The Do’s and Don'ts of using pepper spray

  • DON’T carry your spray in your bag, leave it at home or leave it in a car.

One of the worst things you can do is leave your pepper spray at home. What good is it if you leave it in a drawer at home when you need it most? We advise against putting pepper spray in a purse, because you won’t be able to dig out of fast enough to use it. If you are aware of the “21 foot rule”, you realize that the reactionary gap makes drawing your spray out of your bag and spraying your attacker ineffective. There is simply no way you would have enough time to do anything if someone charged at you.

In hot temperatures, it is unwise to leave your pepper spray in your glove box. The heat will cause the can to burst and disperse throughout your vehicle. Not only are you out of protection, but your car is completely peppered as well.

  • DO carry it habitually

Pepper spray is effective, but only if you have it with you! Whether you are walking alone at night, jogging around the neighborhood, or going to and from your car in a parking lot, you always want to have your pepper spray in your hand and ready to use. This is especially true in dangerous neighborhoods and college campuses. As always, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

  • DO practice using your spray – how it feels, range/distance, etc.

Practice, practice, practice! We can’t stress this enough. Many people make the mistake of buying pepper spray for self-defense and end up spraying themselves in the face because they do not properly test their spray beforehand. Not only is this embarrassing, but it’s dangerous in a volatile situation. People also do not hold their canisters properly, leading to ineffective bursts. Know how to grab your spray and how to use it when needed.

To properly hold your spray, grasp it in your hand and make a fist. Use your thumb to access the trigger. Many people make the mistake of using their index finger, but this can cause your grip to be unstable and reduce the effectiveness when trying to spray your target. This also helps prevent you from turning the spray the wrong way. Always practice learning how to hold your canister so that when you do reach for it when needed you can properly carry and disperse the contents. Understand the maximum effective range of your spray and never spray too far away.

  • DO research what pepper spray is “best” for your situation (stream, fogger)

There are a few different types of dispersal patterns when it comes to pepper spray. Each has its advantages and disadvantages based on the environment. The “stream” model is the most prevalent, effectively shooting in a stream pattern (straight ahead). It is good for single targets, for reducing contamination and has good resistance in windy conditions; however, it requires good aim.

The “fogger” model is great for disabling multiple targets and works faster than other models. It is susceptible to wind and easily contaminates indoor areas.

The “gel” and “foam” models are less well-known. The former sticks to the face of the assailant. It’s great because if someone tries to wipe it off, it only digs deeper into the skin. Foam works the same way, but it can be thrown back at you. Both are great for reducing contamination.

See what works best for you. Just be aware of what model you have in the situation you’re in. People can be overcome by panic and easily forget what they have.

  • DON’T use expired pepper spray
  • DON’T spray upwind

Most pepper spray canisters are dated by the manufacturer and typically good for a period of up to three years. Over time the propellant in the canister loses pressure and becomes less effective as a result. You do NOT want to use pepper spray that does not or barely comes out of the can. Doing so is asking for trouble. If you have an expired can, buy another one.

When a breeze is blowing, many people make the mistake of spraying into the general direction of the wind. As a result, they get covered in pepper instead of their intended target, making them completely vulnerable to an impending attack. Always spray “downwind” when dealing with an assailant. Otherwise, you will be affected instead. Be aware of the different dispersal types, the stream being the most resistant to wind.

  •  DON’T get close to your attacker

The whole point of pepper spray as a self-defense tool is to avoid being in close contact with your attacker. You want to be at least two arm lengths away in order to be at a relatively safe distance. Always avoid getting close and remember the reactionary gap when handling criminals. In cases where you are confronted at close range, the Little Viper pepper spray bracelet serves as an alternate pepper spray tool. If you are trained in martial arts, use empty-hand techniques.

  •  DON’T turn your back on your assailant

Unless you know for sure that an attacker is down for the count, it’s dangerous to simply spray and run. When trying to get away, always keep your eyes on your attacker. You don’t know if they will come after you right after getting sprayed. Although pepper spray is very effective on people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol (due to the inflammatory effects), remember that not everything is foolproof. When spraying your attacker, be sure to side-step so that they do not contaminate you. Run away when you can.

  •  DO be wary of the law regarding usage

While pepper spray is legal in all 50 states, you need to be aware of restrictions in your state, county or city. Some areas, like Wisconsin and California, limit pepper spray usage to a certain size canister and percentage of OC. In other states, like Massachusetts and New York, you cannot purchase pepper spray unless it is from an in-state licensed pharmacist (that means no online orders). Not abiding by your local statutes could mean criminal liability for you if you are caught. VCU permits students, faculty and staff to carry pepper spray on its Richmond campuses.

  •  DO remember that pepper spray is a “tool”

Don’t become overly reliant on pepper spray for self-defense. Remember that it is simply one item in your toolbox for protection. Sometimes there are circumstances in which you have no control over the outcome. If you can, get some training in defensive tactics. Carry a “back-up” spray or other device. It’s always good to have options, especially when it regards your safety.

Pepper spray is available for purchase in VCU bookstores.