On Her Own

Don’t use wasp spray for self-defense [updated June 2022]

Using wasp spray for self-defense is a persistent idea and one that has been recommended by all sorts of people, even purported experts.

They’re wrong.

Wasp spray should not be used for any purpose other than killing annoying, flying, stinging insects like wasps, hornets, or yellow jackets.

I’m not saying that because of some idea that you’ll get prosecuted for breaking federal law by using wasp spray in a manner not permitted or intended by its labeling. Let’s be real: that’s not what you’re going to get in trouble for.

The real problem with wasp spray is that it doesn’t work against humans.

Without getting too deeply into the science of wasp spray (though we can, if you like), the active ingredients are generally not toxic to humans in the kinds of concentrations we see on the consumer market. The active chemicals in wasp spray, pyrethrins and pyrethroids, work against insects and other invertebrates because they disrupt their nervous systems. Humans simply aren’t affected in the same way because of the perhaps obvious fact that we are vertebrate mammals (which is to say, not bugs, no matter how vile some people might act), and we’re much, much larger. Toxic exposure is possible for humans, but rare. To the extent that it happens, it takes a certain amount of time and repeated exposure to do any real harm. More temporary effects, like allergic reactions or irritation, do not reliably occur across large segments of the population. In the heat of an attack, it generally won’t have a fast or strong enough effect to be useful in stopping or slowing down a bad guy. It’s certainly not reliable against human beings, and there are better tools available.

Wasp spray is also not an actual weapon, and that’s not a good thing.

Using something improvised might feel less violent, not as nasty, more acceptable because it’s not a tool intended to cause harm to another person. There’s this idea that it is morally superior, even if you are hoping for harmful side effects to aid your defense, because carrying a “real” weapon might seem reserved for bad guys only. However, in order to stop someone determined to hurt you violently, then you must be prepared to respond violently. If you’re choosing a non-weapon with the intent of using it as a weapon, you are better served with an actual weapon. It will be more effective, causing more predictable disability to your attacker and be more likely to actually help keep you safe. Instead of hoping that a target’s eyes may sting for a moment because you used wasp spray, you can just about guarantee that they will if you use pepper spray, which is purpose-made to cause that physiological effect to interfere with your attacker’s vision and make them less successful in trying to hurt you. While no self-defense tool or tactic is guaranteed to work, a makeshift option like wasp spray will not tilt the odds in your favor.

Nevertheless, you’ll hear that wasp spray is great because it’s permissible just about everywhere. School campuses and workplaces are popular settings for the wasp spray suggestion because of strict no-weapons policies that may even restrict pepper spray. I am absolutely empathetic to that struggle. However, I don’t think the answer is to have something on hand that can only give false confidence. You might feel better with a “something is better than nothing” mindset, but it won’t help you if it really does nothing when you really need it, not to mention the wasted time and effort if you find that out in the middle of an attack. A better option in those types of restrictive environments is what Chuck Haggard of Agile/Training and Consulting has suggested: the simple ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher. Spraying one of those into the face of an attacker gives you a strong, blinding, cough-inducing blast, but one that is ultimately largely harmless in most instances (exceptions abound! Don’t mistake this as an indication that it’s safe to spray someone in the face with a fire extinguisher). You’ll get a very real distracting effect that is not as dependent on an individual’s sensitivity to specific chemicals, and then you’re left with a metal canister that itself can serve as an impact weapon. If you absolutely must rely on an improvised weapon, even a small fire extinguisher far more likely to be effective than wasp spray, even in unpracticed hands.

And finally, wasp spray is not a superior option either in range or in price.

It’s true that most wasp sprays can be used from a distance of around twenty feet. However, much of that is a function of package size, and similar range can be had in larger pepper spray units too. In return for that kind of distance, you need a bigger, bulkier container – one that is going to be inconvenient to tote around and obvious when you have it in hand. Twenty feet might seem like a lot but it’s not so much further than a pocket-sized pepper spray unit like my favored brand, POM Industries [link to affiliate product of which you pay less and I get a percentage], which can reach over half that distance. Those smaller units can also be palmed discreetly in high risk areas so it’s not obvious that you’re carrying it, and you’ll be less likely to drop it.

Some folks like wasp spray because it’s inexpensive and easy to buy. That’s not untrue, but a good quality pepper spray will normally run right around the same price and certainly under $20. And you can buy both on Amazon or at your local hardware store. The only exception is localities where pepper spray has some purchase restrictions, although those places tend to not make it as hard to get pepper spray as you might think. The limitations you’ll run into usually revolve around formulation and size, or requiring you to go to licensed stores or fill out forms – not ideal, but not often a difficult problem.

Clearly, my recommendation is to just use pepper spray. It’s formulated, tested, and intended for use against humans, and it works. Check out my Self-Defense Resource Center for more information about how and why. You deserve better than hoping that an improvised strategy works as well against a person as it does against an insect. And if really you can’t use a purpose-built tool like pepper spray and have the space for wasp spray, why not use something that is just as easy to have around, attracts just as little attention, and is far more likely to actually give you a chance to escape or fight back?

Hi, I'm Annette.

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