

pepper spray

The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, which is the compound in chili peppers that makes them hurt so bad. How does that work?

Capsaicin is part of a family of compounds called vanilloids, which as it happens includes many compounds found in the vanilla bean. These compounds stimulate the transient receptor potential cation subfamily V member 1, or TRPV1. TRPV1 is a protein that aids in detection of heat and of regulating body temperature. In other words, it helps your brain detect heat.

How it works is that TRPV1 is receptive to vanilloids. Capsaicin irritates the contact surface as it stimulates TRPV1, causing receptor cells to transmit the signal for heat - and pain! - to the brain from the part of the body that was exposed to capsaicin. Basically, it irritates and makes you think it hurting whatever it touches.

Not exactly as potent as Tannerite but it'll work.

How Is Pepper Spray Made?

habanero pepper

First, the essence of capsaicin is extracted from chili peppers. How it works is that dried, ground chili peppers are treated by an organic solvent like ethanol. (A psychoactive compound that makes people think they can dance or sing when that is clearly not the case.) The extract is usually a waxy resin, called oleoresin capsaicin.

The extract is then emulsified, usually in propylene glycol. The strength of the pepper spray is determined by the ratio of capsaicin to emsulsifier. Typical pepper sprays are less than one-half of one percent (0.5 percent concentration) but stronger sprays - such as bear spray - can be more than that.

The emulsified compound gets bottled and pressurized, becoming a spray rather than a viscous liquid, and then presto! You have pepper spray, one of the most effective self-defense tools outside of a concealed carry gun.

Bear Spray Vs Pepper Spray

bear spray vs pepper spray

The chief difference between bear spray and pepper spray is that bear spray is a stronger concentration.

The garden variety pepper spray intended for defensive use against a hostile person has a capsaicin concentration of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent. Bear spray, however, is more like 2 percent. This doesn't sound like much, does it? However, there is something you should - BEAR - in mind.

Chili peppers don't contain massive amounts of capsaicin. According to this study of capsaicin concentration from the University of Veterinary Medicine And Pharmacology in KoŇ°ice, Slovakia, the relative amount in hot peppers is still small.

The hottest habanero chili varietal tested (red savina, if you're curious; about 350,000 Scoville units) had a capsaicin content of 967 micrograms per gram (of the pepper as a whole) while fresh. By contrast, the dreaded Bhut Jolokia pepper - the infamous ghost chili, which is rated at 1,000,000 Scoville units - had a fresh capsaicin content of 3,041 micrograms per gram.

However, drying peppers reduces moisture and raises the concentration. Said habanero increased to 8,125 micrograms per gram when dried. The ghost pepper climbed to 25,944 micrograms per gram when dried.

In other words, the heat level of a habanero when dried rises to about 0.008 percent, since 10,000 micrograms is a concentration of 0.01 percent per unit of mass. By contrast, dried ghost chili is about 0.25 percent, which is about the concentration of many pepper sprays for use on people. Bear spray, therefore, is almost ten times as spicy as a ghost chili.

Is Pepper Spray Dangerous?

pepper spray

So, is pepper spray dangerous?

Well, capsaicin IS an irritant and does have toxicity, but you'd have to basically eat your body weight in hot peppers to get there, so that doesn't really enter into it. It's actually been shown to have some benefits in topical applications, such as for arthritic joints, if anything. That'll help you out after an afternoon shooting magnum revolvers.

But, it should be said that there are some alleged connections between a few deaths and pepper spray.

A few studies have linked several dozen deaths of subjects in police custody after being pepper sprayed. In many instances, irritation of upper airways was found to be only a contributing factor along with drugs and other things. However, what should be noted is that pepper spray, or MACE or whatever one wishes to call it, is not in and of itself toxic nor does it contain any poisonous compounds or enough of any compound to poison someone.

Instead, what it DOES do is irritate the heck out of anything it comes into contact with, including - when sprayed into someone's face - the upper airways. If a person were to have a chronic lung condition and were pepper sprayed while they had an open mouth...it could be exacerbated by it.

Thus, it could be said that pepper spray is a less-lethal alternative rather than non-lethal. However, it has also been proven to be the most effective. Stun guns and TASERs basically work until they don't; a determined enough person won't be stopped by one and there are plenty of videos out there of TASERs failing. No one, however, is unaffected by pepper spray.

Sam Hoober 

About The Author


Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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