Mace and pepper spray: FAQs

WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999. Steve Kalser/CC BY 2.0

What’s the difference between mace and pepper spray?

In another lifetime, I was a bartender during Carnival on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was early in the evening, with just a few thousand- rather than tens of thousands- happy people cheerily drinking beer and negotiating for beads.

What is mace?

Mace isn’t mace. Mace, a tear gas, got replaced by a concentrated hot pepper spray in most countries for a couple of reasons. One: Pepper spray is effective across all spectra of sobriety and sanity. Mace didn’t work very well on the most dangerous people in an angry mob: the painlessly drunk, violent or insane. Two: Which sounds better?  ‘Rioters were tear-gassed’ or ‘Rioters were pepper-sprayed.’

Update: sadly, the use of tear gas (a chemical weapon banned for use in warfare) to disband protesting civilians is on the rise.

Suddenly, an acrid odour cut through the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke. My colleague, working the beer window, began coughing uncontrollably and fell to his knees, hands on his face. Seconds later, everyone else in the bar did the same.

What does it do?

It won’t kill you, (usually) but if you get sprayed, you might wish it had.

Your skin burns, your eyes swell shut, you might vomit and breathing could get difficult. Expect to cough uncontrollably for about 25 minutes. Temporary blindness and disorientation may last about as long.

My top bouncer, a military veteran, closed the front doors, and herded everyone to the back. He ordered us to start filling ice buckets with water, as many as we could find.

He led the worst of the victims to the back of the bar: my colleague and a cute girl he’d been chatting up. Their faces were unrecognisable- red and swollen. Their eyes, noses and mouths dripped. My colleague, a 2-metre man who did Iron Man competitions ‘for fun,’ bawled.

It hurts! How do I get it off?

Don’t touch anything! Your hands are probably covered in pepper spray. Take out your contacts right away. Better: get someone who hasn’t been sprayed to help you.

Wash exposed bits with soap and water. This means not scrubbing frantically, as one might be tempted to do when your face is on fire like the bad guys in the climax of ‘Indiana Jones,’ but gently dipping exposed bits into cool soapy water. Make sure the soap isn’t oil-based, that will spread the spray further.

If you can open your eyes, blinking helps produce more tears. Saline solution also works. Toothpaste doesn’t.

Pat, rather than rub dry. Afterwards, stay away from oil-based creams and lotions: they’ll keep the heat in. Milk can reduce the sting.

What about my lucky protest T-shirt?

Get rid of your clothes. Pepper spray is oil-based. It’s meant to stick to stuff. You know that grease stain that you can’t get out? Think grease stain with fire-breathing properties.

Make sure your hands are absolutely free of oleoresin capsicum before you touch any part of your body not affected. This includes using the loo.

Can I find an effective antidote online?

Sure! And a unicorn, and a dreamy member of Nigerian royalty.

Online videos of various antidotes’ epic failures are entertaining only if one enjoys seeing camo-clad flat-topped ginormous tough guys scream and sob. But if you can stand it, the videos illustrate how absolutely crippling pepper spray can be.

Because they have standby stations during Carnival, the paramedics arrived after just a few minutes. Shocked, they agreed with my bouncer: the crowd had been pepper sprayed. They took away the worst-off for a professional eyewash and left the rest of us coughing and crying.

How long does it last?

A 1-second burst of pepper spray can debilitate its victims for hours. Depending on the delivery vessel, the product has a range of a few meters to a huge swath. This means that even if you’re minding your own business inside a nice bar, or even your car, you may get the tail end of a spray meant for hooligans on the street.

If you see trouble starting, shut the windows and turn off the air conditioning. Anyone with breathing issues should have a rescue inhaler handy. Give the area at least an hour after the crowd disperses to open the windows or go outside.

An hour later, we cautiously reopened the doors: the show must go on.

My colleague came back to work the next day. His face didn’t look like a pizza anymore, but it did look as if he’d stayed up all night watching gloomy chick flicks.  

How do I avoid getting pepper sprayed?

Stay away from riots, and riot police. Riot police have stressful jobs. They have head-to-toe covering, including goggles and breathing gear. They also have the pepper spray. Nervous cops may misinterpret a friendly greeting- the friendly English ‘hiya’ sounds like the Turkish word for ‘testicles’ -or just have itchy trigger-fingers.

You may not have a choice. And it might happen completely unexpectedly. Try to move away from the sprayer (not downwind, then you’ll have to deal with front and back hotspots) and to a sheltered place with access to water. Expect many others in similar need.

In the US, women are often encouraged to attach pepper spray to their key chains, especially when attending huge public events. According to police, the incident was an isolated event, probably an accident involving a crush of dancing people, an unlocked keychain canister, and one curious idiot.

Make a plan

Travelling to or through a riot-prone area? Have a plan in place. Where can you shelter? Find water? (Believe me, that half-litre you’re carrying isn’t going to cut it) Is there a hospital nearby? A hotel?

Well done. By making it to the end of this article, you’ve done the first step.

staying safe in hostile environments