Rating Pepper Sprays

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Kendal Black

Mar 18, 2011
:fire: :fire: :fire:


Executive summary: There are many ways to describe (and advertise) pepper spray hotness. This leads to apples-to-oranges comparisons of one brand to another. There is, though, a reasonable way to measure a spray's hotness and the Canadians use it: by the percentage of absolute capsaicin in a spray--with no trifling about over "related capsaicinoids."


There is a lot of confusing information on the subject of how hot this or that pepper spray is. Various rating systems are used by various manufacturers and resellers.

I found something that was actually clear and comprehensible, though. Canada rates pepper sprays on the percentage of capsaicin contained in the spray that comes out of the can. Nothing but the capsaicin content is measured for the rating.

Some American firms rate their sprays on the percentage of capsaicin "and related capsasinoids" coming out of the can.

Health Canada says a spray containing .75% to 1.0% capsaicin (never mind any other capsaicinoids) is appropriate for defense against bears.

The U.S. EPA says bear spray can be up to 2.0% capsaicin and other capsaicinoids.

This page sells Canada-approved bear sprays and has product descriptions like

Sabre Wild Max - 1.0% CAPSAICIN - plus 0.84% other related capsaicinoids.

So this spray, which rates 1% in Canada, would rate nearly 2% under the U.S. scheme.

My reading elsewhere suggests that capsaicin is the hottest of the various related compounds in a pepper, so measuring just capsaicin for rating purposes makes more sense to me than measuring capsaicin and its cousins. If you just say x% "capsaicin and related capsaicinoids" you are dealing with unstated proportions of the hottest and the not so hot. I would think the proportions are bound to vary with the quality of the chili crop in a given year, but I'm no pepperologist. ;)

Footnotes on bear spray ratings:


Imputed SHU is superior to % based systems.

That said, I think delivery system is much more important than any of that, as modern pepper sprays rarely fail due to not being too hot. If you run into one of the fabled non-responders it isn't a 1% vs 2% issue.
Scoville units were devised to measure flavor effect of pepper products. It is one of those confusing units alluded to above. For example, one top brand of pepper spray boasts their OC has 5.3 million Scovilles. This extrapolates the scale beyond anything useful as a flavor measure. They then dilute their OC to 2% in the spray. Some would divide here, and conclude the delivered spray has something over a hundred thousand delivered Scovilles.

The same company used to claim 2 million Scoville OC diluted to 5%, for about the same Scovilles.

This creates confusion when compared to other ways of describing pepper spray. For example, there are "10% OC" brands with rather tepid OC. They sound strong, but if their base OC is weak, they aren't very good.

Much simpler to say something has n% actual capsaicin in the delivered stream. This is not only a direct measure of how hot something is, it is independently verifiable, by testing the product as delivered at the end user level. It is objective from one brand to another, with no place for loose definitions or apples-and-oranges comparisons in the advertising.
OC can be present in various percentages in a spray, but the kicker is that not all OC is created equal. Some OC's are hotter than others. Another way of saying this is some OC contains a lot of capsaicin, and other OC contains not so much.

The cannucks have a very good idea: let's cut to the chase, look at the bottom line and measure the main and hottest component directly. Let's just talk about what is coming out of the nozzle, and measurable. Then there is no confusion (intentional or otherwise) about a 'strong' 10% or whatever solution of weak OC, which is actually not as good as certain weak solutions of strong OC.
So I don't have to go all over looking for the :fire: stuff please post a link to that which is "the good stuff".
Anyone know what the shelf life is on these sprays? I have some three year old cans should they be replaced?

How does bear spray compare to the human personal defefense sprays?

We are having increasingly more frequent bear encounters here in East TN.

Approved for use in Canada only - we do not ship outside of Canada
So what's the best juice that can be purchased in the US?
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@ DAdams: Fox Labs 5.3 Million SHU is what you want for self defense against people. Get the cone model. It sends out a shotgun blast of spray. They also call them foggers.

As far as shelf life, if I'm not mistaken I believe it's around 2 years. It should say on the can.

For bear spray I'd go with the Guard Alaska brand. I'd be weary about spraying a person with it. I've heard that spray can kill smaller animals.

Short answer: I like Sabre products and Fox. As near as I can tell, Fox does not offer a bear spray per se. Sabre Frontiersman is what I'd pick.

I'm sure there are other good brands but I don't know much about them.

Longer answer:

I hope consumer pressure will bring US-available products into line with the Canadian rating system. Tell us how much straight capsaicin in in there, and keep that number separate from "related capsaicinoids." If you like, report it like the above Canadian brand, that you can't get here:

Sabre Wild Max - 1.0% CAPSAICIN - plus 0.84% other related capsaicinoids.

The closest thing we in the US have, to the Canadian rating, is the CRC rating: "Capsaicin and Related Capsaicinoids." The max allowed CRC for American bear spray is 2% and I would look for a product that claims that.

The hottest "people spray" products in most brands are about 1.4% CRC.
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I have to disagree Kendal. I had to spray a guy with Sabre & he didn't go down. I don't trust their products anymore. Maybe it was just that particular guy, but in that situation, once is one time too many.
Thank you, Kendall.

:) Hope this helps somebody. I think OC can be an important LTL option for private citizens, if we can get past certain misunderstandings, exaggerated expectations, street legends and so on.

Part of this is being clear on what's in the can.
I have to disagree Kendal. I had to spray a guy with Sabre & he didn't go down.

Sounds like awfully small sample size to make that generalization. I would bet it wouldn't matter what you sprayed him with. Always plan for a weapon to fail. That's why they invented the Mozambique.
Nah, it was a full 4.4 oz. can of Sabre Red. I had to beat the crap outta him with my bare hands to get him under control. If he was armed I would have shot him.

OC is not 100% effective. Nothing is. Proper training addresses this [just as proper gun training recognizes that pistols are pathetic, powerless, popguns and not every bad guy is going to disappear in a puff of smoke when shot by a .45].


The Canadian standards are interesting and certainly more objective than the EPA standards. One of the issues with OC in the US is that it is a completely unregulated field in which companies really can say whatever they want and the consumers [read Agencies], for the most part, are fairly ignorant.

Until there is a change in labeling, the most useful value in determining the 'hotness' of a given pepper spray is the Scoville Content or Scoville Value [these terms are interchangeable. The industry does not have a standard vocabulary].

Here's something that I wrote a few years ago, which might be of interest.

There are several different methods in common use to discuss the 'hotness' or pungency of OC sprays.

SHU or Scovile Heat Units

SHUs are a measurement of heat, as perceived from the burn sensation when a product is placed on the tongue. SHUs are the measurements derived from the Scoville Organoleptic Test, which was a taste test devised by Scoville while working as a pharmacologist for Parke Davis in 1912. The SOT devised a measurement scale that ran from 0 for the Bell Pepper & Banana Pepper to over 200,000 for the various Habanero Peppers and up to 16 Million for Pure Capsaicin. The SOT has been replaced by a method known as High-Performance Liquid Chromatography [HPLC]. Knowing the SHUs of a given product provides us with one number in the equation. Which is hotter, a 2 Million SHU product or 5.3 Million SHU product?

Percentage of OC

The percentage of OC only provides one number in the equation that is used to determine the actual 'hotness' of a given product. For instance, knowing that 'Spice A' is 5% and 'Spice B' is 10% really gives us no usable information. Is 'Spice B' twice as hot as 'Spice A'?

Capsaicinoid Concentration

This is a determination of active components in Oleoresin Capsicum. Capsaicinoids are the group of compounds that cause the burning sensation. There are three main compounds that make up about 95% of the capsicinoids: Capsaicin, Dihydrocapsaicin and Nordihydrocapsaicin. The Capsaicinoid Concentration is the amoung of these compounds in a given solution. By measuring the capsaicinoids, an accurate level of pungency can be determined. 'Major Capsaicinoid Content' is the measurement that the EPA uses when approving OC products for use as animal repellants [such as BEAR]. Capsaicinoid Cencentration is reflected as a small percentage.

Scoville Content or Scoville Value

This figure is one that I have used for years when evaluating OC products, but until recently, it had no catchy name. I referred to obtaining this number as 'doing the math'. If you multiply the SHU number and the percentage you will have a number that is indicative of the pungency of each application of a given product [each release from the can, ie how hot the total product being expelled from the can is].

As was mentioned in an earlier post, every canned OC product has three components in the can: OC, Carrier & Propellant. The actual quantity of OC in the can is relatively minor. The vast majority of space is occupied by carrier and propellant.

A 5% 2million SHU has a Scoville Content of 100,000 & 0.62% CC
A 10% 2million SHU product has a SC of 200,000 & 1.25% CC
A 2% 5.3million SHU product has a SC of 106,000 & 0.66% CC

In my opinion, the lowest acceptable Scoville Content rating for a defensive spray is 100,000.
The trouble with using Scovilles of the OC base, then dividing by the concentration in the delivered stream, is we are taking the manufacturer's word for the hotness of their OC goo before they dilute it. We are also trusting that they dilute it accurately per their announced specs. The Canadian system measures heat at the nozzle.

The closest thing in the US marketplace is the CRC rating of "capsaicin and related capsaicinoids." This is an unknown blend of hot and not so hot components. Capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin are a good deal hotter than the other fractions, per the wiki . But we have no way of knowing what components are present in what proportions.

In an earlier example we saw that the absolute capsaicin content in a certain spray was about equal to the amount of the other, related capsaicinoid components. That is just one example, and it does not do to extrapolate from single examples. It is, though, curious in light of the wiki's claim that the capsacinoids in a pepper are more than 2/3 capsaicin, typically.

Again, I suppose this goes to differences in the pepper crop year to year, or maybe it is a refining issue.

I agree with you. The method used by the Canadian government is the most accurate method available.

Given the data available currently, we have to have something to evaluate the relative hotness of the sprays and Scoville Content is that metric. Is it as accurate as the Canadian method? No way. Is it better than simply relying on the percentage on the label? Absolutely. Is it a more accurate method than looking at the base SHUs? Yep.

When you have two products that produce a similar Scoville Content, they will be relatively close in 'heat'. That, of course, does not tell you everything about how effective they will be. Carrier and propellent choices have a definite impact on efficacy of a spray.

For instance, Fox Labs primary sprays are 2.3% 5.3million SHU products. Why do they use this formulation? Because, at the time they were developed, some states limited private citizens from carrying Pepper Spray that was greater than 2%. The state law did not specify 2% of what because the lawmakers behind the legislation had no understanding of defensive spray formulations. The SC of the Fox Labs product is 106,000. That is not significantly hotter than the 5% 2million SHU figure that is very common in the marketplace. Yet, field reports, first hand accounts and Internet myths all report effectiveness of the Fox Labs product. The thing that makes Fox Labs product so much nastier than a lot of other sprays is the carrier that they utilize.

I wonder if someone would take up the responsibility, as an independent ratings house, to apply the Canadian measurement to American pepper sprays. I'm not sure how the expenditure would be repaid. The market may not be big enough to support something like UL Laboratories or SAAMI.

Something slightly curious is going on in Canada. Canadians can buy bear spray of 1% absolute capsaicin, and dog spray of 0.5%, both of them potent brews, but no people spray. That is my secondhand information, anyway. Apparently it would require some sort of dire emergency to justifiably use pepper spray on a thug, which is the nicest little legal two-step I have seen in quite a while. You may carry it, but you may not use it...except in emergencies. ;)
From what I gather, FOX and Sabre are regarded by most as the best.

Although this isn't scientific data per se, I have looked at dozens of videos on youtube from people getting sprayed by both brands.
It looks like they both SUCK to get hit with, but i have found a few videos of people able to shrug off Sabre. I have not found any videos like that for FOX. It also looks like FOX works faster, too.
FWIW, I got FOX for my mom, sister, and myself to carry.


here is an email I received from the president of "a" pepper spray company,
I had asked if their sprays could be used for wildlife defence:
Thank you for your interest in our products, and for taking the time to make your inquiry. Guard Alaska is designed and tested on grizzlies—it is a special product for a special need. It isn’t “hotter,” it is just oilier and contains a much heavier concentration of the pepper—which allows it to “cling” better to the critters. It is your health and life, I don’t think you really want to mess around with it. I suggest you get Guard Alaska, which I know to be an excellent product.

Please let me know if I can be of further service.
Independent testing capsaicin from the nozzle has been mentioned a few times.
Can anyone expand on how this is done? Is it complicated and does it require a lot of expensive equipment? I'm no chemist but I work with a lot of them.
I'm certainly no chemist. I learned a little bit years ago and have since regretted not having learned more about it. It's like discovering nature's secrets, and some of the reasoning is very clever.

Perhaps a chemist will be along to tell us about the costs, but at a guess I typed in "measuring capsaicin content chromatograph" on Google and it came back with these results.
Crusher, that's what I keep hearing.

Using the "and related capsaicinoids" standard, Sabre ranks higher than Fox, which raises a question in my mind. How much of a part does the refining process play? For Fox advertises their highly refined OC. Is their OC more of the hot stuff, less of the 'not stuff'? That would explain laudatory reviews such as yours.

So I repeat that we need one flat standard that is not troubled by claims of original strength and subsequent dilution.

Only experienced Sabre Red myself (don't care to again), and Brand X, a spray that is widely sold, but I would not carry it myself. I found it highly annoying, but not in the least debilitating. If someone used it on me for real, it would make me very angry.
The purity of the OC is a factor but the truth is the quality of the OC Fox uses has varied vastly over the years. I've seen it run the gamut from almost opaque to oily red. Fox Labs uses trichloroethylene as the carrier. It is an irritant in its' own right. I've seen guys get chemical burns [raccoon eyes] from Fox trainers.

Below is from Fox's website describing their inert training units.
The contents are exactly the same as in our live units, except there is no "OC" in them. This is because our formulas are heavier than water, and if we substituted water it would not replicate the spray patterns faithfully. Additionally, don't be surprised if you get a "red" face when exposed to them—this is because the inert formula is not water. But if the formula has a "kick" without "OC" just imagine how it is when we add the fire!

FWIW, I've been sprayed over a dozen times and been exposed to many different products without full sprays quite a bit more. The carrier and the propellant have an impact on the overall effectiveness. Some products will use one chemical to fulfill both roles, such as Dymel 134a. Others will use alcohol as the carrier and isobutane as the propellant. Some companies, claiming that they use 'only food grade ingredients', will use water as the carrier and nitrogen as the propellant.
I recommend Sabre Red or Sabre Advanced 3 in 1 Formulation. I have been sprayed with both and the Sabre Advanced 3 in 1 worked faster and it burned much worse. Sabre makes great sprays and there are two reasons why they make some of the best products:

1. They have their own in house HPLC Lab that guarantees the capsaicinoid or heat level in every single canister. They test the raw incoming product and the after product so its consistently hot.

2. Sabre is ISO 9001:2008 certified so they have proven quality controls in place. The worst thing that can happen is to go and spray your unit only to find it runs down your fingers or all over the place. Sabre test fires their products and checks them for leakage before they leave the factory.

A lot of brands are bragging about their products are much hotter than the others but I have found Sabre products to be very effective.
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