Pepper spray (including the brand name Mace) causes extreme stinging and burning in the eyes and nose. If you’ve been pepper sprayed, you’ll need to flush the chemical out. Water works, but it’s not the only option.
What is in pepper spray?
Pepper spray is called that because it contains capsaicin, the chemical that makes chilli peppers taste spicy. If you’ve ever rubbed your eyes after chopping jalapeños, you get the idea. It can irritate other parts of your body as well, including the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and vulva (wash your hands very well before going to the bathroom and wiping).
Capsaicin is oily, and you may remember from chemistry class (or from kitchen experience) that oil dissolves best in other oils or in emulsifying mixtures like soap or milk. Soap is best for removing capsaicin from skin, but you’ll need to be a bit more delicate with your eyes.
How do you get pepper spray out of your eyes?
Remove contact lenses—ideally with clean hands—if you have them in. Do not rub your eyes. (Do not rub or touch anything, if you can help it.) Blink repeatedly.
As with tear gas, flushing your eyes with water is an effective and safe way to get pepper spray out. (Having a friend help you is ideal, since you may have trouble seeing.) Though water doesn’t bind to the chemical, a stream of water can still physically push the capsaicin out of your eyes. For this reason, make sure to squirt the eyes directly, and not other parts of the face—if there is pepper spray on your forehead, you don’t want to send it into your eyes.
Aside from water, you can also use saline or a bit of no-tears baby shampoo mixed into water (mix this up in a spray or squirt bottle ahead of time).
Less commonly recommended are milk and a 50/50 mixture of an antacid such as Maalox and water. It’s unclear if these actually work better than the options above, and in general it’s best to avoid putting anything unnecessary into the eyes. If you do use an antacid, make sure it is unflavoured. Mint flavouring, especially, will irritate eyes further.
In cold weather or in places where you do not have access to water, a cloth or paper towel soaked in vegetable oil may help; wipe your eyes with it. Frontline Wellness, a group that provides medic support at protests, has a more complete guide to dealing with pepper spray here.
It’s also worth noting that Mace makes their own brand of decontamination spray, although they don’t say what’s in it. You can buy it here. They say it “dramatically reduces pepper spray decontamination time.”
Remove the pepper spray from your skin and clothes
If you touch another part of your face or clothes and then touch your eyes, you’ll experience the burning all over again.
Soap is the best way to remove pepper spray residue from skin. Consider carrying dish soap and paper towels to wipe down skin. You’ll also want to wash your clothing, and plan to wash or discard any other belongings that may have been sprayed. Be careful removing your clothing, and if you are away from home, pack your clothes and other contaminated items in a plastic bag to stop them from spreading the chemical to other people or objects.
As with tear gas, pepper spray is supposed to be painful in the short term but mostly harmless in the long term. However, it can cause complications in some people, including breathing problems in people with asthma. Seek medical help if somebody is having trouble breathing.