How Pepper Spray Works

What Pepper Spray Is and How It's Used

The active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum (OC), a natural oil found in many types of hot peppers, including cayenne peppers and other chili peppers. OC contains a compound called capsaicin, which is what's responsible for the spicy sensation when you eat a hot pepper. It's odorless, colorless, and even flavorless, but just one milligram (about 0.00003 ounces) of pure capsaicin is enough to cause blisters to form on your skin.

Pepper spray is usually dispensed from an aerosol canister. To make it easier to spray, OC oil is mixed with a water-based or oil-based solution. It's also mixed with a propellant, a solution that allows it to shoot outward, and then the entire solution is pressurized inside the canister. Using an aerosol canister allows you to spray farther -- and in many cases wider -- than other types of spray containers. There are three common spray patterns for liquid pepper spray dispensers:


  • Stream -- A narrow stream of liquid is expelled. This concentrates the solution on the area being sprayed, but is more difficult to aim accurately.
  • Mist -- A mist of fine liquid is sprayed. This allows the spray to cover a larger area and makes it easier to hit the target's face.
  • Fog -- A fog is similar to a mist but has a wider range of spray.

Most personal pepper spray dispensers are around 4.5 inches (11.4 cm) tall and about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) wide, with a button or trigger to release the spray, and a safety mechanism to help prevent accidents. These dispensers are small enough to be carried in a pocket or a purse and relatively light, and can dispense anywhere from one to 60 bursts of pepper spray solution.

Although pepper spray can be concealed in something as innocent as a pink lipstick tube, its effects are very serious. Continue reading to find out what happens to the body when a person is sprayed with pepper spray.