How Tear Gas Effects the Skin: Symptoms, and Treatments

As protests regarding the killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and countless other unarmed Black Americans erupted, the point was crystal clear: something has to change. 

During the summer of 2020, demonstrators vocally supporting the Black Lives Matter movement (and other important organizations) took to the streets around the globe. Law enforcement turned to extreme measures to control crowds -- including the use of physical force, pepper spray, and even rubber bullets. Tear gas was also used frequently.

Tear gas is known as a riot-control agent, and firing the severe irritant into large crowds causes panic and a host of symptoms that immediately incapacitate unprotected people. In the United States, one of the most common compounds used in tear gas is chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (CS), which is a solid that is released into the air as fine particles through the use of a charge. And when it comes into contact with exposed skin, it can lead to irritation and pain. 

In this article, we’ll look at how tear gas affects your skin and what you can do if you’re exposed to it during the fight for justice. 


What Exactly Is Tear Gas?

Tear gas is a collection of harsh chemicals that cause respiratory, eye and skin irritation. It’s usually deployed from grenades, canisters or pressurized sprays. 

Despite the name, tear gas isn’t actually gas, it’s a fine powder that creates a mist when deployed. The most commonly used form of tear gas is CS gas, which was first discovered in 1928. The U.S. Army later adopted it for controlling riots in 1959. 

Other common types of tear gases include chloroacetophenone (CN gas), oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray), and dibenzoxazepine (CR gas). 

Tear gas was once used as a chemical weapon, however, it’s currently illegal for wartime use today. In 1993, many of the world’s countries came together in Geneva to sign an international treaty to prevent chemical warfare. 

Almost every country signed the international treaty except for four U.N. member states: South Sudan, Israel, North Korea, and Egypt. 


Symptoms of Tear Gas Exposure

Contact with tear gas leads to a whole slew of problems, like irritation of the respiratory system, eyes, and skin. The pain occurs because the chemicals in the stuff bind with one of two pain receptors, either TRPA1 or TRPV1. 

Believe it or not, TRPA1 is the same exact pain receptor that oils in mustard, wasabi, and horseradish bind to give them their strong flavors. CR and CS gas are more than 10,000 times more potent than the oil found in these foods. 

The severity of the experienced symptoms after getting exposed can depend on:

  • How much gas is used

  • Whether you’re in an open or enclosed space

  • Whether you have a pre-existing medical condition that may be exacerbated

  • How close you are in proximity to the tear gas when it’s released. 

Most individuals recover from tear gas exposure without any significant symptoms. 

Individuals who have been exposed to tear gas often refer to it as excruciating pain. You initially feel that your eyes are burning, almost like they're on fire. This activates the tear reflex as a defensive measure as well as activates spasming of the eyelid muscles that essentially forces you to keep your eyes shut.

Blinding you with tears and involuntary blinking, the tear gas enters your lungs and nasal passages and triggers a secretion of mucus -- an effect that is compared to asphyxiation or even drowning. The skin on your lips and face begin to feel like it’s burning. On top of the sheer anxiety, some people also start vomiting and experiencing an elevated heart rate. 

It’s a truly brutal tactic and, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. 


How to Care for Your Skin in the Event of Tear Gas Exposure

When tear gas comes into contact with your exposed skin, it can lead to quite a bit of irritation and pain. The irritation can last for days in some severe cases. 

Other symptoms include:

  • Redness

  • Itching

  • Blisters

  • Chemical burns

  • Allergic dermatitis

If you’re planning on protesting, here are a few things you should know to take care of your skin:

Cover up. 

Cover your skin as much as possible. Wear long pants and sleeves to help keep tear gas from making direct contact with your skin. 

Skip oil-based makeup. 

According to experts, oil-based makeup, sunscreen, and creams can cause tear gas to stick to your skin, making it much more of a challenge to wash off. 

Get out of the area immediately.

It’s crucial to limit your exposure to any tear gas. Remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible because longer exposure means more tears, mucus, choking and itchy skin. 

Remove any contaminated clothing. 

The active ingredients found in tear gas can easily bind to your clothes, exposing your skin to pain and irritation over and over again. Remove your outer layer of clothing ASAP. To avoid triggering another wave of pain, cut off any clothes that have to be pulled over your head. 

Experts suggest getting rid of those clothes because CS is particles -- it’s not gas that dissipates. Once you have been exposed, these particles will stay on your skin, and they can, and will, cause burns. Don’t risk it: Quickly seal your clothes in a plastic bag, then seal that bag inside another plastic bag. 

Get home and shower ASAP.

Showering is of the utmost importance because it finalizes that initial rinse right after exposure. Try to get home or find a safe location where you can shower with plenty of soap and water. Remember, if you’ve been gassed, you shouldn’t feel any shame in leaving the protest to take care of yourself. 

Take a COLD shower.

Whatever you do, be sure to avoid hot water, as it can make the stinging sensation much worse. It’s tough to get the substance completely out of your hair, so once you hop out of the shower, wrap a clean cloth around your head to catch sweat. Nothing is worse than thinking you removed all the tear gas from your body only to work up a sweat later, causing tear gas-saturated sweat to drip from your hair and into your eyes.

Moisturize your skin. 

Tear gas does quite a bit of damage to your skin -- including damaging your skin’s moisture barrier. 

Our hydrating mask is one option you have to help put moisture back in your skin. This thick, whipped mask is packed with powerful botanicals to restore skin while fortifying its damaged moisture barrier. It also helps to soothe sensitive and stressed-out skin.

Does Milk or Baking Soda Help Skin Irritation?

There are many different gas remedies floating around the internet -- some have said that baking soda, milk, or antacid solutions can help. 

To be clear, none of these methods have much research behind them, so it’s best to stick with water and the methods above to decontaminate as quickly as possible. Experts suggest that once the tear gas is on your skin and you’ve removed yourself from the area, it’s best to just let it run its course and let your body flush out the substance. 

The burning will stop and the best thing you can do is safely remove the gas particles, so you don’t recontaminate yourself or others. 


Bottom Line

During a pandemic caused by a respiratory illness, it’s critical to avoid tear gas as much as you can by preparing for the possibility before a protest and having a backup plan if you’re exposed. 

If you’ve tried some of the tips listed above and don’t feel that your skin is getting any better, it’s important to seek medical care immediately. But don’t panic -- most symptoms associated with tear gas tend to dissipate over the course of a few days, especially if you’re taking extra care to nurture your skin after contact. 

Topicals supports you in the fight for justice.