How Pepper Spray Works

Pepper Spray Treatment

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Post douses his face with water after being shot in the eyes with pepper spray at the Coast Guard station at Sandy Hook, N.J.
Tom Sperduto/U.S. Coast Guard/Getty Images

Oleoresin capsicum is an oil, and oil and water don't mix. Think about how difficult it is to wash grease off of a cooking pan with just water -- it's almost impossible. This is because water is made up of polar molecules and grease is made up of nonpolar molecules. Polar molecules only bond with other polar molecules, and nonpolar molecules only bond with other nonpolar molecules. So no matter how much water you rinse a greasy pan with, the water will never bond with the grease and carry it down the drain.

Just like grease, oleoresin capsicum oil is made of nonpolar molecules, so while drinking water or splashing your face with it may provide instant relief, it does not remove the oil or provide any lasting relief. If you're sprayed with pepper spray, there are a few things you can do:


  • First of all, and most importantly, don't touch the affected area. Pepper spray is oil-based and can easily be spread to other parts of your body just by touching it.
  • Blink rapidly to cause your eyes to tear up. This may help to flush some of the pepper spray out of your eyes.
  • Wash your skin with a cleansing solution, such as hand soap, shampoo or even dish soap, and rinse with water. Soaps help break up and remove the oil when water can't.
  • Use a "no tears" baby shampoo to help rinse the pepper spray from the eye area. Just like soap, this will help remove the oil, but you can use it on sensitive areas without causing more irritation.

Emergency medical technicians usually carry some form of wipes or a solution to help treat the effects of pepper spray. If you are planning on carrying pepper spray for personal use, it might be a good idea to purchase medicated wipes that are specially designed to cleanse skin if it's been exposed to pepper spray. You can usually purchase these from the same places that sell pepper spray dispensers, and they can be invaluable in case of an accidental spray.

Read on to find out more things you should know if you are considering buying or using pepper spray.