When it comes to self-defense as a prepper, you always want to make sure that you are armed and ready to use deadly force to defend yourself, your family, and your property. However, not every situation requires deadly force, and you can not always be armed with a firearm. Therefore having a strong less than lethal option available is an excellent practice to get into.
Pepper spray is an excellent option, and in this article, we’re not only giving you the best pepper sprays on the market, we’ll tell you what to look for when buying one.
Another reason to carry a less than lethal is the ability to defend and deter without revealing your firearm. Oftentimes, the presence of a gun in a conflict can escalate the situation, which is one reason you are taught not to draw your weapon unless you are ready to use it.
Having a less lethal option, however, can allow you to change the dynamic of an altercation without further provoking the other side.
OC Spray, commonly called pepper spray, is the most common less-than-lethal weapon in use and is used by law enforcement, correctional facilities, professional security agencies, and many others.
The OC stands for oleoresin capsicum, a wax-like resin that is an extract from peppers and is usually dissolved in a solvent before being put in a can and pressurized.
The Effectiveness of Pepper Spray
Pepper spray is effective on most subjects, but not all. The vast majority of people will be affected and will experience possibly debilitating responses that will most likely stop their aggression. However, it is essential to remember that not everyone is going to be affected, and that each person will react differently to the exposure.
Most people will experience a near instant burning sensation and irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat. Within 10 to 20 seconds they will experience involuntary constriction of the trachea which will cause a feeling of panic and involuntary coughing.
At 30 seconds after exposure, the person will experience excessive mucus production as the pepper product causes inflammation of the upper respiratory system. Combined with the excessive tear production, the mucus adds another obstacle to being able to breathe properly.
At 30 seconds after exposure most subjects will be blinded due to involuntary eye closure and excessive tear production, coughing, gagging, and gasping for air, and experiencing a very high level of pain and burning sensation. This is more than sufficient to stop most aggression.
These effects will continue on average for 30 to 45 minutes, even after the subject has been removed from the contaminated area.
The crucial part of this equation is that first 10 to 20 seconds. During that initial timeframe after the spray makes contact the subject can still attack before the pepper product takes effect.
If you are stopping someone from crossing a fence, that will most likely not be an issue. If someone is charging towards you, it is possible that you may have to fight them for that 10 to 20 seconds until the start to react to the effects of the spray.
It is for this reason that pepper spray is generally considered a diversionary weapon. You spray the individual and then retreat from the area to seek safety somewhere else or to better equip yourself to deal with the threat.
Some pepper products work faster than others, which most people contribute to the purity of the resin that is used to make the pepper spray. The resin is combined with a solvent. So the final product will consist of solvent, resin, and whatever impurities were present in the resin.
These impurities are what effects the delayed reaction. Therefore, it is also important to pay attention to the purity of the OC resin when selecting a product.
How is Pepper Spray Measured?
If you begin to research which pepper spray is the best or which to purchase for your needs you will be inundated with different measurements and claims of a particular measurement being the best way to determine which spray is best.
The “heat” of these substances is measured by the percentage of major capsaicinoids. The most potent formulation on the market currently is 1.33%, and that manufacturer is Sabre Red. This is the brand and formulation that I carried and used in prison, and I can assure you it is incredibly effective.
The day I completed my “Level 1 Exposure” to be certified to carry and use pepper spray in law enforcement, which consists of a direct spray to the face and eyes, followed by a mandatory “cooking” period and then an obstacle course with live attackers with strike pads, was the worst experience of my training career.
There are two other measurements besides the percentage of major capsaicinoids that are used by manufacturers and companies in advertising OC sprays. However, these measurements can vary and shouldn’t be used to compare different sprays as the numbers may not be telling the entire story or accurately representing the facts.
These are the SHU or Scoville Heat Units, and the other is OC percentage. The SHU’s can vary from batch to batch of peppers used in the spray, and the number advertised is an “average”.
The number is also often a measurement that is based on the raw pepper, not the formulation itself. Likewise, the OC percentage can vary and is merely a measurement of the extract in the formulation, not the potency of the formulation.
The only accurate way to measure the strength of a pepper spray is using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography or HPLC. HPLC is a system that breaks down a sample into its individual components and measures them with extreme accuracy.
Some companies do use HPLC testing on the pepper spray products, which increases the accuracy of the statements. The best companies use HPLC testing on each batch of pepper spray, to ensure that each batch is up to standards and will be effective.
You may also hear the term “Nozzle Heat” when researching or discussing pepper spray. Nozzle heat is referring to the amount of SHU that is actually being put out of the nozzle, which sounds like a great number to compare different pepper sprays with.
However, there is a significant factor that is missing from the nozzle heat equation, and that is time. If the point of spraying someone with pepper spray is just to cause them pain, then the higher nozzle heat numbers would be great. However when it comes to stopping an attacker, how fast that pain sets in is just as important.
A lot of defense spray companies have been pushing towards the higher percentage OC resin contents and advertising the high nozzle heat numbers. However, to achieve this, they are using a much less pure resin that still contains a lot of “junk” that has not been filtered or purified out such as sugar and unwanted oils.
These extra components delay the action of the OC, leaving the attacker to continue for longer after being sprayed that if they had been hit with a much purer and faster-acting spray. The bottom line when researching pepper spray is that purity is more critical than raw heat.
Different Styles and Varieties
Now pepper spray is available in three primary product types, foam, gel, and spray. The spray is available in either a fog pattern or a stream, both has its pros and cons.
Fog pattern spray is comparable to a shotgun blast. It comes out in a cone and spreads out the further it gets from the can. This can be great for making sure you hit your target, but it comes at the cost of accuracy and distance. It also creates a much higher risk for cross-contamination, meaning you may get some of the spray as well.
The stream sprays further but requires you to be a little more accurate. However, you can control where the spray goes, and reduce the chance of taking you or one of your teammates out of the fight.
Thought should also be given to exposing bystanders. People with breathing problems, the elderly, children, and pregnant women are much more susceptible to the effects of OC spray, and care should be taken that they are not exposed.
Pepper Gel is another popular product type. The gel comes out in a stream, which helps to eliminate blowback from the wind. It also increases the range by as much as 20%, and only affects what it touches, with almost zero inhalation exposure, which can affect you, other innocent bystanders.
The other advantages to the gel is that is sticks practically instantly and can be very difficult to get off. It is also very visible, helping you verify you have hit your target.
Foam spray is the other common type. The foam, much like the gel is suspended in a thick expanding foam. The foam “melts” as soon as it makes contact, covering the suspect in pepper product.
The foam also allows you to use a stream, but still, help with accuracy. The downside to the foam is the distance. Most foam sprays are only recommended for 8 to 10 feet. This product is really limited to close quarters, such as inside of a vehicle.
Last is the pepper spray gun. Basically, this product looks like a small plastic gun, but when fired, delivers a powerful burst of pepper product with increased range.
The most popular is the Kimber PepperBlaster II. These products are out there, but I personally do not recommend them. Anytime you point something that looks like a gun at someone, you are asking for problems.
Blended formulations are products that have other chemical agents mixed in along with the OC spray. The most common formulations contain added UV dye to help identify the suspect if they are not immediately apprehended and CS which is commonly known as “tear gas.”
These products combine multiple agents to increase the pain and response of an exposed subject. They have been on the market for many years, but since they are not approved for use by law enforcement and military use, are not as popular on the civilian market.
There are products on the market that are designed to help with decontaminating from exposure to pepper spray, and some of it can be pretty handy to have on hand in case self-contamination or cross-contamination occurs during an incident.
SABRE, a popular pepper product company, make SABRE De-Con, which consists of a “cleanse” solution and a “soothe” solution. This product is used by many law enforcement training academies and detention facilities for decon. I have used it, and it does reduce the effects but does not totally remove it.
Another popular product is Sudecon Wipes, which is manufactured by Fox Labs. This product is individual towelettes that you use to clean yourself or another person with after exposure. I have used these as well and they work really well, but will still not totally remove the effects.
The 5 Best Pepper Sprays on the Market
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. See my full disclosure for more.
The number one product on our list is SABRE Red Pepper Gel. This product is a “best seller” for many companies that sell pepper spray, and it has earned a lot of praise from people who have had to use it in volatile situations.
The gel is formulated to stick to its target and not rebound. This helps prevent accidental contamination. The gel is also heavier which gives it a few advantages.
The extra weight allows for a higher effective distance, which SABRE claims to be 18 feet with the 1.8oz flip-top can, which is a 20% increase of similar products. The weight also helps to reduce the effects of the wind on the spray which can affect accuracy, effective distance, and accidental contamination.
The SABRE Pepper Gel also includes a UV dye which will help to identify attackers if they are not immediately taken into custody.
The spray itself is a dark orange color that is highly visible which helps when spraying someone as you can more easily see where the product is hitting. It also helps to see what has been contaminated making any necessary cleanup much more straightforward.
These advantages make this product suitable for use in many different environments where regular pepper spray would not be appropriate. The gel can be used inside without worry about it getting in the HVAC system, in a vehicle without worrying about blowback affecting you, in a crowded area without fear of accidental contamination of bystanders, and outdoors in less than perfect weather conditions.
This is one of the main reasons this product make number one on our list. It is highly versatile and can be carried with you at all times instead of having different products and switching between them as you do outdoor chores, run errands in town, or are in the house.
The Pepper Gel also meets the minimum specifications for bear spray, though I would not intentionally carry it for that reason.
The 1.8oz flip top can is small enough to be carried on a belt comfortably or tucked away in a purse or cargo pocket. The flip top is designed to prevent accidental misfires since you have to lift the lid to access the trigger.
The can will deliver 18 bursts of gel before losing any pressure. This should be enough product to allow you to deliver multiple shots on an attacker and defend against multiple attackers at once.
Every batch of SABRE pepper gel is tested using in house high-performance liquid chromatography testing, which eliminates what they claim is a 30% failure rate of other products due to inconsistency in the formulations.
The pepper gel also had a 4-year shelf life which is more than the 2 to 3 years of many different products available.
Overall, the SABRE Pepper Gel seems to outperform other products and its manufacturing process has testing in place to ensure you have a reliable product that will work when needed.
Its versatility is its most significant advantage, allowing you to attach it to your belt in the morning and know that it will work in whatever situation you find yourself in. This product is also available in a Keychain version, a smaller compact “Runners'” version, and a large wall-mounted Home Defense version.
Next, on our list, the “5.3” pepper spray from Fox Labs. Fox Labs has earned a highly praised reputation among civilian consumers as well as their law enforcement and military customers. Their products are designed to be as pure and technologically possible and are tested rigorously to ensure that they are the best.
When it comes to heat, many people say that the “5.3” formulation is the hottest on the market. Subjects that have been spayed with both 5.3which the difference in heat being like the difference between a match and a blowtorch.
According to Fox Labs, the purity of their resin is the key to how fast their formulation works and to the intense burning felt with their product.
Their 1.5oz flip-top can measures 4 inches tall by 1 1/4 inch diameter and has a 3-year shelf life. It will fire 18 half-second bursts at a distance of 17 to 20 feet. The spray also contains a UV marking dye to help identify attackers. “5.3” comes in a wide variety of containers and sizes, including a grenade can that works like a bug fogger.
Overall, the “5.3” is neck and neck with the SABRE Pepper Gel with only a few drawbacks setting them apart. The first is the consistency of the spray. The “5.3” is thin and will easily splash if fired close to a target.
The stream is much heavier than most sprays, which give you more product downrange to ensure proper coverage and exposure on the attacker but also causes more rebound that can cause accidental contamination.
The spray is also nearly transparent, which makes it more difficult to see where the spray is impacting, making for more difficult aiming.
Number three is another product from Fox Labs, Mean Green Pepper Spray. Mean Green is very similar to the “5.3” formulation, but the solvent is plain water, making it more environmentally safe and less flammable. The is also a vibrant green dye added to the spray as a marking agent to help identify attackers.
The vibrant green dye makes it very visible, so you can easily see where the spray makes contact. If you hit someone with a very healthy dose of Mean Green, they will be stained green from the chest up.
As mentioned with the SABRE pepper gel, the added dye also makes cleanup more straightforward and makes it immediately visible if there is any accidental contamination.
Overall Mean Green is a strong pepper spray from a manufacturer with an excellent reputation for high-quality products. It would serve well as a self-defense product.
Next on the list at number four is another product from SABRE, which is their 3 in 1 Pepper Spray. 3 in 1 is a blended formulation that combines OC spray with CS gas (tear gas) and a UV marking dye.
CS gas is a strong irritant that causes extreme watering of the eyes and irritation to the nose, throat, and eyes. When subjected to CS gas, most people cannot open their eyes, cough, and gasp for air, and experience a strong burning sensation in the chest, throat, nose, and eyes.
When added to OC spray, the CS intensifies the overall effects of the OC spray, but also causes the subject to cough uncontrollably and gasp for air. It also adds the intense burn in the lungs and throat, which intensifies the overall reaction.
A lot of speculation around why blended formulations are not more popular with civilians has to do with the face that blended formulations are not approved for use by law enforcement and the military.
The reason they do not use the CS is that it affects the area and not just the person. While it is still possible to get exposed to OC handcuffing someone, the effects are nowhere near as strong as wrestling someone covered in CS.
This is why law enforcement officer carries on their belt straight OC spray and reserve the CS gas for crowd control or barricaded subjects where it is deployed with the use of a projectile and away from the officers.
The drawback for civilians in the same, in that whatever space you use the spray in will be affected. For example, if you sprayed an Uber driver who refused to let you get out of the car, the entire car is going to turn into a gas chamber, affecting you and whoever else is in the car as well.
SABRE 3 in 1 is a great product for people who are going to be outdoors. It is very popular with runners and college students, who after deployment, can run away from the area to get help.
5. Defense Technology First Defense 1.3% OC Spray
The last spray on our list is Defense Technologies First Defense 1.3% OC Spray. Defense Technology is a company that is used by many law enforcement and corrections facilities across the country. I carried and used the First Defense 1.3% OC when I worked in a prison, and it is very good pepper spray.
Defense Technology designed the spray be used by law enforcement and other authorities as their first line of less than lethal force, which is where the name First Defense comes from. The formulation was designed to not atomize and effect the officers apprehending the subject after they have been exposed.
The major drawbacks with Defense Technology spray are the amount of OC in the can and the distance the can will shoot. Their 1.5oz Mk3 can contain 10-12 short bursts and has a distance of only 10 to 12 feet. This is much lower than say the Fox Labs “5.3” 1.5oz can which will fire 18 half-second bursts at a distance of 17 to 20 feet.
All of the sprays on this list would make fine self-defense choice, but as you can see each has its individual advantages that set them apart from the others. Whatever spray you decide to carry, the important thing is that you carry it with you at all times. This is easier to do with the larger brands as they make many different product types to keep them as convenient as possible to have your spray with you.
As you make your choice and practice with your spray, keep in mind that not everyone is going to be affected and that each person will react differently to the exposure. Always make sure you have a backup plan, and that you are ready in case you need to bring the fight to them.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Steve grew up deep in the mountains on a family farm. After college, Steve spent over 15 years working in public service and has experience in Fire, EMS, and Law Enforcement. He has also worked with training and deploying search & rescue and service dogs for utilization in a variety of services.
Steve is also a Scout Leader with the Boy Scouts of America, and works to teach preparedness to the next generation. Steve has worked with and taught firearms and self-defense in multiple venues, from tactical applications to long range shooting, and also has extensive training in first aid and wilderness first aid.
An active prepper, Steve has devoted hundreds of hours to mastering and teaching skills and techniques for use in survival, homesteading, and general preparedness.