Pepper spray and tear gas are both non-lethal irritants that cause extreme burning of the eyes, nose, and throat—but there are a few key differences between the two substances.
For one, they’re created from different chemicals. According to biohazard remediation company Aftermath, the active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, which comes from the compound that makes hot peppers so hot: capsaicin. If you’ve ever accidentally rubbed your eyes after chopping a chili pepper, you’ve gotten a very tiny taste of what it’s like to be sprayed with pepper spray. Tear gas, on the other hand, contains 0-Chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CN), or a similar artificial chemical. At room temperature, both of those chemicals are powdery solids, not gases—they’re mixed with liquids or gases so they can be dispersed in the air.
Delivery methods differ, too. Pepper spray often comes in an aerosol can, which shoots it in a stream, a mist, or some other relatively direct path (though it’s also available as a gel or foam). As the Berkeley Science Review explains, tear gas is mainly dispersed with a grenade, which releases the substance over a wide area when it explodes. Since the grenades can cover so much ground, law enforcement officers are more likely to use tear gas to try to break up a crowd, and civilians are more likely to carry pepper spray as a personal safety measure.
The immediate effects of the two substances are similar—burning sensation in mucous membranes, rise in blood pressure, difficulty breathing, runny nose, etc.—but tear gas can also cause nausea and vomiting in higher concentrations.
For more on tear gas, including what to do if you’re exposed to it, head here.