Measuring Pepper Spray on the Scoville scale of chili pepper hotness

If you're heading out to an Occupation today AND you're a fan of tasty, tasty chili peppers, you'll want to read Deborah Blum's "About Pepper" essay in Scientific American.

The reason pepper-spray ends up on the Scoville chart is that – you probably guessed this - it’s literally derived from pepper chemistry, the compounds that make habaneros so much more formidable than the comparatively wimpy bells. Those compounds are called capsaicins and – in fact – pepper spray is more formally called Oleoresin Capsicum or OC Spray.

But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

Until you look it up on the Scoville scale and remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison.

(via @chaplinscourage)


  1. The dose may make the poison, but I don’t even want to inadvertently rub my eye with oil from a jalapeno on my hand. This really gives some perspective as to just how brutal pepper spray is. Wow.

  2. I assumed Serranos, which I use for Indian cooking, would be way higher. If I scratch my face or something after cutting those, my face burns like the 7th circle of Hell. I think the spray must be considered a chemical weapon.

  3. I had a friend who was in the Army and told me that they used to spray it on their MREs to make them spicy and more tolerable. He also said that you can fairly quickly build up a resistance to pepper-based sprays and many soldiers do, but that MACE (tear gas) is a different story.

  4. Wow… I’ve made the mistake of touching my eye after handling a Bhut Jolokia.  I couldn’t imagine the pain from something stronger sprayed in my face.

  5. I remember cleaning some Habenero chillis, and my hands burned for a day. That was 20 years ago and I still remember it. A whole day. And pepper spray is 10x that? Wow!

    1. instead of pizzas? i’m liking this idea. somebody PLEASE figure out a way to humorously mock the pepper sprayers with some sort of giant taco that the protesters can wear or hold out as protection.

  6. When Bhut Jokias were sold at my local co-op a month or so ago, they were prebagged so no one would touch them. And that’s half to one-fifth as U.S. Grade Pepper Spray.

  7. “Current record holder

    According to Guinness World Records, as of March 1, 2011, the world’s hottest chili pepper is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper. [15] A laboratory test conducted in March, 2011 measured a specimen of Trinidad Scorpion Butch T at 1,463,700 Scoville heat units, making it hotter than the previous hottest chilli, the Naga Viper, at 1,382,118 SHU. The secret to the heat, according to the creators, is fertilizing the soil with the liquid runoff of a worm farm.[16]


    In 2007, Guinness World Records certified the bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper/chili pepper, as being the world’s hottest chili pepper at 401.5 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.[17] On December 3, 2010, the Bhut Jolokia was replaced as the hottest known chili pepper by the Naga Viper pepper, which has an average peak Scoville rating more than 300,000 points higher than an average Bhut Jolokia – but still not higher than the hottest ever recorded Dorset Naga.[18] In February 2011, Guinness World Records awarded the title of “World’s Hottest Chilli” to the Infinity chilli grown in Grantham, England.[19] This chilli rates at 1,067,286 units on the Scoville scale.[20] Later the same month, on February 25, 2011, the title returned to the Naga Viper pepper with a rating of 1,382,118 Scoville Heat Units (SHU).[21] The current “world’s hottest” is the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, officially tested at 1,463,700 SHU.[22] These figures are highly controversial among the pepper growing community and tests with more rigorous scientific standards are yet to be conducted on the many various peppers vying for “world’s hottest” status.”

  8. “But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen.”

    I don’t know.  Once upon a time I tried making some Szechuan Pepper oil.  I got the oil too hot, and ended up with something akin to a munition – hot burnt oil smoke filling my kitchen.  I finally got the smoke cleared to a level I could tolerate, and poured the resulting oil into a clean glass jar. The heat of the oil shattered the jar, and now I had a HazMat situation all over my kitchen.

    So don’t downplay what one might cook up in their kitchens!

  9. Remember folks, it’s derived from NATURAL SOURCES, so it can’t be harmful! Amirite?

    Clearly the solution is to convince law enforcement agencies that kitchen-table Tabasco should be used, since homeopathic capsicin ought to be more effective.  (Hey, they bought dowsing rods for use in Iraq; anything’s possible.)

  10. You know, most every cop who uses this stuff has to get sprayed in the face with it as part of their training, primarily to know what it feels like so that if they have to use it against someone they’ll be able to testify (if it comes to that) that they’re familiar with the effects and thought the use was warranted. 

    It’s not pleasant, but it’s not like you drop like a poleaxed steer, either.  The training usually requires them to take the spray in the face, with their eyes open, and then pursue or subdue and get the cuffs on someone playing the role of criminal.

    These are admittedly controlled bursts to an individual who’s expecting it, but take a look at that Davis protest where they all catch an enormous burst to the face; they don’t turn to jelly, either.   And the police use stuff that’s at the upper end of that range, it’s typically 5.3 million units, not 2 million. 

    Pepper spray can deter someone who’s not that serious about doing what he’s doing from doing it anymore.  Against a determined and dedicated assailant, it doesn’t do a whole lot.  It *is* pretty benign. 

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