Nicotine Salts, The Doc’s Remedy
“What is nicotine salt?” you may ask yourself after experiencing an (increasingly common) situation such as this:
You’re hanging out puffing your JUUL and awaiting the arrival of your buddy for a late night study sesh.
As he arrives, you notice an unfamiliar little device in his hand.
“JUUL wasn’t doing it for ya?” you ask, intrigued.
“I like the JUUL, but pods are just so expensive!” he responds. “This thing has refillable pods, so you can buy e-juice for way cheaper.”
“Oh yeah?” you reply. “What kind of juice you rockin’?”
“Kiwi-watermelon. It uses ‘salt nicotine’, same as the JUUL. It’s way better than normal e-juice! You can even refill JUUL Pods with this stuff!”
You have also been pained by the strain JUUL has put on your wallet. Intrigued, you decide to do a little research on these “nicotine salts”.
And now you find yourself here. Welcome. You shall have the answers you desire…
What Are You Looking For?
- Brief History of Nicotine Salts
- What is Nicotine Salt? (Scientific Explanation)
- What is Nicotine Salt? (Simple Explanation)
- Health Risks
- Side by side comparison
- Nicotine Usage
A Brief History of Nicotine Salts
Nicotine salt is the form nicotine naturally takes in the tobacco plant.
For years, this was how people got their nicotine when smoking. However, the nicotine salts in cigarettes do not absorb into the lungs very well on their own.
Phillip Morris USA (the parent company of Marlboro, and many other cigarette brands) wanted to increase the nicotine absorption rate of cigarettes, thus increasing consumer addiction. (higher nicotine absorption = stronger nicotine addiction = a lot more money for Phillip Morris USA, NOT COOL BIG TOBACCO)
To this end, they began research in the 1960s and discovered that adding ammonia (a toxic gas) to cigarettes created a much more bio-available version of nicotine when burned.
“Free-Base Nicotine” was born.
This became the common source of nicotine for all nicotine products. This includes most modern e-juices, as well as smoking cessation aids such as Nicorette gum and patches.
In 2015 the JUUL was released. In an attempt to mimic traditional cigarettes they decided to give nicotine salts another chance.
Since then, nicotine salts have exploded in popularity and many more third-party e-juice companies are creating nicotine salt e-juice to match consumer demand.
How does this make sense? If nicotine salt is LESS absorbable by our lungs, then how did JUUL create such a satisfying and cigarette-like experience by using them?
WELL, the key is that JUUL added a secret ingredient to their e-juice that solved all the issues regular nicotine salts suffered from.
The next couple of sections of this post will be a scientific explanation that digs deep into chemistry, followed by a simpler explanation for those who get nauseous at even the thought of molecular science.
If you fall into the second group, click here to skip right to the simple explanation.
For everyone else, get ready. We’re about to get real brainy.
What is Nicotine Salt? (Scientific)
Disclaimer: I LOVE science and generally have an above average understanding of scientific concepts. However I AM NOT a professional chemist, and there’s bound to be at least one mistake, and probably some missing info.
So to all my REAL scientists out there reading this, I encourage you to correct me in the comments below the post, but please have mercy on my ignorance.
The Molecular Playground
As mentioned, nicotine salt is the form of nicotine naturally found in tobacco plants.
It consists of a negatively charged nicotine ion, ionically bonded to positively charged organic acid ions.
The temperature produced in cigarette combustion is high enough to separate these ions within the smoke inhaled, resulting in less bioavailability. (Bioavailability: the amount of a consumed substance absorbed into the bloodstream)
Now, let’s identify the traits that make nicotine salt difficult to work with in vape juices:
- Many higher powered, popular vaporizers would overheat the salts, resulting in combustion and separation of ions, lowering bioavailability.
- The nicotine anions released by the combustion of nicotine salts are negatively charged. Compounds that have a positive or negative charge do not pass through biological semipermeable membranes, such as cell walls, as easily as neutrally charged compounds, resulting in the lower bioavailability of combusted nicotine salts.
Free-base nicotine is a neutrally charged version of the anion above. It is created by reacting ammonium salts with nicotine salts to produce a neutrally charged form of nicotine, thus increasing bioavailability.
This was achieved for cigarettes by adding ammonium salts to cigarettes containing natural nicotine salts, which creates free-base nicotine in the combustion reaction of smoking.
The ammonium salt is combusted into its constituents: positively charged ammonia cations and its negatively charged anions.
Simultaneously, nicotine salts are combusted into nicotine anions and their organic acid cations.
The nicotine anions and ammonia cations then bond within the cigarettes smoke, producing neutrally charged (and much more bioavailable) free-base nicotine.
Negatives of using free-base nicotine in e-juice:
- Free-base nicotine ions (in liquid form) react with and affect flavoring agents, often for the worse. Nicotine salts, being more stable, do not affect flavoring agents.
- Increasing the amount of free-base nicotine in e-juice increases the e-juice’s pH level. This higher (more basic) pH results in a harsh vapor that is unpleasant to inhale. To maximize the amount of free-base nicotine while maintaining a pleasant experience, the levels should be at about 1.8% or 18mg/ml. This often lower than that which is desired by smokers trying to quit.
When the creators of Juul set out, they wanted to solve a few specific problems related to the issues above to produce a more satisfying and cigarette-like vaping experience.
These goals were:
- Increasing the amount of nicotine available in e-juice to satisfy cravings.
- Achieve higher nicotine percentage while maintaining a smooth and pleasant inhalation experience.
- Create e-juice that can be effectively vaporized at much lower temperatures, allowing the use of small, cheap, and efficient vaporizers.
They solved all these problems through the addition of one substance: Benzoic Acid.
JUUL found that adding benzoic acid (a harmless substance often used in food preservation) to free-base nicotine creates the nicotine salt called: benzoic nicotine salt.
Adding benzoic acid decreases free-base nicotine’s pH, resulting in a much smoother vapor and allowing for higher concentrations of nicotine within e-juice while maintaining a smooth hit.
It also allows the nicotine to be vaporized at much lower temperatures than other nicotine salts, and the new substance nearly matches the bioavailability found in free-base nicotine, as illustrated by JUUL’s graph below:
So why is benzoic nicotine salt more bioavailable than the natural nicotine salts found in cigarettes?
The lower vaporization temperature of the JUUL results in the vaporization of benzoic nicotine salt without separating its ions as is seen in cigarette combustion. This means that the salts stay intact (and neutrally charged) within the vapor, allowing them to more easily pass through biological membranes.
Whew! After hours of research and conflicting reports of how nicotine salts REALLY work, I hope I’m at least close to accurate here.
Truth is, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about these complex chemical reactions, and I don’t want to just add to the confusion, however, I’m sure I’ve made mistakes SOMEWHERE.
What is Nicotine Salt? (Simple)
Nicotine salt is the form of nicotine naturally found in tobacco plants. The temperatures produced when smoking cigarettes break down the nicotine salts into forms that are much less absorbable by our lungs.
Thus, free-base nicotine became the go-to for e-juice manufacturing due to its much higher absorption rate.
The problem is, free-base nicotine has a high pH level. Without getting too sciencey, basically the higher the pH the harsher and less pleasant the vaping experience.
Our friend here can tell you all about how vaping high strength free-base nicotine feels:
This capped the amount of nicotine added to e-juices at a percentage lower than that which smokers desired to satisfy their cravings.
After MUCH testing and experimentation, JUUL found that adding a specific substance (the SECRET ingredient!) to free-base nicotine created a nicotine salt that balanced out the pH of the e-juice.
This allowed for higher concentrations of nicotine to be added to the juice without increasing the harshness of the vapor!
The secret ingredient you ask? Benzoic Acid.
Benzoic acid is a harmless substance that is often used in food preservation. MUCH better than ammonia if you ask me.
This breakthrough permitted JUUL to create HIGHLY concentrated nicotine salt e-juices that could be vaporized comfortably using a simple low-wattage battery like the JUUL we’ve come to know and love.
The combination of their salt nicotine e-juice, conveniently small battery, and their pod-based system created the closest experience to an actual cigarette that smokers can get.
It’s no surprise that the JUUL became so popular, so quickly.
Nicotine Salt Health Risks
Nicotine Salt E-juice
Nicotine Salt e-juice is no more dangerous than free-base nicotine is as far as we know.
The biggest logical risk we can draw is that using salt nic e-juice over free-base e-juice may increase your level of addiction to nicotine.
Salt nic juice’s high concentration and absorption rate result in higher amounts of nicotine in the bloodstream in a shorter amount of time, creating a higher tolerance.
That being said, addiction to nicotine is still not completely understood by science. Some even claim that nicotine isn’t addictive at all and rather its the sensation of smoking that is the main source of addiction.
This discrepancy is the result of poorly performed studies taken at face value by sources such as the FDA and the media.
It shows why having many reproductions of any scientific finding is so important!
Benzoic acid has been found to be almost completely harmless to humans and animals alike when exposed to it in a solid form. This is why it is very widely used as a food preservative.
However, there has been very little research on the effects of inhaling gaseous benzoic acid.
Although this sounds scary, it’s pretty much the same story for every other chemical present in e-juice:
Much more research is required.
Although many recent studies looking into the effects of vaping have shown it to be 95% safer than smoking cigarettes, there are still many studies and tests that need to be performed to give us a fuller picture of the risk factors associated with vaping ANY substance.
Nicotine Salts VS. Free-Base Nicotine
Here is a basic side by side comparison for each type of nicotine when used in e-juice.
- Higher maximum concentration of nicotine (up to 60 mg/ml)
- Produces smaller, discreet clouds of vapor
- Used in simple, small, pod-based vaporizers
- Smoother Vapor
- Longer shelf-life without flavor distortion
- Requires fewer puffs to reach the desired level of nicotine in the body
- Closest imitation of an actual cigarette
- Lower maximum concentration of nicotine (18-30 mg/ml)
- Can produce large BEASTS of clouds
- Can be used in a wide variety of vaporizers, from small pod-based systems to large mods
- Tends to produce harsher vapor at higher nicotine percents (18-30 mg/ml)
- Shorter shelf-life, due to flavor and color distortion
- Requires more puffs to reach the desired level of nicotine in the body (meaning you go through more e-juice, and spend more money)
- Many smokers do not get the same satisfaction they do when smoking or using nicotine salt e-juice.
How do I use Nicotine Salts?
Nicotine salt e-juices are designed to be used in low wattage vaporizer systems like the JUUL.
Trying to uses nic salts in larger, more powerful sub-ohm systems will result in a VERY unpleasant experience and should be avoided entirely.
Most manufacturers will state what kind of e-juice their model is designed for but if they don’t, always make sure you do your research so you don’t waste money on an incompatible device.
Although most small pod-based vapes are designed with nic-salts in mind, some of them, like the Smok Novo, are starting to accommodate both salt and free-base e-juices.
For my opinion on THE BEST vaporizers for nicotine salts, click here. (COMING SOON)
So who are nicotine salts best suited for? I’ll tell you in list form, because who doesn’t like lists right?
- Heavy smokers (one or more packs a day) looking to quit
- Those looking for a more traditional smoking experience
- Those who want smooth vapor containing large amounts of nicotine
- Those who want a stronger nicotine buzz
- People who want to vape more discreetly with small puffs of vapor
- Those who prefer a simple, hassle-free vape setup
- Those who don’t want to break the bank with their initial setup
- Light smokers (In my opinion NON-smokers SHOULD NOT start vaping)
- Those looking for a new, less traditional experience
- Those who will sacrifice nicotine content to maintain smooth vapor
- People who want a more subtle nicotine buzz
- CLOUD CHASERS (those who love blowing massive clouds of vapor)
- People who like customization and experimentation, there are nearly endless combinations of batteries, tanks, and mods designed for free-base e-juice
- “Money isn’t an issue, gimme that new flashy CloudBOX X3000, Atlantis Quad-wick double wall glass tank, and some extra batteries while you’re at it.”
Hopefully not, as I’ve done my absolute best to answer the question “What is nicotine salt?”.
Covering every possible angle I could imagine, I think this just may be the most in-depth (unprofessional) article ever written on nicotine salts.
I made this post to help teach people about this new innovation to the vaping frontier, and to clear the air of some of the misunderstandings and errors people make when explaining nicotine salts.
This is also (sort of) a guide to those who are new to vaping, and may be feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to start.
I know I felt that way when first delving into the wonderful world of vaping, so if I can shed even a little light on the complex topic, then that’s a win to me.
Have a salty (or salt-free) day dear JUULers, we’ll see you soon.
Did you read the ENTIRE article? if so I’m impressed. Do you have a better understanding of nicotine salts (and nicotine in general) now? Have you decided that nicotine salts are perfect for you? Or are you going to go for the latest box mod tech?
Let me know in the comments below!