iPhone Stun Guns, Lipstick Knives: The TikTok Self-Defense Trend Sold to Women

TikTok's niche of independent businesses selling "self-defense keychains" for women is a trend that has self-defense experts worried and exposes some of its merchants to potential legal issues.

Also dubbed "safety keychains," these colorful contraptions are sold in an oversaturated online market that taps into women's anxieties about gender-based violence. The ventures are typically started by Gen Z women and provide near-identical products across businesses.

Usually sold for upwards of $30, the keychains are marketed as must-haves for women who want to feel safe while looking cute. Attached to decorated wristbands and poofy pom-poms are weapons—sometimes concealed—such as pepper spray, stun guns, pocket knives, or pointed metal knuckles.

These tools require adequate training to handle properly, but safety keychain businesses tend to provide little to no guidance on their use.

On TikTok, some merchants have marketed the keychains with grandiose claims, such as helping women to fight back against assailants, free themselves from attempted abductions, or even escape car wrecks. The videos attract hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of views.

While enclosed lip glosses and hand sanitizers are exactly as they appear, some of the weapons are made to imitate everyday items. Stun guns are shaped like cell phones, car key fobs or lipstick. Pocket knives are tucked inside hair combs, pens, or lipstick cases, even hidden behind fake keys.

Other staple tools of these keychains include alarms that double as LED lights, a "seatbelt cutter," a stylus that grabs door handles, and pointed tools dubbed as Kubotans, a Japanese self-defense accessory.

The separate keychain components are available in bundles on platforms such as Wish.com and Amazon, but are also cheaply sold wholesale for less than $10 by non-U.S. retailers such as Alibaba, DHGate and Global Sources.

A number of obscure American wholesale vendors also have the items up for sale to businesses.

In one TikTok video viewed over 9.6 million times, the owner of Fabulyss Boutique, a top safety keychain store, made ambitious claims about her products' Kubatons.

"This could potentially save your life if you are trapped in a car because you got in a car accident, you went into water, or you're being kidnapped, this can easily break the window," she told her 1.4 million followers. "And it can also be used to attack your attacker."

Jennifer Cassetta, a self-defense expert who runs the "She Warrior" online self-defense course, said providing a "gigantic thing of tools" to a largely untrained customer base is "unrealistic."

"In general, a tool is just a tool, it's not a weapon unless you really know how to use it and you trained with it and you understand it and it's like an extension of your limb," Cassetta told Newsweek.

"Unless you've been training and you understand how to really work this stuff and it's second nature to you—how are you going to expect a young woman to pull out something and stab somebody in the throat who's attacking them?"

In TikTok videos, weapons such as Kubatons, pointed knuckles, knives and pepper spray were demonstrated on fruits, pieces of meat, cans, synthetic flesh, and mannequin heads. Kubatons are known for being most effective on pressure points, but these how-to videos use them as stabbing tools.

TikTok sellers show off self-defense keychains
Self-defense keychains (also known as safety keychains) are sold in an oversaturated online market on TikTok that taps into women’s anxieties about gender-based violence. TikTok screenshots

In demonstrating the potency of glass-breaking items, sellers have used visibly thin pieces of glass while claiming their products are powerful enough to smash through the thicker glass of windows on buildings and cars.

"If you don't have any strength in your strike, you're not breaking any window, I don't care what you're holding," Cassetta told Newsweek.

Aside from quick demos, keychain influencers have also looked to exude confidence in their products via hypothetical situations packaged in TikTok memes. Fabulyss Boutique, for example, once showed off their items in a video captioned: "When a creepy guy is following you but doesn't realize you have a safety keychain."

But nonchalance in the face of danger is highly unlikely in real life.

"My issue with [the keychains] is first they're very cluttered, and second is that people think that just having it alone is enough to keep them safe," Dani Joy, lead instructor at IMPACT Personal Safety, a Los Angeles-based self-defense organization, told Newsweek. "Because if you're being attacked, if somebody is approaching you and you feel unsafe, your intuition is spiking, more than likely, your adrenaline is also spiking."

Joy said doing the simplest of things while "highly adrenalized" proves more difficult than expected—an issue IMPACT addresses by conducting "dexterity drills."

"Doing small things like trying to unlock a pepper spray and make sure it's facing the correct direction and pressing down a button, it seems like it's not hard, but it is," she said.

"All of those horror movie scenes where we're watching the woman run away and she drops her keys and then she can't get the key in the lock and we're like, 'How could you not do that?' That is so accurate for adrenalized scenarios."

Newsweek asked TikTok and the safety keychain businesses mentioned in this story for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Misleading Marketing

To market their products as safety essentials, some keychain influencers have repurposed content that is not theirs, from packing orders to audio of female voices narrating scary encounters to sharing local news reports on violence against women.

After a young woman took to TikTok to recount a strange man following and accosting her, one shop called SkyDefense saw an opportunity to duet her video and show off their keychain tools in split-screen.

Another TikToker who goes by DefenseFairy promoted her keychains by conveniently cutting off videos from a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school.

The keychain seller duetted a video in which a coach discourages placing keys between knuckles (a known makeshift self-defense tactic used by many women), offering her product as a better alternative.

Her spin-off ended prematurely, just as the martial arts expert was about to advise viewers to learn how to fight and take self-defense classes.

She similarly stitched a video in which the same coach simulates abducting a woman, cutting off right before he teaches fight techniques. Instead, DefenseFairy tells her followers to "get yourself some self-defense tools that can literally save your life."

But learning to fight with bare hands is one of many crucial steps before handling weapons, according to Jennifer Cassetta.

"You need to learn how to block, you need to learn how to strike, [...] and learn how to get force behind you," she told Newsweek.

Cassetta said TikTok's keychain sellers are "going from A to Z and they're skipping B to Y."

"There's too many steps they're missing before you get to weaponry," she said. "There's mindset, practicing situational awareness, there's all these other things—and self defense.

"If you don't learn self-defense, how are you going to actually in the moment use fine motor skills and take out this big clunky keychain, get the right thing, and do the right move with enough strength and force for it to actually work?"

Evidence that the keychains have saved women from peril is lacking, though positive reviews from customers expressed a heightened sense of confidence since purchasing the products.

"The way you hold yourself really is a huge deterrent," Dani Joy of IMPACT told Newsweek. "So if these tools are giving people that confidence to be out in the world, that does make a difference.

"It's just having that skillset to back up that confidence is definitely a plus."

woman striking man in self defense
Stock image of a woman taking a self-defense class. Experts say women need to learn how to strike properly before they can rely on any self-defense tools. iStock/JackF

Despite selling products they claim can save lives, some sellers exhibit a limited understanding of real-life safety issues.

Fabulyss Boutique, for example, has promoted an internet hoax claiming human traffickers place zip ties on car door handles of chosen targets. (This has been debunked by fact-checking organizations such as Snopes and PolitiFact.)

Another shop named Gracefully Armed used that same hoax to advertise their product in a TikTok video viewed over 726,2000 times. The video depicts a person finding two separate cars bound by a chain of zipties, which they cut through using the shop's keychain.

DefenseFairy shared a video on "how to spot a spiked drink," claiming one can tell if their beverage has been drugged by noticing excessive bubbles, changing color, fogginess or sinking ice. The video was viewed over 1.7 million times.

A safety keychain TikToker who goes by DefenseBabes shared the same "tips" in a video seen at least 3.1 million times.

Due to the variety of so-called date rape drugs, there is actually no surefire way to tell if a drink has been spiked just by looking at it.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, these substances are colorless, odorless and tasteless when added to a drink. While a clear drink may change color or appear cloudy after spiking, this would be hard to determine in a darker-colored drink or a dimly-lit setting.

"Even me, with 20 years of experience under my belt, I try to be careful of the words that I speak and how I teach," Jennifer Cassetta told Newsweek.

"I would hope that anybody speaking on safety or self-defense, sexual assault etc. treats it very delicately."

'Crossing the Line Legally'

A TikTok keychain seller who goes by Trap Girl Beauty shared some questionable content to her 75,000 followers, including a video captioned "Me shipping orders out of the country knowing the risk because I love y'all and want you to be safe."

She has also posted a couple of videos dismissing claims questioning the legality of her keychain tools.

In another post, the TikToker joked about using one of the keychain weapons she sells to attack a man. Underneath text that reads "When he thinks I don't hear those bitches in the background," she combs her hair while on a phone call, before removing the top part of the comb to reveal a knife and walking out of the shot.

Marcia Narine Weldon, a lecturer in law at the University of Miami, said posts of this nature could give rise to legal liability for keychain businesses.

"The legal defense for using any of these is that 'This is legal in my city and it's being used for self-defense,'" Narine Weldon told Newsweek.

"And that's where I think you really are crossing the line legally and are telling people that there's not really a self-defense use for your product, there's a completely other use for your product.

"So it's no longer even a self-defense keychain at this point."

The Trap Girl Beauty online store lists its location as Los Angeles but sells a number of weapons prohibited in California, including lipstick case knives and writing pen knives.

Yet the website contains cautious disclaimers holding customers liable for complying with their local laws and regulations when purchasing its products. The shop also claims it "is not held responsible for any injury inquired [sic] when misusing the items."

On their websites, many safety keychain businesses include language absolving themselves of liability from injuries sustained from their products, as well as holding customers responsible for knowing their local laws.

But these statements are not always immediately apparent. A common practice among keychain merchants is to place the disclaimers on pages covering store policy (such as legal and privacy) rather than in more visible areas like homepages or product listings.

These statements can help in case of legal action, but "hiding the ball" could make for a harder defense, Narine Weldon said.

The line between self-defense and assault varies between U.S. jurisdictions. Not all states permit stun guns or metal knuckles, while some restrict the possession of pocket knives.

However, Texas lifted its ban on brass knuckles in 2019 after a 22-year-old woman was charged with possession of an illegal weapon when police found a self-defense keychain in her purse. (The charges were later dropped.)

"Some people won't even know whether it's legal or not, they wouldn't even think that's a question," Narine Weldon told Newsweek.

A few keychain businesses include lists of states where particular weapons they sell are not permitted, though not many cite their sources or date their findings. Others say they will not ship certain tools to the states that do not allow them.

"These businesses obviously know there's legal issues, otherwise they wouldn't have something someplace," Narine Weldon told Newsweek.

"So they're saying 'Alright, I think I've got to put something about liability, so I'm going to put it on my privacy page," she said. "Which is the worst place, because nobody's ever going to read the privacy page.

"That's almost intentionally saying 'I think I have to put something someplace, but I don't really want you to find it.'"

On top of moving their disclaimers to places customers cannot miss, Narine Weldon recommends merchants consult with a lawyer, avoid copying legalese from other safety keychain businesses, cite their sources, and additionally state that they are not responsible for information on their websites because the laws could change.

Beyond liability disclosures and quick how-to TikTok videos, safety keychain sellers do not usually impart detailed, research-based instructions on optimally using the weapons for self-defense, nor do they disclose their products' limitations.

In many cases, safety keychain listings also fail to include material or ingredient lists. Dani Joy said it would be helpful to know exactly how, for example, enclosed pepper spray can affect people or whether the stun guns require direct skin contact to be effective.

"We're not really condemning or condoning self-defense tools," Joy told Newsweek. "We're pro-knowledge. Know how to use it, know how to use it when adrenalized, and know which tool you want at the time."

Joy recommends keychain suppliers should be "advocating for knowledge" among their customers.

"Support small businesses, know how to protect yourself, don't make guarantees about products unless it's 100% studied."

For people who are looking to buy keychains or own them already, she advised specializing in one tool—but not before "knowing how to use yourself first, then adding on."

"You are your most effective tool, because you always have you on you," said Joy. "What happens if you forget that set of keys and you switched purses that day?

"It's something that can be easily left behind, but you are not somebody who can be easily left behind."