Skincare Tips for Protests

How to prepare for and treat pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed skin.

Fun Fact About Pepper Spray

When French would-be colonists were doing their best to murder, enslave, and displace the original inhabitants of Caribbean islands, fighters lit bowls of ground chili peppers on fire and threw them over fences into the French encampments. I don’t know if this was the earliest use of pepper spray, but it’s definitely my favorite.

In cases where pepper spray is less justifiably deployed–i.e., probably any situation in which you might shortly find yourself pepper-sprayed–here are some tips and tricks for minimizing the misery.

Pepper spray is essentially capsicum (the chemical compound that gives peppers their heat) in an oily base. The oily base makes it difficult to remove, and also means that further contact with oils can reactivate the heat. Tear gas (usually chlorobenzylidenemalonitrile–rolls right off the tongue!), by contrast, is a fine, powdery solid that binds to pretty much everything else in its explosive range. Its use in warfare is prohibited by the Geneva Convention, but using it on citizens peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights is… fine, I guess?

While both are miserable and I hope you do not have to endure either, tear gas is more dangerous. Here are some things you can do before exposure and after exposure to minimize the consequences of getting sprayed or gassed. (Thanks, CDC!)

Before, The Don’ts:

  • Don’t wear oil-based products (skincare or makeup). 

‘Member how oils can reactivate pepper spray? Yeah. Tear gas will also stick to your skin more strongly if you’re wearing oil-based products, so go bare-faced for the day. You don’t want your Kosas Tinted Face Oil making your life worse.

  • Don’t wear sunscreen

I repeat: do not wear sunscreen. Yes, this is the only time you will ever hear me suggest that you not wear sunscreen. The pain of a sunburn is far, far milder than the effects of either pepper spray or tear gas.

  • Don’t wear contacts

Both tear gas and pepper spray can bind to contacts, making the effects–particularly with tear gas–exponentially worse. Tear gas can cause permanent damage to the corneas, so go ahead and wear glasses for the day. 


Before, The Do’s:

  • Do wear goggles (over glasses, bare eyes, or contacts–if you must) or protective shields (over glasses or bare eyes). 

Got some old swim goggles? Some protective glasses left over from your freshman chem class that for some reason you never got rid of? A protective shield from shop class? Cool. Take them with you. Wear them. Bring spares, if you have them, for others. (This is also a good idea in case rubber bullets start flying towards your eyeballs.) If you have access to a 3D printer, you can also print a face shield PPE from one of the innumerable files that have popped up lately–just make sure it’s one that doesn’t impede your field of view.

  • Do wear an outer layer of clothing that covers as much skin as possible and can be removed if you get gassed (and which you wouldn’t mind permanently sacrificing, if it came to that). 

Tear gas powder might arrive through the air, but once it comes into contact with something it binds with, it won’t just blow or sweep away. Your outer layer of clothing is now compromised and will definitely need to be removed as quickly as safely possible. Take some extra caution and cut it off to avoid having to pull it over your head.

  • Do bring plastic bags

Bring at least two. Wrap your clothes as soon as they are removed. Then when your hands are clean, use the second bag as a clean bag to double-bag the clothing for safe handling. 

  • Do come armed with plenty of clean water (cold, if you can manage it) and “no tears” baby shampoo

If you have pepper spray used on you, mix the baby shampoo with the water to help it dissolve the oils off your face.

  • Do wear a mask

It’s Summer 2020, y’all; you should be wearing a mask in public anyway. But covering up your nose and face is just common sense.

After, The Do’s:

  • Do get out of there

Your continued presence is not helping anyone, and continued exposure (to tear gas in particular) could cause some serious medical issues.

  • Do rinse your face with cold water, but be careful not to touch anything! 

If it’s pepper spray, mix your baby shampoo in with the water and let it dissolve the oils off of your face; if it’s tear gas, just continually apply water–without letting any drip into your eyes–until you’re less incapacitated.

  • Do remove your outer layer of clothing if gassed
  • Do seal those clothes in your plastic bags to prevent the compound from binding to anything else.
  • Do get home as soon as possible and shower.

After: The Don’ts

  • Don’t rub your eyes. 
  • Don’t rub your face. 
  • Don’t rub your mucous membranes. 
  • Don’t touch an exposed area to an unexposed area.
  • Don’t let contaminated clothing touch your skin, particularly your eyes, when you remove it. 
  • Probably don’t use milk or a baking soda solution, although this seems to be a contested point. 

Milk can cause infection (especially if you haven’t managed to keep it sufficiently cold during the protest), and baking soda solutions can harm your eyes.

Is this the most fun blog post I’ve ever written? No. Would I rather write about lipstick? Always. But this seemed more timely.

Stay safe, y’all.