Bear Spray vs. Pepper Spray: Which Is The Best For Self Defense?

Last Updated: March 9, 2023

Pepper spray is an excellent self-defense weapon. It’s light, compact, easy to use, and highly effective. Despite those benefits, statistics suggest that more people are using bear spray instead of pepper spray for self-defense.

Last year, an article in The Washington Post highlighted bear spray’s surge in popularity, calling it the current “weapon of choice.”

From a prepper’s perspective, I understand the desire to be as primed for the wilderness as I am for the urban jungle. I can, therefore, see a valid argument for carrying bear spray instead of a can of civilian pepper spray.

But what would happen if I used that bear spray on a human?

Would I hurt them?

Would I be breaking the law?

Join me on my journey of discovery.

Is Bear Spray Stronger than Pepper Spray?

Bear spray is typically stronger and more potent than pepper spray, although individual products vary.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates bear spray and restricts the oleoresin capsicum (OC) content to 2%.

Most civilian pepper sprays contain up to 1.33%, which means they’re somewhat weaker. However, there is no national body governing commercial pepper sprays, and some advertised products claim to contain more, although this is often ambiguous.

This Pepper Reinforcement Spray says it contains 10% OC yet only 1.33% capsaicinoids. These figures are somewhat misleading as the percentage content of OC doesn’t necessarily increase the potency of the spray. OC is the “oily resin derivative from capsicums,” whereas the capsaicinoids are the active ingredients within that oily resin.

It is, therefore, possible to have a pepper spray with an OC content of 10%, but where the capsaicinoid content of that OC is just 0.1mg/g. That would then be weaker than a pepper spray with an OC content of 1.33%, but whose OC contains a capsaicinoid content of 60mg/g.

As a paper by the National Institute of Justice notes,

“These [OC] percentages can be misleading… because it is the strength of the OC in the spray that determines its effectiveness, not its percent of volume.”

Most bear sprays meet the maximum content allowed by the EPA and are, therefore, more potent than most civilian sprays.

Also read – Does bear spray expire?

What Are The Legal Implications of Using Bear Spray?

Pepper spray is legal in almost all states, although it is regulated in some. In Michigan, for example, pepper spray may not contain more than 18% oleoresin capsicum or any ultraviolet dyes. In Wisconsin, the OC percentage drops to 10%, and pepper spray containers are restricted to 2 oz.

As bear spray is a pesticide rather than a self-defense weapon, it’s legal everywhere, although, in Canada, where there are strict laws governing the sale and use of pepper sprays, it is illegal to buy bear spray if you intend to use it on a human.

Can Bear Spray Kill a Human?

In addition to the legal implications, there are also some moral issues to address.

Last year, Officer Brian D. Sicknick died after being sprayed with bear spray during the riots on the Capitol. It later transpired that Sicknick died of natural causes. However, some researchers have linked bear spray and the strokes that killed Sicknick and other bear spray victims before him.

A study of the clinicopathological effects of pepper (oleoresin capsicum) spray published in the Hong Kong Medical Journal found that some people may experience “an acute increase in blood pressure [that] could cause headache, increased stroke risk and heart attack.”

That’s not to say that bear spray can kill a human, but it can cause a reaction in some that put their survival at risk.

Different people react in different ways to bear spray. For journalist Melissa Lewis it resulted in “excruciating pain” that was alleviated only after she received “three shots of fentanyl” at the emergency room.

The EPA also insists that all bear spray carry a warning label that includes the statement: “May cause irreversible physical eye damage if sprayed in the eye at close range.”

We all want to stay safe but also need to be aware that inflicting lasting damage on another human could result in criminal charges, even if it was an act of self-defense.

Will Pepper Spray Work on a Bear?

While you may be able to use bear spray to stop a human from attacking, trying to deter a bear with pepper spray is futile. This is because bear spray is more pressurized, comes out faster, and travels further than a standard pepper spray.

Most pepper sprays have a range of around 10 feet, whereas bear sprays are designed to keep the bear as far away as possible and therefore have ranges up to 35 feet.

When you pull the trigger on a bear spray, you engage a high emission system that fires out the spray at up to 1.84 oz per second. Pepper spray isn’t as pressurized, so takes slightly longer to discharge, which may be too long if you’re negotiating with a grizzly!

Another feature that makes pepper spray ineffective against bears is quantity. The average can of bear spray contains around 9 oz of spray, whereas a standard civilian pepper spray is usually just under 2 oz.

Bear spray and pepper spray also have distinct dispersal patterns. While bear sprays come out in a fog pattern designed to engulf the bear’s face, pepper sprays more commonly employ a stream output.

The stream output requires greater accuracy and is designed to be effective over a shorter range. With a good aim, a steady arm, and the best pepper spray for self-defense, you have a slim chance of stopping a bear, but you’ll have to be far too close for comfort to achieve it.

What are the Advantages of Pepper Spray for Self Defense?

Pepper spray comes in small containers that are easy to carry around and deploy, whereas bear sprays are generally too cumbersome to tuck into your back pocket.

As far as I could ascertain, bear sprays only come in sprays, whereas pepper spray comes in foams and other formats that make it safer to use and easier to deploy, especially in strong winds.

Although bear spray is more potent as it comes out as a fog rather than a stream, making it more difficult to aim in close quarters. Not only does that make it less effective against a human assailant, but it also increases the chances of you inhaling the bear spray at the same time as your attacker.

However, if you use it in a one-on-one situation, it will not have the intensity or immediacy of the pepper spray because of its range and spray pattern.

 This video does a good job of highlighting the shortcomings of bear spray as a self defense weapon.




Bear spray is an effective deterrent for all types of bears, with statistics showing that the substance.

“stopped bears’ undesirable behavior 92% of the time when used on brown bears, 90% for black bears, and 100% for polar bears.”

On the other hand, pepper spray is an effective non-lethal self-defense weapon. While both contain OC and cause a similar reaction, they are designed for different purposes and aren’t as interchangeable as one might imagine.

There’s little point in carrying pepper spray in your bug-out bag or squeezing a 9 oz can of bear spray into your back pocket for a night on the town. If you’re worried about bears, carry bear spray. On the other hand, if you’re concerned about human attacks, a pepper spray gun for self-protection is better.

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