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Let's say that you are out backpacking and a bear spray canister accidentally goes off and gets on your skin or in your eyes or onto your clothing?

It can't be a pleasant experience as it is meant to deter bears, how can you get it off yourself and your gear in the field (as any residue could potentially either get onto your skin from the gear or potentially attract bears)?

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    My bear spray containers tell you what to do in case of contact. Lots of soap and water to wash the oil/capsaicin mixture away. As for the last bit, I don't think bears are attracted to hear spray in particular, unless the manufacturers are playing a cruel joke on us (if bears are attracted we will use more bear spray???). – Jon Custer Mar 15 '17 at 21:45
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    @JonCuster the same oils that create a burning sensation are also oils found in some foods, so bears may be attracted to that oily scent from afar. – cr0 Mar 15 '17 at 22:06
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    I accidentally deployed my bear spray in a plastic box of camping gear. I washed everything three times and would still feel my skin and face burning after coming into contact with it a year later, so I finally decided to throw away the box and some of the gear. My advice: avoid it at all costs. – Chris Mendez Mar 24 '17 at 2:47
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Going straight to the source, here's a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Mace brand pepper spray (note that bear spray is high concentration, high volume pepper spray). Here's a snip of the relevant section:

First Aid measures

The particular first aid recommendations are:

  • Move victim to fresh air, encourage coughing
  • Rinse eyes "immediately thoroughly, pulling the eyelids well away from the eye (15 minutes minimum). Remove contact lenses, if present and easy to do"
  • "Wash [skin] with plenty of soap and water. Wash contaminated clothing before reuse. Do not apply salves or creams to the affected area. "

It can also be instructive to see videos of people being pepper sprayed (what did we ever do before the internet?). See for example this clip of Marine Training. A key realization is that the capsaicin generally does not cause direct damage, but rather activates your pain receptors (particularly the mucous membranes in your mouth, nose, and eyes). As an analogy, eating a hot pepper may make your mouth feel like it is on fire, but your tongue isn't actually burning away. It will be incredibly painful, but you are capable of keeping your eyes open and dealing with any continued threat from a bear as well as providing yourself first aid.

Your concern of what to do if you should get bear spray on yourself is not an idle consideration! I have friends who have had the following happen:

  • Used bear spray on a bear that was impolite enough to charge from upwind with a stiff breeze.
  • Friend A was sprayed in the face in the middle of a multi-pitch rock climb when Friend B was rummaging through his pack and accidentally discharged a bear spray canister.

A couple closing recommendations:

  • UDAP and other manufacturers recommend doing a "test fire" in order to train yourself on proper operation. Make sure to do this in a truly deserted area, aiming downwind.
  • As with any aerosol cannister, make sure to store bear spray below 50 C /122 F. Leaving canister of bear spray inside a car on a hot, sunny day can do detrimental things to your car's upholstery and resale value.
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The key ingredients in bear sprays are capsaicins (reference), which are also the key ingredients of classic pepper spray. Cleaning bear spray off of you or your gear is similar to cleaning pepper spray off you or your gear.

First off, it capsaicins can be an extreme irritant, and so you want to minimize harm. Stay calm, avoid rubbing affected areas or spreading the mess, and get to a well ventilated area to relieve irritation. Capsaicins themselves don't directly damage your skin - they excite your nerves as if you're being burned though, and the inflamation your body reacts with can actually cause damage in extreme cases. Minimizing your inflammatory response minimizes damage.

You'll want to neutralize and clean off the capsaicins. The internet says dairy products like milk and yogurt can help neutralize the burning sensation of capsaicins on you, but you are unlikely to have a bounty of that with you in the wild and that doesn't solve the problem of attracting bears. Capsaicins are not very water soluble, so you'll need to add something to the rinse-scrub-rinse process to remove the capsaicin oils from you or your clothing. Dish soap does this well, or any other detergent normally used for removing greases and oils. If capsaicin is on your skin, other oils can be applied to pickup capsaicin oil that hasn't yet been absorbed - vegetable oil, facial cream, petroleum jelly would be rubbed on the affected area, then washed off as you'd wash them off normally. Capsaicin oils are very soluble in alcohols, so if you have high proof alcohol that can be used to clean capsaicin from you or your gear.

As for attracting bears...I'm not sure whether dish soaps will attract them. It is possible, depending on the chemicals and scents used. I wouldn't expect the high proof alcohol to attract bears, and since capsaicins are very soluble in that, that is the ideal cleaning solution. However, how accessible is that in The Great Outdoors? Probably, not very. I'd say if you get bear spray all over you, and wash it off enough to reduce irritation to you, you should take other measures to avoid bears (eg. get out of bear territory) - this could be doubly important if you are now incidentally all out of bear spray!

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