When it comes to non-lethal self-defense, pepper spray is arguably your best weapon. Yes, many people still prefer a firearm, but pepper spray lets you deescalate a situation before it requires lethal force.
It is also legal in all 50 states (* See note and disclaimer at the end of the post), can be carried where firearms are prohibited, is cheap to buy, and doesn’t require a lot of skill to use.
There are a lot of differences between different products. Some of these differences could mean the difference between life or death.
So, before you buy, please read this guide and check out our recommendations for the best pepper sprays for self defense.
Pepper Spray Comparison Table
Quickly compare the critical qualities of each spray (full reviews below)
Pepper spray is relatively simple but requires some knowledge and training.
These videos show the correct usage and common mistakes (like using your pointer finger instead of your thumb for spraying).
It is good to test any weapon you plan on using for self-defense. This will allow you to prepare mentally for an attack to respond faster.
You can test pepper spray outdoors, making sure the wind is to your back!
You may still experience some blowback, though (even a little bit of pepper spray can hurt for hours!).
Some brands have “practice sprays” that are water-based so that you can practice with your spray.
This video from Sabre talks about how and why practicing is so important.
Here are some practice sprays to consider buying so you can safely test using them:
- Sabre Red Pepper Spray Practice Canister
- Frontiersman Practice Bear Spray
- Inert Pepper Spray Practice Bundle
How to Choose
Choose wisely! It may not seem like there are significant differences between two products, but something as small as the type of safety lock could impact how quickly and effectively you discharge the spray during an attack.
I’ve broken down the main features you need to consider, and your best options are for self-defense.
Before buying, consider how you will use it.
- Will you carry it on your keychain?
- In your pocket?
- In your purse?
- Will you use it for animals or human attackers?
Based on how you’ll use it, you’ll want to look for one of these types of spray:
- Keychain: These are smaller containers with usually about ½ to 1 ounce. They are very convenient to carry but have a limited range and only enough spray for a few attacks.
- Canister: Canisters can hold a lot and often have long ranges. I find them unsuitable for everyday carry unless they are on a holster. Aside from being bulky to carry, they are hard to get out of your purse/bag quickly. However, canisters are the best option if you are planning a bug out bag or looking for bear defense. See bear spray vs pepper spray.
- Guns: These “guns” fire pepper spray. They have more accurate sprays and can go long distances. Like canisters, they take longer to withdraw. However, they have the added plus of looking intimidating to an attacker. Read our guide to the best pepper spray guns.
- Concealed/Disguised: These sprays look like lipstick tubes, pens, or other everyday products. Generally, they are a bit gimmicky but could be suitable for self-defense in certain situations.
Pepper Spray Formula
Three main ingredients may be used:
- CS (Orthochlorobenzalmalonitrile)
- CN (Alphachloroacetaphenone)
- OC (Oleoresin Capsicum)
CS and CN are from manufactured chemicals. They were formulated for the military and law enforcement. Both CS and CN are considered “tear gas” and work by irritating membrane tissues. While these are generally potent, they can be ineffective against drunk people, those under the influence of drugs, or have a high pain tolerance.
OC is considered the most effective type for self-defense. It is made from the natural chemicals found in hot peppers. Only products with OC are regarded as true pepper spray. OC causes inflammation. When sprayed at someone’s eyes, OC will cause the person’s eyes to shut. The inflammation of capillaries also causes temporary blindness. When inhaled, OC pepper spray causes difficulty breathing.
You want a spray that will stop attackers in their tracks.
There are two main ways to determine the strength of a pepper spray: concentration and SHU rating.
- Concentration: When choosing an OC pepper spray, it will be rated by its concentration. This represents how much OC is in the formulation. Typical self-defense pepper sprays have a concentration of 1% to 18%. For self-defense against attackers, choose pepper spray containing at least 5%. Never buy one which doesn’t list its concentration. Note that OC concentrations above 10% are illegal in some states.
- SHUs: OC is also rated based on its strength (measured in Scoville Heat Units, or SHUs). For example, bell peppers have an SHU of up to 100. Carolina peppers have SHUs of up to 3,200,000.
Concentration and SHU aren’t so straightforward, though: a pepper spray can have a high concentration but be made from weak peppers.
Ideally, you want both high concentration and high SHU. Unfortunately, not many pepper sprays list their SHU rating.
You’ll have to ask for this info from the manufacturer (or use our reviews).
Major Capsaicinoids (MC)
Major Capsaicinoid (MC) amount is the only lab-tested measurement of a pepper spray’s true strength and ability to produce pain. It is determined with Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) lab testing.
Unfortunately, most do not have their MC content tested. However, some major brands – such as Sabre – do list their MC content. Bear sprays are only allowed to have a maximum of 2% MC.
Pepper sprays usually range from ½ an ounce to large canisters of 7+ ounces. Note that some states have regulations making pepper spray illegal in certain sizes.
In addition to looking at the size of the pepper spray in ounces, also see how many sprays (or bursts) it can deliver.
A “burst” is typically defined as a 1-second spray (though some define it differently, so pay attention).
A 1-second spray should be enough to disable any assailant (bears and some animals will require much higher amounts).
So, in theory, a pepper spray with 20 bursts could be used 20 times or against 20 assailants.
Unless you want to use it against animals like bears, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to range. Most attacks occur at close range, so something with a 20+ foot range isn’t necessary.
A 6-foot range is suitable for most personal defense situations.
It needs to hit the attacker in the eyes to be effective for self-defense. Unless you have a lot of time to respond to the attack (not likely), hitting the eyes can be a difficult task.
Some pepper sprays have spray patterns that make it easier or harder to hit the eyes.
- Stream: These eject spray like a squirt gun. They can shoot for long distances but require perfect aim to hit an attacker’s eyes. I’d only recommend these if you have great aim and are calm under pressure.
- Spray/Mist: These are probably the best choice for most people. These products emit pepper spray, much like a can of hairspray. The spray doesn’t have as much range but is more likely to hit the attacker. The attacker will also inhale the spray. The downside is that you will likely hit people in the surrounding area. If it is windy, you could get yourself too!
- Foam Sprays: Foam pepper sprays can shoot long distances. However, the foam formulation won’t be inhaled readily by the attacker and takes the longest to affect the eyes. However, you don’t have to worry much about the foam returning to hit you. This might be the best option if you have a respiratory issue like asthma.
Safety features are a must-have for any pepper spray – especially ones meant to be carried around on your keychain.
Unfortunately, those same safety features can make it harder to discharge the spray in an attack situation.
For self-defense, I recommend getting one that has a push-and-slide safety mechanism.
A flip-top is also a good option, especially if using a holster spray. These can be quickly discharged but are still safe for everyday carry.
If you choose one which has a holster or a twist-type lever, make sure you practice disengaging the safety mechanism. Otherwise, you won’t be able to discharge it fast enough to be helpful in an attack!
Pepper Spray Reviews
1. Sabre Red Tactical Series Gel
Sabre is one of the top brands of pepper spray, and this is one of their most popular products.
Unlike most other pepper sprays, it is a gel. The gel means it can have a long range without risking blowback.
Considering that this has a spray pattern (as opposed to stream), the range is very impressive.
At 1.8oz, you’ll get a lot of sprays out of the gel.
I do wish that the canister was a bit smaller, though. At 4 ½ inches tall, it can feel a bit bulky on your belt.
Read more about pepper spray vs pepper gel.
- Gel prevents blowback
- Strong formula
- UV marking dye
- Takes practice to remove from holster quickly
Best For: Everyday carry on a holster or in a purse
2. Fox Labs 5.3
Fox Labs 5.3 stands out from the others because it has a cone fog spray pattern.
A fog spray does increase the risk of blowback. However, they don’t require nearly as much accuracy. When an attacker is coming at you quickly, you’ll be glad for a fog! The cone fog is also more likely to be inhaled, causing breathing problems.
It also has one of the highest SHU ratings you’ll find. Most of the best pepper sprays are only 1-2 million SHU, whereas Fox Labs is 5.3 million.
You’ll definitely be able to stop an attacker!
- Potent formula
- Fog decreases need for accuracy
- Good size for purse
- Fog can cause blowback
- No holster included
- Only 3-year shelf life
Best For: People who want a fog pepper spray for everyday carry
3. Sabre Red Key Case
Here’s another one from Sabre, designed for wearing on your keychain.
It has a quick release, so you can detach it from your keys while they are still in the door or ignition.
This feature is also great if you can quickly remove the pepper spray when you don’t need it (or are going places where you can’t bring it).
As you’d expect from Sabre, the pepper spray is very potent and reliable.
The stream goes 10 feet. While this is a much shorter range than the other options reviewed here, it is still more than adequate.
The only real issue with this pepper spray keychain is that the safety switch can accidentally go from “off” to “on.”
Since you have to apply decent force to the trigger for it to go off, this isn’t much of an issue. However, it’s still worth noting.
- Strong formula
- Good safety features
- Can access quickly
- Many bursts per canister
- Stream requires accuracy
- Twist lock can accidentally go to active
- A bit bulky on keychain
Best For: Everyday carry on a keychain
4. Mace Pepper Spray Gun with Strobe LED
There are quite a few pepper spray guns on the market, but this one made by Mace is the most menacing looking.
If pulled on an attacker, it could easily be mistaken for a real firearm.
Many homeowners use this for non-lethal home defense instead of a firearm.
The gun comes with a cartridge of Mace pepper spray, and you can buy refill cartridges for it cheaply (get the refill cartridges here).
The gun will discharge a heavy stream of pepper spray up to 20 feet. You can also get water cartridges for practice.
There are other self-defense features on the spray gun, too – like a flashlight and an LED strobe light.
Just be warned that guns like this aren’t legal in all states. You won’t be able to use this in NY or MA.
Check your state laws before buying it!
- 20-foot range
- Heavy stream
- Highly accurate
- Strobe light
- Only 7 sprays per canister
- Not legal in all states
Best For: Non-lethal home defense
5. Frontiersman Bear Spray
At 7.9 ounces, this isn’t one you’d want for everyday carry (there’s also a 9.2oz option).
However, it is probably the very best option for bears. It has a very long range of 30 feet and shoots out a massive amount of spray per second.
Even though it is a fog-type spray, it won’t cause as much blowback because the fog starts dissipating at a long range.
I’d recommend it for anyone going backpacking in bear country.
It’s also an excellent choice for preppers building a bug out bag.
Not only can you use it against bears and animals while bugging out in the wilderness, but you can still use it against any human attackers, although it won’t be as effective. See our article – can you use bear spray for self defense?
- Very long range
- Delivers heavy fog quickly
- 2% major capsaicinoids
- Too large for everyday carry
- Only 3-year shelf life
Best For: Bug out bags
Do you use pepper spray for self-defense? Let us know your experiences with it in the comments!
Pepper Spray is legal in all 50 states; however, many cities and states have restrictions on sizes, strengths, etc. If you have a question, always contact your local police department. Defense sprays should only be purchased by those 18 or older. Certain other restrictions may exist in your jurisdiction.