On May 25, George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and since then, protests have broken out across the country demanding an end to systematic racism and police brutality. At these protests, police have shown up in full riot gear and have used tear gas, pepper spray, and other drastic measures, and several individuals who’ve attended protests have reported a range of injuries. That said, it’s crucial to take precautions if you plan on attending a protest, now or in the future. While you should wear a face mask (while coronavirus still runs rampant), loose clothing, and bring plenty of water and perhaps protective eyewear to be safe, you shouldn’t wear makeup to a protest, if you can help it. Although makeup is probably one of the furthest things from your mind when you’re about to attend a protest, it’s still something you should actively be aware of, as it can have the ability to prolong, or even exacerbate, the effects of tear gas and pepper spray.
Riot-control agents, like tear gas and pepper spray, are described by the CDC as chemical compounds made to temporarily disable people. “When the skin is exposed to these compounds it activates special pain receptors that lead to an immediate tingling and burning sensation,” Dr. Caroline Robinson, M.D., FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Tone Dermatology, tells Elite Daily. That pain is followed “by a range of reactions including temporary redness/rash to potential blistering or chemical burns. When redness occurs it can last for a few hours to up to a week.” She continues that, in a large outdoor setting where exposure is short, like at a protest, there’s usually no permanent damage to the skin. Generally, pepper spray is shorter-lasting, and the effects tend to resolve on their own, says Dr. Ava Shamban, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles, the founder of AVA MD and SKIN FIVE clinics, and co-host of The Gist Show on YouTube. But tear gas is more harmful to the skin and can cause chemical burns, which is why it’s important to protect yourself.
Because tear gas clings to moisture, many experts have said that moisture on the skin exacerbate the effects of riot-control agents and/or make them last longer. “Because both tear gas and pepper spray are oil-soluble, this means that any oil-based makeup can mix with the chemicals and trap them in the pores, prolonging the negative effects they cause,” says Dr. Kim Nichols, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut. So, although there’s no concrete evidence stating makeup makes tear gas and pepper spray’s effects worse, per se, it’s best to forgo any makeup before heading to a protest, should you come into contact with these agents.
For those who still do attend protests with makeup on, try to avoid any oil- or water-based products. Robinson recommends using a powder-based formula if you’re going to apply anything. She also suggests steering clear of any comedogenic cosmetics (meaning those that clog pores), which could “theoretically attract or trap chemical particles” and make it harder to wash the gases off your face.
Unfortunately, a lot of sunscreens and moisturizers are also oil-based and could potentially prolong the effects of tear gas. However, if you’re protesting in the sun for hours, you really should still wear sunscreen. For optimum sun protection, Shamban recommends using a UVA/UVB sunscreen, like Heliocare 360 Oil-Free SPF 50 Sunscreen ($22, Amazon), which will protect your skin from the sun, but likely won’t exacerbate any irritation, because it won’t leave an oily residue for the tear gas to cling to. Additionally, Robinson notes that “any skin that has been recently cut, shaved, or sunburned will be more vulnerable to the side effects of tear gas and pepper spray.” If you fall into one of these pools, she says to “cover these areas of skin and wash the skin immediately if exposed.”
Ultimately, the best way to protect yourself and your skin from the negative effects of tear gas and pepper spray is by wearing masks and goggles. The N95 compliant physical masks may be the best for COVID-19 germ transfer and additional sun and gas protection, Shamban says. She also recommends applying diphoterine, a solution used to treat chemical exposure, immediately after coming into contact with tear gas, if you can, although it’s not a commonplace product. Bottom line, if you don’t have any safeguards already, the CDC says to wash your clothes and skin with large amounts of soap and water after coming into contact with tear gas and/or pepper spray.
As tear gas and pepper spray continue to be employed during protests, be sure to take the necessary precautions and keep yourself as safe as possible. Although it’s not 100% clear whether makeup truly exacerbates the pain caused by tear gas and pepper spray, it’s best to avoid it if you can.