How to Use Pepper Spray – The Right Way
While defense sprays are arguably the most popular and effective self-defense tool on the market, many folks do not know how to properly handle them. You should train with and understand pepper spray just as you would with a firearm or any other tool. This article will show you how to use pepper spray – the right way. We will discuss how to hold it, proper positioning, the different dispersal patterns, importance of accessibility, limitations and more.
#1 - Hold Pepper Spray Properly
The first step in using pepper spray is knowing how to properly hold it. TV shows and the media commonly portray women holding defense sprays with the palm of their hand lightly wrapped around the canister (like a claw) and their index finger held over the actuator (the mechanism used to deploy the spray). The problem with this method is that it leaves your spray lacking in security. An assailant could easily snatch it away from you and use it against you. Using your index finger also makes it difficult to target your attacker and deploy the spray.
The wrong way vs. the right way
The correct way to hold OC spray is to place it in the palm of your dominant hand and form a fist around it, using your thumb to deploy it. This method allows you to secure your spray, preventing an attacker from grabbing or knocking it out of your hand. It also enables you to properly deploy your spray and use it as a striking tool if the bad guy or gal gets too close to you.
Another important thing to be aware of is the type of actuator or firing mechanism that your spray has. The most common type is the twist-top, which requires you to turn the actuator to the side before pressing down to deploy the spray. The problem with this kind is that it is easy for accidental discharge to occur, especially if you have your spray in your purse or pocket. You also have to be able to quickly deploy when encountering a threat.
We highly recommend the flip-top or “cop-top” style instead, which is what law enforcement and security professionals use. The cap prevents accidental charge from occurring, unlike the twist-top. All you need to do to deploy the spray is to place your thumb underneath the cap and press down.
Positioning & Movement Patterns
**Do not hold the spray like this**
The last important thing to remember when holding your pepper spray is proper positioning and movement patterns.
When faced with a threat, it is best to hold your canister inward with your dominant hand (to keep it out of reach) and extend your recessive (or weak) hand outwards, with palm facing towards the attacker (like a stop sign). This stance will help the assailant from attempting to disarm you and allow you to push back or keep them at bay.
When the threat approaches you, verbally shout “STOP!”, “GET AWAY FROM ME!” or a similar phrase. If there are others nearby, this will help alert them to your presence and bring attention to your situation. There will be times when your defense spray does not automatically kick in, especially when dealing with someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You may get into a situation where the attacker attempts to “fight” through the pain and rush at you. You must remain vigilant of this. If they do try to run at you, side-step them and continue spraying. You want to keep as much of a distance from the threat as possible.
Pepper Spray Design
The great thing about OC sprays is that they come in a wide variety of designs. Besides the regular canisters you commonly see, they come in the form of pens, lipstick, guns and even bracelets! It is important to orient yourself to your spray and understand how to handle it when the time arises. Pepper pens and pepper spray lipstick will often be used in situations where someone is not even expecting it, so they will rely best on the element of surprise. The same works for the pepper spray bracelet, although it will be much quicker to deploy compared to the other two designs. Pepper guns will give you the range that you need, with a target sight.
#2 - Know Your Pepper Spray’s Dispersal Pattern
The second step to using pepper spray the right way is to know your pepper spray’s dispersal pattern, or the way that it is released out of the canister. This is extremely important, as each pattern will determine how far the spray can go out (distance) from the canister (size is factored in as well), the amount of chemical in each can (volume; number of sprays), how the spray should be deployed (where to spray) and how it is impacted by environmental conditions and enclosed areas (cross-contamination).
There are four different dispersal patterns: Stream, Fog/Cone-Mist, Gel and Foam.
The Stream spray pattern is the most commonly used type of pepper spray, by both civilians and law enforcement officers. The pattern is similar to that of a water gun, shooting straight out. As a result, it requires proper aim. To be effective you must aim directly for the eyes, spraying ear to ear (linear motion).
Average effective range: 8-12 ft
Best Pick: DPS Black Label Pepper Spray (Stream)
Stream-type sprays provide a lot of volume and range, depending on the size and design of the canister. They are less prone to cross-contamination or blowback from windy conditions compared to fog/cone sprays. This pattern is not the best choice when facing multiple assailants or when handling someone with eye or face-wear.
- Great range, especially with certain manufacturers (e.g. DPS)
- Good amount of volume / # of sprays per can
- Less cross-contamination; resistant to windy conditions
- Must have good aim (go directly for the eyes)
- Not the best choice against multiple attackers
- Less effective against individuals wearing masks or eyewear
The Fog (or Cone-Mist) spray pattern is commonly used in animal repellents, bear spray in particular. Foggers release from the canister in a mist pattern, similar to what you would see in a hair spray bottle. To be effective, simply spray in an up-down motion towards the general direction of your assailant.
Average effective range: 8-10 ft; large bear spray sized cans reach 25+ ft
Best Pick: DPS Black Label Pepper Spray (Fog)
Fog-type sprays are extremely effective because the formulation breaks the OC (oleoresin capsicum, or pepper) up into very fine droplets. When released from the canister, these droplets can stay in the air for long periods of time. All an assailant has to do is simply breathe in the spray in order to be affected. As a result, foggers do not require precise aim like Stream or Gel sprays do and they work much quicker than other spray patterns.
Foggers are the best choice of less-lethal protection for home defense, as well as for taking care of multiple assailants. You can saturate an area to create a barrier that an intruder will have to walk through in order to get to you, giving you a better chance to escape or address the threat.
The biggest drawback to fog or cone-mist patterns is that they are easily affected by windy conditions. They should not be used in adverse weather, where you cannot control the direction of where the spray goes. Cross-contamination is extensive in enclosed areas, so they should not be used in places like hospitals, schools, vehicles or other surroundings where you or bystanders can easily become affected.
- Excellent range, particularly with larger cans (9oz+)
- Good amount of volume / # of sprays per can
- Effects of OC kick-in quicker than other spray patterns
- Best choice for home defense or multiple threats
- Worst choice for windy conditions; terrible cross-contamination
- High emission, so volume gets used up quicker than Streams and Gels (less # of sprays)
- Less effective against individuals wearing masks or eyewear
Pepper Foam disperses out of the canister like shaving cream. While thick, the foam needs to hit the face in order to have the greatest effect. The most effective method is to spray in a circular motion, towards the face.
Average effective range: 6-8 ft
Best Pick: DPS Pepper Foam (longest range on the market with the hardest hitting formula)
Foam saturates the target area and sticks to the body, much like Gel. If an assailant tries to wipe it off, the formula will dig deeper into the pores of the skin. The thick foam will cover the face, removing a person’s ability to see. The OC (pepper) itself will cause intense burning, pain and difficulty breathing.
The biggest advantage for Pepper Foam is that it is one of the best choices when working in enclosed areas. The biggest issue for hospitals, for example, is cross-contamination. The pepper foam formula does not emit fumes, so it eliminates the possibility of vapors entering a facility’s ventilation systems or affecting staff. It is also very easy to clean up and decontaminate an area quickly. The disadvantages for this pattern is limited range and the ability for an assailant to wipe the foam off and throw it back at you.
- Excellent choice for enclosed areas; limited cross contamination (no fumes)
- Covers the face, regardless of eye wear
- Worst range out of all spray patterns
- Foam could be thrown back at you by the assailant
The Pepper Gel dispersal pattern deploys in the same manner as the Stream, but with greater range. Like the Stream, to use it effectively, make sure to aim for the eyes and shoot ear to ear from left to right (or vice-versa).
Average effective range: 12-15 ft+
Best Pick: Mace Pepper Gel
Pepper Gel has the same advantages as a Stream format, but with less detriment. It works the same way it sounds: the canister fires out a sticky stream of pepper at the target. Because of the formulation, gels are actually able to surpass Stream-type sprays in terms of range. The other advantage is that there are no fumes (because it is gel vs. pure liquid) during deployment. Like pepper foam, this reduces concerns of cross-contamination and makes pepper gel the perfect choice for enclosed areas.
The longest range pattern for a regular can (3/4 oz to 4 oz)
Good amount of volume / # of sprays per can
Superior choice for enclosed areas; little to no cross-contamination
Like the Stream, requires good aim (go for the eyes)
Not the best choice against multiple targets (stick with a fogger)
#3 - Keep it Easily Accessible
Besides holding pepper spray properly, the other common issue many folks have is not having it readily available in case of an attack. This is particularly true for women, who often have their defense spray buried in the bottom of their purses. Pepper spray is of no use to you as a personal protection device if you do not have it when you need it. It defeats the whole purpose of being prepared!
With only moments to spare,a criminal will not sit and wait for you to dig out your OC spray, prepare it and deploy. This is why it is absolutely critical to have it ready in case of an attack. An important fact to remember is that someone carrying a knife can close a distance of 21 feet within a matter of seconds, when faced off against someone armed with a gun (21 Foot Rule/Tueller Drill). Combine that with the reality that most [untrained] folks will “freeze up” or panic when being attacked and you find yourself with very limited time to react.
Keychain pepper sprays are a popular way of keeping your device at the ready. There are others that come in the form of a clip as well, which you can attach to your purse or pocket, if you prefer not to constantly carry a canister in your hand while walking in transition (e.g. parking lot to your car, down the street to your home, etc). DPS Pepper Spray has these different variations, depending on the size of the canister.
#4 - Understand its Limitations
Lastly, you must understand that pepper spray, like any other self-defense tool, has its limitations. No device is fool-proof (not even a firearm). We rank it as the best less-lethal protection device on the market (see our Self-Defense Products Buyer’s Guide), but it is not perfect. You may run into the following problems, so remain vigilant.
Attacker is not affected by the spray:
- There may be circumstances where you are facing someone that is under the influence of drugs or alcohol and find that your pepper spray is not being as effective as you would like. While they do not rely entirely on pain compliance like stun guns and expandable batons, defense sprays may take some additional time to “kick in” when dealing with folks under the influence. And although OC spray will cause temporary blindness and breathing issues, someone with enough willpower will be able to “fight through it” and attempt to come after you (remember what was said about positioning).
Solution: Make sure that you have the strongest pepper spray possible with the greatest take-down power (we cannot recommend DPS Black Label Pepper Spray enough; it is tested and proven), as not all defense sprays are created equal. Have a “back-up” option in case your spray does not work as intended.
Nothing comes out of the canister or does not spray properly:
- Pepper spray is aerosol-based and uses a pressurized canister. If there is low pressure in the can, it will not properly disperse. Make sure you regularly test your defense spray to ensure you have enough shots left (at least once every 1-2 months, if you have a 2oz or larger can).
- Low pressure can also be a sign of extreme weather conditions or a past expiration date. Make sure that you never leave your OC spray in high heat or cold. In the heat, canisters will burst and cause cross-contamination (common when left in vehicles). In the cold, pressure will gradually release from the can and make your spray inoperable (e.g. “fizzle out”) when you need it most. If past the expiration date, it is best to be safe and purchase a new can of pepper spray.
Solution: Make sure that you are properly storing your defense spray and keeping it out of extreme weather conditions and that you are aware of when your spray expires (if it does, better to replace it than take a chance). It never hurts to periodically conduct test sprays on a larger can, to make sure the pressure is still good.
We always recommend carrying a back-up personal safety option in case your pepper spray falters, for whatever reason. You could combine it with a stun gun, TASER, personal alarm or some other device. Being fully prepared means having contingencies in place in case your primary choice of self-defense does not work out. So be prepared!
How to Use Pepper Spray the Right Way - In Summary
So we have discussed a number of ways on how you can properly use your self-defense spray. Let’s recap.
1) Hold Pepper Spray Properly:
- Hold it in a fist and deploy with your thumb, not your index finger.
- Be aware of your spray’s actuator style, twist-top or flip top (recommended).
- Use your strong hand to hold the spray and weak hand to extend a barrier.
- Issue verbal commands like “STOP!” and side-step the threat if they fight through to you.
- Understand your defense spray’s design and factor it into your situation.
2) Know Your Pepper Spray’s Dispersal Pattern:
- Stream-type sprays shoot out like a water gun (great range, less affected by wind; bad for multiple targets and requires good aim)
- Fog-type sprays disperse like a spray bottle (great for multiple threats & home defense, works quickly, extensive range for larger units; greatly affected by wind)
- Foam-type sprays come out like shaving cream (limited cross-contamination, great for indoor use; poor range and can be thrown back at you).
- Gel-type sprays shoot like a sticky water gun (excellent range, limited wind blowback, no cross-contamination; requires good aim and not as effective against multiple threats)
3) Keep it Easily Accessible:
- Your OC spray is no good to you if you cannot reach it in time. Make sure that it is easy to get to when you need it.
- Highly recommend not leaving your spray in a purse, a criminal will not give you time to dig it out and use it. Consider keychain pepper sprays or those on a clip for easy access.
- Realize that someone can close the distance in a matter of seconds (Tueller Drill).
4) Understand its Limitations:
- If the spray is not affecting the threat, you either have a bad spray (low heat; poor formulation) or the target is amped up on drugs or alcohol. Give it some time to “kick in” and take effect.
- If your spray is not dispensing properly, make sure the can is pressurized and not expired. Get a new can if you have used a smaller one (below 2oz) or if it is expired.
- Always carry a back-up option in case your defense spray does not work as intended. Common secondary pairings are stun guns, TASERs and expandable batons.
Want to know more about how to use pepper spray?
- Whenever you purchase an OC spray from us, you will get FREE access to our in-depth digital Pepper Spray 101: How to Protect Yourself at a Distance course (a $75 value!) through Stun & Run Academy. You will receive this via email within 1 hour after your purchase.
- Check out our article, “5 Do’s and Don’ts of Pepper Spray”, which was specifically used by the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department as training material for their students.
- Get an in-depth assessment of how we rank pepper spray vs. other self-defense products through our Self-Defense Products Buyer’s Guide and see what self-defense tool fits your needs best!
- See how pepper spray falls along our assessment of a “Civilian” Use of Force Continuum and how we recommend the level of force used in a violent encounter.