Pepper spray is a common tool used for defense by millions of people in this country, but how does it work? Massachusetts' heavy regulation on the item, requiring a license, and the university campuses outright ban (for innocent people only) would lead one to believe this a is a dangerous mysterious substance, but that is far from the case. Most pepper spray on the market is merely a highly concentrated mixture of capsaicin, or the chemical in peppers that makes them taste hot, though there are some other variants on the market which use synthetic active ingredients.
So how do these mysterious substances work on the human body as a deterrent? Most people I know say getting pepper sprayed was one of the worst experiences of their lives, though none of them bear any lasting effects. In fact all of these people were exposed to the agent as a regular part of law enforcement or military training. Capsaicin based defensive sprays work by immediately agitating exposed skin and membrane through activation of the TRPV1 channel, intended for thermoregulation and temperature sensing. Plants likely evolved capsaicin to take advantage of this channel as a defense mechanism… and it clearly does that quite well.
Once these channels are activated the body responds as it would if there were an actual burn to the affected area through swelling and mucous production. This results in a perpetrators eyes swelling shut, as well as difficulty breathing, all in addition to a good amount of pain and discomfort. The effects usually begin to subside within 5 minutes to an hour. Pepper spray is used very frequently both in real life situations and training with no lasting effects. There are, however, a handful of cases where a death has had pepper spray listed as a contributing factor, this is often in the case of someone already under respiratory distress, or with a pre-existing heart condition that is not able to withstand the additional stress. Generally speaking, however, it is a safe substance with no known lasting effects after a single exposure.
So next time you are at a Umass party that gets broken up by the police, and you find yourself getting sprayed with pepper spray, just remember no actual damage has been done to your body, and make sure you ask them to pass the nachos, as you've got some prime seasoning right there!
Michael Ball (1)