Tear gas 101

Approx read: 3 mins

What is tear gas?

Tear gas isn’t a gas. It’s worse.

Have you ever been near someone spraying themselves with body spray? The spray lingers in the air, and it like it or not, (NOT!) everyone nearby gets coated in Sporty Vanilla Musk. This is because it’s not a gas, easily dissipated by a breeze (or the frantic waving of hands) but an aerosol, which infuses the air with tiny chemical particles that stick to your skin.

When activated, tear gas becomes an aerosol. The results are immediate, and awful. Your eyes, mouth, throat and skin feel as if on fire. Mucous streams uncontrollably out of your eyes, nose and mouth. Eyes usually swell and vomiting often occurs.

How can I avoid tear gas at a protest?

Stay away from those who have the tear gas! Avoid the front lines at protests, but be aware that plain-clothes people may be planted within a protest group, and may deploy tear gas to cause a distraction or diversion from the protest activity.

Skin: long-sleeved clothing and full-length trousers can keep tear gas off your skin.

Eyes: though recommended, a full gas mask may be impractical or unaffordable. Swim goggles (with the little air holes glued shut) are a low-cost alternative.

Nose and mouth: a professional builder’s respirator mask with correct filters is ideal. For emergencies, cover your nose and mouth with a dry cloth.

OK, I have the gear. I see a cloud up ahead. What next?

Tear gas is heavier than the surrounding air. Try to find some high ground. This could be challenging, as when tear gas gets deployed, people panic. Protests can quickly become riots. Try to move your way to the edge of the crowd and get to a safe place. (Check out the bf article on staying safe in riots and protests)

I’ve been gassed! It hurts!

Hold your breath and get away from the protest area as quickly as possible. If your group has a pre-arranged first aid station, try to go there.

Your hands are covered in tear gas. Wiping or rubbing will only spread the contaminant. Try to remember this even if things are really scary and you want to hug or hold someone.

As you move toward safety, try to walk with your arms away from your body, facing the wind if possible. This will help keep the tear gas on your clothes from rubbing into your skin.

NEVER wear contact lenses to a protest. If exposed to tear gas, do NOT try to take the lenses out yourself. This rubs the tear gas from your hands into your eyes and can cause permanent damage.

Once in a safe place, rinse your eyes from inside corner to outside corner. Try to keep the water from running over your contaminated clothes or skin, this will only spread the chemical. Rinse for a very long time, then keep rinsing. For skin, use cold water only. Hot water will open your skins pores and you will absorb more of the toxin.

Tear gas is no laughing matter. But its horrible effects usually go away within a few horrible hours. If the effects last longer, or there are any breathing issues, seek medical help immediately.

Once back home, take a cold shower with lots of soap and water. Pay special attention to your hair. Make sure there is plenty of ventilation in the shower area (if it’s a glass shower stall, leave the door open) and try not to breathe in the chemical fumes.

Air out your clothes thoroughly before washing thoroughly and more than once.

Understand that not all tear gas is the same. Some word-of-mouth remedies may be helpful for some types of tear gas, but the only way to avoid tear gas completely is to stay away.

For more info, check out Mace and Pepper Spray FAQs


Sarah is a blogger, writer and amateur palaeontologist from New Orleans. When not writing or digging dinosaurs, she teaches English.