US Pharm. 2016;41(9):1.

Early last month, a brutal murder of a female jogger in broad daylight shocked residents of the New York City borough of Queens. Karina Vetrano, age 30, went for a run near her home by a park in Howard Beach with tall grasses and when she didn’t return home as expected, a search ensued. Her father found her lifeless body, and there was evidence of rape and strangulation. At press time, a reward funded through a GoFundMe campaign set up by her father to help find the killer topped a quarter million dollars, and the New York City police department and mayor’s office were offering a $35,000 reward.

Eerily, just a week or so later, a female jogger in Princeton, Massachusetts, was found murdered about a half mile from her mother’s home. Vanessa Marcotte, age 27, had also been raped and set on fire. She was a healthcare account manager for Google in New York City and was in her hometown for a visit with family. At the time of this writing, authorities were not saying whether the two killings were related.

What does connect the two tragedies, however, is the possibility that if either of these women had been able to effectively use a self-defense spray, the result may have been less tragic. There are likely countless other crimes such as these high-profile cases that may have ended differently if the targets of criminals had a self-defense device like pepper spray at the ready.

Retail pharmacies are a prime source for pepper spray products, available OTC in some areas and behind the counter in others. Moreover, pharmacists are likely to field questions from female (as well as male) customers confused about self-defense sprays on an ongoing basis, especially now with these and other well-publicized cases.

Pepper spray products feature capsaicinoids, chemicals responsible for burning, coughing, and sneezing effects. Ultimately, the percentage of capsaicinoids in the spray determines its heat intensity. There are five primary capsaicinoids, and they produce two levels of heat. Two of these, capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin, are twice as strong as the other three capsaicinoid varieties, and pharmacists can help customers identify the strengths of various products.

What effect does capsaicinoid-based spray have on an assailant? Generally, pepper spray results in a burning sensation to the affected skin, closed eyelids, and a choking sensation. Experts recommend carrying the spray so that it is readily accessible, such as in a holster or attached to a keychain or in a front pocket. Keeping pepper spray in a purse, they say, may render it ineffective in a fast-developing situation.

Pepper spray is legal in all 50 states, although its use may be regulated or prohibited in some jurisdictions. For example, pepper spray cannot be carried on a commercial airline where it is accessible—a federal crime. Since 9/11, pepper sprays are also prohibited in some secured locations such as state or federal buildings. Of course, the sprays should be stored out of reach of children.

There are several pepper spray–delivery systems. One type creates a narrow stream, which is easier to use in a stiff breeze but requires better aiming ability. Another type of pepper spray shoots a fog pattern that generally has a shorter range and is more affected by wind; the advantage, however, is that this kind of spray requires less aiming. Fog-pattern sprays can also be breathed in more readily and therefore can more effectively compromise an assailant’s respiratory system. The third type—a foam/gel—is also easier to use in windy conditions. They are also easier for a perpetrator to remove and, as such, might not be as well suited to a self-defense scenario (foam sprays are more commonly used in prison settings).

To be sure, there is no substitute for taking prudent measures when running, such as jogging with a partner or dog and not wearing headphones for enhanced surroundings awareness. When things go downhill, however, a handy spray can be a lifesaver, and guidance from pharmacists can help women make the best purchasing choice for their situation.