What’s the difference between bear spray and pepper spray?

Question Answered by Gregg Losinski, Wildlife Biologist and Conservation Educator

The main active ingredient of bear spray and pepper spray is identical, Oleoresin Capsicum or OC for short. It is created from a naturally occurring substance called capsaicin that is found in hot peppers. What makes the two sprays different is the delivery method and the concentration of OC in each.

When you are talking about trusting an eight-ounce can of bear spray to deflect a charging 750 lb. grizzly bear you would think that you would want as much ground hot pepper as possible! However, making bear spray is a business and while higher concentrations of OC might make for a better marketing pitch, anything beyond a 2 or 3 percent concentration is actually a waste and eating into profits. The reason for this is because a bear’s nose is so sensitive and so well connected via nerves to its brain that it only takes a tiny amount of OC to create such an intense temporary pain that the animal will retreat in mid-attack!

Humans on the other hand have poorly developed noses and not all that great of nerve connections to their brains. In order to deter a human attacker, it takes a much higher concentration of OC to quickly create the pain needed quickly. Pepper sprays used for personal self-defense have around a 10 percent concentration of OC and also inflict greater temporary pain to the eyes. Pepper spray used by law enforcement can have concentrations as high as 30 percent and causes even greater irritation to eyes, nose, and skin!

Both sprays have some type of liquid that the ground capsaicin is suspended in and then an aerosol gas to propel it from the can. Bear spray has more propellant and a nozzle designed to create a large cloud 25 or 30 feet away.

Because human attackers are usually right in front of you, most pepper spray comes in small one- or two-ounce cans and comes out in a stream that can be focused on an attacker’s face. Some varieties of pepper spray also come out in a dense spray or even a sticky foam. For a charging bear, the best delivery method is a large dispersed cloud that the bear will run into and then be turned away.

From Yellowstone NP

Anything that has mucus membranes will receive temporary pain from being sprayed by OC. The key is that the spray makes contact with the membranes. Spraying a bear on its side or a human attacker on their hand won’t yield the deterrent effect you want. The effects of the spray generally wear off in under an hour. Because bear spray is such a low concentration of OC the bears don’t need to have their eyes flushed after being sprayed. Humans sprayed with higher concentrations of OC should flush their eyes with cool water. Burning and redness could last up to a day. For areas of skin exposed to spray containing OC the best thing to initially neutralize the burn is to use whole milk. Afterward, dish soap should be used to remove the oil that binds the OC to the skin, then flushed repeatedly with cold water.

Because both sprays contain OC, in an emergency situation bear spray could be used to hopefully deter a human attacker, and pepper spray could work if you sprayed it directly into the face of a bear that had you pinned down! The trick is to hopefully never get yourself into either situation!

Capsaicin is a chemical substance found in different types of peppers that makes the peppers spicy hot. Capsaicin attaches itself to receptors in your mouth that normally tell you how hot food is. Their job is to stop you from eating or drinking something that could burn your insides. Capsaicin triggers these receptors and and produces a feeling of heat. Capsaicin doesn’t actually burn your tissues though.

There are many home remedies that may or may not help to reduce the heat felt after ingesting a spicy food. This experiment will test the efficacy of some of these remedies.

You will need: a spicy pepper, stopwatch, toothpaste, milk, ice cream, bread, ice water, peanut butter, 2 friends

  1. Cut up your pepper into equal-sized pieces.
  2. Ask a friend to eat one piece of pepper. Immediately give your friend 1 tsp of toothpaste and time how longit takes until the burning sensation has subsided.
  3. Have your friend eat a spoonful of peanut butter between each test to neutralize the capsaicin.
  4. Repeat the test using milk, ice cream, bread and ice water. What cooled down the hot sensation in your friend’s mouth the fastest?
  5. Try the experiment with another friend. Did they have the same result?

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