Pepper spray is one of the most effective, inexpensive, easy-to-use, and readily available self-defense methods. When used correctly, pepper spray is a powerful weapon against assault. Though it’s often a tool for police departments and other law enforcement agencies, anyone can learn how to use it safely.
Best Pepper Sprays for Self-Defense in 2019
Pepper sprays (also known as OC sprays) can take down both human and animal attackers. But they’re illegal in some states and countries and only partially legal in others. More on that later.
It’s intimidating to carry a weapon, even for nonlethal self-defense—especially if you’re not used to it. We’ve got both the top five recommendations for pepper sprays that will give you the personal protection you need and the answers to all your questions.
Compare pepper spray products
You’ll notice that every spray we recommend has dye in it. UV dye is a useful feature for catching a would-be assailant: it leaves traces of the spray on their skin even after rinsing. Law enforcement can use this marking to track the perpetrator down.
While Mace® is a brand, mace is a generic name for pepper spray. In reality, mace refers to a specific chemical combination that includes pepper spray and tear gas. This formula is used in only a few of Mace’s products today. The product we recommend is a Mace-brand pepper spray, not mace.1
Pepper spray reviews
#1 review: Sabre Red Pepper Gel
Sabre Red Pepper Gel is well-priced and has the longest range on our list. Plus, the gel consistency makes blowback less likely.
- High-strength MC rating
- Range of 18 feet
- Holster included
- Flip top safety
- UV dye
- 4-year shelf life
- Smallest product
- Good for indoor use
- Gel spray requires fairly good aim to be fully effective
- Fewer bursts than competitors
We love the combination of Sabre’s hottest pepper spray formula with the longer range and minimal chance of blowback that the gel spray offers. Sabre Red Pepper Gel is also the only spray on our list that would be good for indoor use.
At $14.49, the cost works out to $8.04 per ounce of this ultra-hot formula. That’s one of the cheapest costs per ounce we’ve seen.
This product has a flip top safety, a four-year shelf life, and UV dye in the gel formula. It also comes with a super-cool holster for easy use, and it’s small enough to conceal without fuss.
But using a gel spray requires more precision, and this spray doesn’t have as many bursts as some other brands. You might want to buy some of Sabre’s practice spray to become as proficient as possible. But in all other respects, Sabre Red Pepper Gel is a superior self-defense weapon.
#2 review: Sabre Red Pepper Spray—Runner
Sabre Red Pepper Spray—Runner has the ideal size and range for a runner. It has a high number of bursts and comes with a handy running strap.
- High-strength MC rating
- Tied with Fox Labs Mean Green for highest shot number
- Hand/arm strap included
- Contains UV dye
- 4-year shelf life
- Twist top safety may get stuck
- Expensive cost per ounce
We like this spray’s high number of shots and high-strength formula. We’re also a fan of the runner-specific design: not all sprays work for every situation.
This spray’s lightweight at just .75 ounces. Since it costs $12.99, you’ll pay about $17.32 per ounce for runner-specific protection. That’s almost twice the cost of Sabre Red Pepper Gel.
Like Sabre Red Pepper Gel, Sabre Red Pepper Spray—Runner contains UV dye and has a four-year shelf life. The 12-foot stream spray range is average in general but perfect for spritzing an attacker on a trail or sidewalk, and there’s a secure safety feature to prevent accidental discharge.
Some users reported that the SABRE Red Pepper Spray—Runner safety could get stuck or not turn all the way.
As we mentioned, Sabre explicitly designed this product for running safety. It comes with a hand strap for easy carry without a purse or keys. That’s especially convenient since this product is the biggest on the list and would take up a lot of room.
This product also includes a 120-decibel alarm and an LED light. (Lights are excellent self-defense tools; see our review of the best flashlights for defense to learn more.)
#3 review: Sabre Campus Safety Defense Pepper Gel
Sabre Campus Safety Defense Pepper Gel’s quick-release design is ideal for preventing attacks when unlocking your home or car. But its range is limited to just 10 feet.
- Quick-detach feature
- Flip top safety
- Contains UV dye
- 4-year shelf life
- Shorter range than competitors
- Expensive cost per ounce
Despite the college-oriented name, Sabre Campus Safety Defense Pepper Gel isn’t limited to students. This thoughtfully designed spray is for anyone who wants a little security jangling on their keyring.
This container holds a minuscule amount of spray: .54 ounces. So although the $9.71 is a sweet deal next to other products’ up-front costs, it works out to $17.98 an ounce. That’s comparable to Sabre Red Pepper Spray—Runner but way more than Sabre Red Pepper Gel.
Sabre clearly designed this product for a fast-paced, close-range response. That’s a double-edged sword.
For instance, the quick-release keyring lets you swiftly separate the spray from your keys. That way, if your keys are in a lock when the assailant appears, you don’t have to pull them out. And even though the product uses hard-to-aim gel spray, at a range of just 10 feet, you shouldn’t need too much accuracy to hit your target.
But if you’re approached by a figure from the other side of the road, well, you have to wait until said figure gets pretty close. Yikes.
The Sabre Campus Safety Defense Pepper Gel’s sold in pink and in black. If you’re not a fan of those colors, you can also try the Kuros! Key Case Pepper Spray: same product, same features, just in aqua. Sabre teamed up with Kuros! to develop this version. It costs $13.49* ($24.98 an ounce), but part of the proceeds go toward pepper sprays for women in developing countries.
#4 review: Fox Labs Mean Green H2OC
“Mean Green” isn’t just a cute name; Fox Labs’ Mean Green dye formula leaves a perpetrator with easily identifiable green skin.
- Tied with Sabre Red Pepper Spray—Runner for highest shot number
- Range of 12 to 15 feet
- Green marker dye
- Flip top safety
- Large nozzle opening disperses 3 grams per burst
- 3-year shelf life
- Dye is permanent
This unique pepper spray from Fox Labs is one of the strongest on the market and contains green marker dye for identifying attackers. Fox Labs also uses a large nozzle opening to get the maximum amount of pepper spray in each burst. This design makes the Mean Green H2OC formula an extremely effective self-defense weapon.
While the Mean Green H2OC formula comes in a smaller size (and even a fogger spray), we like the three-ounce pepper spray the best. It holds more than any other spray in this review, but it’s still smaller than the Sabre Red Pepper Spray—Runner and Sabre Campus Safety Defense Pepper Gel. And the price for the three-ounce option is extremely affordable at $25.99 (a.k.a. $8.66 an ounce). That’s just slightly more than the next-best cost, Sabre Red Pepper Gel.
We love that you can catch the perpetrator green-handed with the dye, but if you get it on yourself, you won’t have a pleasant experience. The green’s not tattoo-permanent; it’s more Sharpie-on-your-skin-permanent. Still, it’ll take a while to come off.
The most significant drawback is that the three-year shelf life is shorter than the four-year shelf life of competitors. And because Fox Labs’s priority is to make sure customers have working products, it recommends replacing the pepper spray two years after purchase. So you’d replace this one twice as often as another brand.
#5 review: Mace Brand Empower Pepper Spray
Mace Brand Empower Pepper Spray is the perfect size for a pocket or purse and has UV dye and a four-year shelf life.
- Contains UV dye
- 4-year shelf life
- Flip top safety
- Fewer bursts than most competitors
Mace Brand Empower Pepper Spray is an easily carried pepper spray with an average range and a more-than-adequate number of bursts. With UV dye and a standard four-year shelf life, it’s a solid choice, though its main standout feature is brand longevity and recognizability.
Surprisingly, Mace doesn’t reveal how much pepper spray this product contains. It costs $12.99, which is the same price as SABRE Red Pepper Spray—Runner. So as long as Mace Brand Empower Pepper Spray holds at least as much as SABRE Red Pepper Spray—Runner’s .75 ounces, it’s level with the industry.
Like Mean Green, the Mace Brand Empower Sprays on Amazon underwent a recent sales change. The one-pack’s currently sold out, but a two-pack is available. As with Mean Green, though, this isn’t as cost effective for the amount of spray you get.
We’re pretty into the Mace Brand Empower Pepper Spray’s small size. It’s rivaled only by SABRE Red Pepper Gel. Keep it in your pocket or pop it in your purse and you’re good to go.
Also, Mace is a well-known brand. Even though this pepper spray doesn’t use the mace formula, we’re the first to admit that Mace has been on the self-defense sprays market for a long time. There’s something to be said for that kind of brand longevity.
Other products we considered
Fox Labs Flip Top Stream Pepper Spray
The Flip Top is another great offering from Fox Labs. Like the Mean Green spray, the Flip Top has a shorter shelf life than many competitors. It has a similar range and number of shots as SABRE Red Pepper Gel but contains less spray, and it’s a lot more expensive without any real reason. You can view this spray on Amazon.
Defense Technology First Defense 360 MK-3 Stream OC Aerosol
Defense Technology Aerosol is comparable to Fox Labs Mean Green in price and volume, but it has a smaller range, fewer shots, and no dye of any kind. Still, this is a reliable brand, and the unique 360-degree technology allows you to spray from any angle. Learn more about Defense Technology Aerosol on Amazon.
Pepper spray guns
We looked at a few different pepper spray guns like the Mace Brand Pepper Spray LED Gun. Spray guns are refillable, which is a big plus, and they look intimidating. But they tend to be larger and more expensive. They can also be a tad controversial since some resemble real firearms.
If you like the idea of carrying a gun-like weapon but want something that packs a bigger wallop than pepper spray, check out the best tasers and stun guns.
Pepper spray FAQ
What is pepper spray, and what can it do?
Pepper spray is also known as OC spray because it contains oleoresin capsicum (OC), an oil derived from hot peppers. This nonlethal weapon inflames the eyes, nasal passages, and respiratory tract to incapacitate would-be muggers or sex offenders temporarily. The post-spray symptoms include the following:
- excessive tears
- burning pain
- swelling of the eyelids
- difficulty breathing/shortness of breath
- temporary blindness
Because pepper spray affects the eyes and respiratory system, it doesn’t matter if your attacker is big or small—it’ll still hurt. The key is to make sure you know how to use the spray correctly and effectively.
Some pepper spray companies have test canisters that spray just like the real thing but don’t contain any inflammatory chemicals. If you’re worried about using your pepper spray, you can purchase a test canister for practice, though they usually cost almost as much as the normal canisters.
Many companies also offer video tutorials or written instructions, so be sure to review all training materials before venturing out with your new pepper spray.
What should I look for in a pepper spray?
Not all pepper sprays are created equal. Here are a few things to consider when looking for a good one.
Pepper sprays with a longer spray range protect you better than close-range sprays. But that range may make it more difficult to aim accurately.
Number of shots
A canister with more shots allows you to use the pepper spray more than once, to use it against multiple attackers (if needed), and to fire a test shot once a year to make sure it’s still functioning correctly.
Usually, a shot is considered half a second long, so even a pepper spray with 25 or 35 shots is only good for about 10 to 15 seconds total. Also, your pepper spray brand may recommend replacement after a single use.
There are several spray patterns for pepper sprays, and each one has advantages:
- A stream pattern has a liquid base and sprays a lot like a water gun. The greatest strength is its range, which is generally around 10 feet. The stream pattern is best for outdoor use, and it’s less likely to be affected by the environment (like wind or rain). It’s also less likely to turn back to hit you or anyone around you. The downside: a stream requires accuracy to be effective.
- A fog pattern is usually found in bear spray as well as some regular pepper sprays. It covers a broader area, which makes correct aim less critical and is ideal for protecting against multiple attackers. It also has a longer range of up to 25 feet. But you (and any bystanders) are more susceptible to being affected, and the longer range means there are fewer shots in a canister.
- A foam pattern is better for indoor use and sprays like shaving cream. It’s thicker and stickier than some of the other types of sprays, which reduces the chance of spraying unwanted targets. To use it effectively, you do need good aim, and you won’t have a very long range—only about four to six feet.
- A gel pattern is similar to the foam but has a much longer range of 10 to 15 feet. Like the foam, it’s ideal for indoor use and quite sticky, minimizing the risk of other people being affected by the spray. There’s little chance of being affected yourself, though you do need to have pretty good aim to use this one.
We chose products with a stream or gel spray pattern because of their range and because they’re less likely to blow back and affect you. If you want to try out a different spray type, most pepper sprays come in multiple forms.
You don’t want to deploy your pepper spray accidentally in your purse or pocket or even just while handling the canister. Most pepper sprays have either a flip top or a twist top to prevent accidental discharge. We found that a flip top is generally more reliable, but both types work well.
The size you need depends on where you intend to carry or store your pepper spray. If you want something to keep in a purse or to take with you while you go running, look for small, compact canisters that attach to keyrings or have a jogger armband.
You might wonder, Is pepper spray legal? Yes, pepper spray is legal in all 50 US states. However, several states have restrictions for spray canister size or weight, ingredient types or amounts, how you can use spray, and who’s allowed to purchase spray and from where. Check your state’s laws before purchasing, and adhere to any guidelines set by your state authorities.
How much is pepper spray?
As we’ve shown, pepper spray costs can vary widely. You may want to spend more for a specific feature. You might also decide to spend less overall for something small and basic, like Sabre Campus Safety Defense Pepper Gel.
If you want to compare pepper sprays that aren’t in this review, divide their prices by their ounces. You’ll get the cost per ounce, which is the best price comparison point.
Does pepper spray expire?
Yes. Most manufacturers’ sprays last between three and five years, though some suggest you replace it more frequently for best results. Also, your pepper spray brand may suggest getting a new pepper spray after you use a product, even if there’s still some formula left.
What’s in pepper spray?
You’ll want a high-strength pepper spray for maximum effect. The reported oleoresin capsicum (OC) level, which is a percentage usually between 2% and 15%, measures how much OC oil is in the canister.
But it doesn’t measure how hot the pepper spray is. It’s actually the amount, type, and concentration of capsaicinoid chemicals, including the capsaicin within the OC oil, that cause the pepper spray to be so hot and immediately painful.
Some sprays contain OC only, while others combine OC with other ingredients such as UV dye, which helps police officers or other law enforcement identify your attacker more easily. We recommend UV dye or even a visible dye like Fox Labs’ Mean Green. Anyone who attempts to assault you is dangerous and shouldn’t be left roaming the streets.
Some pepper sprays also contain tear gas. This triple combo—pepper spray, UV dye, and tear gas—can be found in some sprays. Tear gas is illegal in some places, so make sure you don’t buy a combo if you can’t use it. Titles should typically clue you in, like Mace Defense Triple Action Spray or Sabre 3-in-1 Pepper Spray.
As a final note, we’ve found tear gas is generally unnecessary. It won’t do anything a high-strength pepper spray formula doesn’t.
Which leads us to a few ways to measure the strongest pepper sprays.
This scale was developed by a pharmacist to measure the spicy heat of chili peppers in Scoville heat units (SHU). Some manufacturers report this number. While it’s a better indicator than just the OC percentage, it shows the hotness of the raw pepper, not of the overall spray formula. But if this is the only measurement you can find, look for sprays with at least a 500,000 SHU rating.
Capsaicin and related capsaicinoids (CRC)
CRC measures how many capsaicinoids are in the pepper spray ingredients. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates this rating. It isn’t commonly reported, but if it is, look for a CRC rating of 1% or higher.
Major capsaicinoids (MC)
The MC percentage indicates the concentration of heat-bearing capsaicinoid chemicals within the spray, and it ranges from 0.18% up to about 1.33%. This percentage is the best measure of the strength of a pepper spray, so look for an MC rating.
Frustratingly, pepper spray manufacturers tend to be a bit secretive about their MC percentages and even where their peppers fall on the Scoville scale. Sabre’s pretty open, but it’s a toss-up as to whether you’ll find this information on other brand websites. You can almost always find the OC level, though.
Which pepper spray is right for me?
When choosing a pepper spray, you should consider how and where you want to carry and use the spray. Will you take it with you while you’re jogging or walking the dog? Do you want something you can carry with you all the time in a purse or pocket? Are you looking for a spray that can be part of your home defenses?
Our top five picks can be carried around with you if that’s what you’re looking for.
Where can I buy pepper spray?
The links in this review will take you straight to Amazon. You can also buy directly from the manufacturer or, possibly, from a nearby store like Walmart or Target.
What if I pepper spray myself?
It happens. Once you have pepper spray around, it’s essential to know what to do in case of exposure.
Get some fresh air.
Leave the area to limit spray exposure.
Remove exposed clothing.
If your clothes come in contact with the pepper spray, get them off quickly. Do everything you can to avoid additional contact with your face and skin.
Flush your eyes.
Flush your eyes with cold water right away. If you’re wearing contact lenses, immediately get them out and throw them away. If your hands have pepper spray on them, ask someone for help. Blink rapidly to help flush your eyes out as well.
Once you’ve rinsed your eyes, then, and only then, put an ice pack on your irritated eyes to soothe them.
Don’t rub your eyes, face, or skin.
Touching or rubbing any areas that are reacting to the pepper spray will make it worse. If there’s liquid pepper spray sitting on your skin, gently pat it off with a paper towel.
Use whole milk to take out the sting.
Milk won’t remove the OC oil, but it will reduce the burning sensation. Soak the affected area in a bowl of milk or place a towel soaked in milk over it.
You can theoretically use milk to rinse out your eyes as well, but most experts recommend against it. Use water or saline solution for your eyes instead.
Use dishwashing soap to wash it off.
Combine one part dishwashing liquid with three parts water to wash off the oil. Don’t rub it initially; just continue to soak or rinse the affected areas several times. Soak your face in a bowl of the mixture for about 20 seconds at a time. (Change the water after each soaking.) Keep rinsing all affected areas until you can touch them without pain.
Wash your hands thoroughly.
Wash your hands several times and avoid touching your face until your hands are entirely free of pepper spray contamination.
You don’t need to seek professional medical attention after being exposed to pepper spray. Still, you certainly can and should if you’re concerned about any long-term effects or if these methods aren’t working well. The important thing is to not panic so you can treat yourself as soon as possible.
Pepper spray is an excellent self-defense tool that’s widely available and easy to use. Just check your local laws and regulations regarding pepper spray before purchasing any, and keep in mind what to look for in a high-quality spray that will work for you.
As a recap, here are the pepper sprays we recommend:
- Sabre Red Pepper Gel
- Sabre Red Pepper Spray—Runner
- Sabre Campus Safety Defense Pepper Gel
- Fox Labs Mean Green H20C
- Mace Brand Empower Pepper Spray
If you’re uncomfortable carrying a weapon, even a pepper spray, check out this article on self-defense without a gun.
Contributing author: Kate Herrick