In reality, there are a wide variety of chemical sprays used for self-defense, but for purposes of this article I’ll be using “pepper spray” as a catch-all term. They work by projecting a chemical irritant—in the case of pepper spray: capsaicin, the substance that makes chilies spicy—onto the target. This in turn causes tears, pain, difficulty breathing, temporary blindness, and other unpleasant symptoms.
Used properly, this can be a powerful defensive tool to deter or immobilize an attacker. However, before you order a case of the stuff, there are a few things to bear in mind if you want to get the most out of it.
First, never forget that pepper spray is a weapon. A defensive weapon, yes. A less lethal weapon, yes. But a weapon. When you’re using it on another person, you’re causing great pain and restricting the mobility of another human being. So make sure you know your state’s self-defense laws, only carry it where the law allows, and use it when it’s actually needed.
Toward that end, you need to be aware of the law. Pepper spray is legal in every state, however the definitions and regulations vary, so do your homework. Likewise, review your workplace’s policies and keep them in mind when making the decision to carry pepper spray at work.
Don’t get careless. Keep pepper spray out of reach of children. ’nuff said.
If you do decide that pepper spray is for you, don’t forget that you’ll need to practice using it. Several makes and models have practice canisters so that you can do just that. I recommend choosing one of those, and practicing deploying and spraying your chosen tool regularly. If you need it, you’ll have to be able to perform those actions quickly and accurately while under pressure. This is a skill that you’ll have to develop so that you can perform it reflexively. Consistent practice is the best way to achieve that.
Pepper spray can expire. Follow all manufacturer’s guidelines to make sure your tool can work for you when needed.
Think about how you’ll be carrying it, and be consistent. By carrying it in the same way and in the same place, you’ll avoid any fumbling and save precious seconds when you do need it. There are a variety of ways to carry pepper spray, including belt holsters and keychain attachments. It’s hard for me to recommend one, as you’ll ultimately need something that works with your wardrobe and body time. A bit of experimentation might be in order, so make that part of your practice time.
Finally, never forget that pepper spray is just one tool in your self-defense toolbox. You’ll still need to practice good situational awareness, understand the use of improvised weapons and other self-defense aids, and keep your unarmed self-defense skills sharp. Pepper spray is a great asset, but it might not always be available or be the right choice. Keep your options open.