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Personal protection is a serious concern for many of us, but so is finding a method that is both effective and non-lethal. Small handguns have the stopping power to bring down an assailant from a safe distance, but they can also be lethal, difficult to operate, and illegal to carry in a purse or other concealed space. Stun guns can bring down a sizeable attacker, but they require close-range contact to be effective. A popular form of personal protection that is non-lethal, legal to conceal, and packs stopping power is pepper spray.
Pepper spray comes in a variety of strengths, from a minor irritant to a crowd-dispersing five million Scoville heat units. Pepper spray won’t deter every attacker, but it will make them reconsider their options. But with so many pepper sprays on the market, how do you choose the one that’s right for you? At BestReviews, our goal is to help consumers make the best purchasing decisions. Our reviews are accurate, packed with the information you need, and trustworthy — because we do our homework and never accept free samples from manufacturers.
If you’re looking for an effective form of pepper spray as self-protection, check out the matrix above for our shortlist of the top five sprays out there. But if you need to know more before buying one of these powerful deterrents, just keep reading for our full shopping guide.
While a pepper spray dispenser may look like any other spray can, it has some important differences. Because an accidental discharge can be disastrous to the user, most pepper spray canisters use a pin or other mechanism to keep the trigger locked between uses. Some safety mechanisms are harder to remove than others, so users need to rehearse the unlocking process in store or at home.
Precious seconds can be lost during an attack due to unfamiliarity with the firing process. Some pepper spray models are designed to provide a steady stream of fluid until the canister is exhausted. Make sure you know ahead of time if the spray is trigger-controlled or continuous.
Don’t wait until the moment of an attack to figure out how your pepper spray works. Understand how the spray fires (via trigger or continuously) before you need to use it.
Canisters that deliver a steady stream of pepper spray can be used at a distance of at least 10 to 15 feet, if not more. Since distance from the attacker is a good idea, we recommend purchasing a concentrated streaming dispenser over an aerosol model for most self-defense situations.
A pepper spray’s power is measured in Scoville heat units. The pepper derivatives used in pepper spray are generally in the one million- to three million-Scoville range. Police-grade pepper spray grenades used for crowd control can be up to five million Scoville units. Some manufacturers may exaggerate their product’s Scoville rating, but the higher the number, the greater the stopping power.
Pepper spray for self-defense is derived from the same peppers you eat. A typical jalapeno pepper can have a rating of 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units, while a ghost pepper can reach two million Scoville units. Very high Scoville ratings, only found in police-grade pepper sprays, can cause excruciating nerve pain, a painful burning sensation, and even temporary blindness.
Some pepper spray dispensers are small enough to attach to a keychain, but their overall effectiveness is questionable. The victim may only get one shot at the attacker’s eyes or skin before the contents are exhausted.
A better form of pepper spray gun is small enough to carry in a purse, backpack, or gym bag but large enough to provide several shots of spray at a time. This is the ideal size for those who want the security of a personal defense weapon without feeling like they’re anticipating a confrontation.
The largest pepper spray canisters available to the public are designed to be clipped to a belt or holstered to the user’s leg. This amount of high-potency pepper spray is not generally recommended for casual joggers. People who purchase these canisters usually work in fields where the risk of confrontation with people or animals is high.
Mail carriers, security guards, and animal control officers might feel the need to carry the largest pepper spray canisters available, but most members of the general public would probably feel comfortable with a mid-sized option that fits in a purse or gym bag.
Before you purchase a pepper spray canister, it is important to understand the laws concerning its use. Check with law enforcement agencies before carrying pepper spray to other states or countries.
Generally speaking, in the U.S.it is legal to possess a certain amount of pepper spray in all 50 states for self-defense purposes.
There may be no federal laws restricting the possession and use of pepper spray, but there are many state and local restrictions that must be followed.
Products containing pepper spray can be legally sold over the counter in many states but not all.
In some states, pepper spray is considered ammunition, which means it can only be sold by licensed dealers. This means the buyer needs to be of legal age to make a purchase, much like buying a gun or bullets.
Other states regulate the amount of pepper spray a container can hold. Anything over four ounces can be problematic in a number of states, and some states even set the maximum capacity at half an ounce. Depending on the size of the pepper spray dispenser, a half-ounce supply could mean only one or two sprays.
Convicted felons cannot purchase pepper spray in a number of states.
The addition of an indelible UV ink to pepper spray is highly regulated by state laws.
Some states require pepper spray owners to register with local law enforcement.
There are many different self-defense techniques and weapons available today, but they all have their limitations. Here are some reasons why pepper spray may be your best option.
Carrying a concealed weapon such as a knife or handgun is often either illegal or heavily regulated. Quick access to those weapons can also be a problem. Some pepper spray canisters fit on a key chain or can be held in the user’s closed hand while walking or jogging. A larger canister of pepper spray can be carried in a holster or hooked to a belt.
Unlike other self-defense weapons, pepper spray does not require the user to aim and fire with accuracy. Any meaningful skin contact with pepper spray should result in incapacitation. This temporary delay provides enough time for the victim to run for assistance.
Pepper spray is an ideal choice for users who have concerns about deadly force.
Unlike an electric stun gun, a pepper spray user does not have to get within arm’s reach of an assailant. Stun guns only work when both electrodes make direct skin contact, and even then they may not deliver a debilitating blow. Once a powerful pepper spray makes contact, however, the attacker will usually be in too much pain to escalate the attack.
One concern many people have about self-defense weapons is the possibility of an accidental discharge. A child could discover a loaded handgun in a purse and pull the trigger without warning. A stun gun could seriously hurt someone if discharged by mistake. As painful as an accidental pepper spray discharge may be, the effects are temporary and non-lethal.
When a stun gun or handgun fails to stop an assailant the first time, the momentum shifts to the assailant.
Carrying pepper spray in checked baggage is legal on most airlines, but there must be a safety mechanism in place to prevent accidental discharge.
The legal age for pepper spray ownership ranges from 14 to 21 years old.
If you are accidentally exposed to pepper spray, air is good. Taped gauze slathered with burn cream is not.
Remember that when you discharge pepper spray for practice purposes, you are reducing the amount available for actual emergencies.
Some private security companies offer pepper spray training courses to their employees, and these classes are sometimes open to others as well.
It’s important to rehearse the unlocking of your pepper spray’s safety lock so you’re familiar with how it works in case of an emergency.
While a pepper spray container with four ounces of fluid may be legal in your state, it may not be legal in a neighboring state.
Q. Should I practice using my pepper spray canister from time to time?
A. When dealing with a self-defense weapon, it is always a good idea to be comfortable with its use. You can practice removing the pepper spray from its usual location, unlocking the safety mechanism, and pointing it at a target in one controlled motion. Some pepper spray dispensers will allow users to make short test sprays for improved accuracy, but others are only designed for defensive situations. A few manufacturers include a water-filled dummy canister for practice purposes.
Q. Does pepper spray expire or lose its potency?
A. Yes, most pepper sprays do have an expiration date printed on the canister or other packaging. Aerosol products in general lose their effectiveness over time, and the chemicals used to form pepper spray eventually break down. Many people don’t use their pepper spray canisters for years, so it helps to check the expiration date from time to time. Expired canisters can still be used for practice sessions, but they should not be considered reliable for self-defense purposes.
Q. What should I do if I spray myself or someone else accidentally?
A. It is important to remember that the effects of pepper spray are painful but temporary. Prompt flushing of the affected skin with clean water should reduce the pain level considerably. Remove any clothing that is saturated with pepper spray. Apply an oil-free cream to help with skin irritation. Do not use oil-based lotions, which hold active ingredients against the skin longer.
Q. I’m a mail carrier on a walking route, and I encounter dangerous animals every day. Do I need special training or a license to carry high-power pepper spray?
A. The answer depends on your state’s laws and regulations concerning pepper spray ownership, as well as your employer’s policy on self-defense weapons. In many states, you must register your pepper spray dispenser with local law enforcement, especially if you plan on carrying a four-ounce supply of police-grade pepper spray in public.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.