What to do if you’re pepper-sprayed

Lessons from a former Marine security guard who's now a journalist

June 5, 2020

While most days my service in the Marine Corps seems irrelevant to my current job as a reporter, my military training seems applicable now as videos and photos circulate online of police targeting journalists with pepper spray, rubber bullets and arrests.

I trained to carry pepper spray while going to school to be a Marine Security Guard for American embassies and consulates overseas. This training included getting pepper-sprayed myself. Luckily, this sort of training isn’t taught in journalism schools. So, I’d like to share what I learned here.

The most important lesson: Do not take a shower immediately after getting pepper-sprayed. If you do, the pepper spray will run down your body and onto your genitals.

The active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, an oily extract derived from peppers. The oily nature of pepper spray is what makes it stick to skin so effectively and allows it to be easily spread to other parts of the body, said Dr. Ernest Brown, a family medicine doctor in Washington, D.C., and founder of Doctors to You. “It will stick to your skin like super glue,” he said.

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Designate a nearby place to take shelter ahead of time in case you are pepper-sprayed. It’s also best to avoid wearing contact lenses. Take them out immediately if you’re sprayed. If you’re asthmatic, make sure you have an emergency inhaler on you. Wearing a tight-fitting mask can lessen the impact of pepper spray, Brown said.

Pepper spray can cause chest tightness, swelling and burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat. It’ll also make your eyelids involuntarily latch shut, making it dangerous to run. For this reason, it’s best to sit down or take shelter once you’re sprayed.

If you’re unable to find a faucet, you can irrigate your eyes with milk of magnesia, an antacid sold at most drug stores. Irrigation requires pressure to flush away the oily pepper extract. Add equal parts milk of magnesia and water to an irrigation syringe, or in lieu of a syringe you could use a water gun, Brown said.

When you have access to a sink or tub, wash your face with room-temperature water and tear-free baby shampoo for at least 15 minutes. Be careful when taking off the clothes that you were pepper-sprayed in to ensure you don’t recontaminate yourself. When you’re ready to take a shower, keep your underwear on while you rinse your body.

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Wash the clothes that you were pepper-sprayed in separately from other clothing and thoroughly clean equipment that was sprayed with gloves. A return of symptoms is likely the result of re-contaminating yourself, Brown said.

While pepper spray is physically painful, it can also make you feel helpless. Having a game plan ahead of time can help alleviate this feeling. It may also help to know that most symptoms will subside within 2 hours.

Sara Sneath is an environmental reporter with The Times-Picayune, in New Orleans. Follow her on Twitter @sarasneath.

This story originally published on June 4.