If you believe the hype from companies like Pax Labs or Mr. Salt E-Liquid, nicotine salts are the next big thing in the world of vaping.
So what is salt-based nicotine? How is it different from the nicotine usually found in e-juice? And is it worth spending a little more to try out? Here’s a run-down of everything you need to know.
What is nicotine salt?
Nicotine salt is the form of nicotine found in tobacco leaves. Unlike the nicotine ordinarily used in e-juice, these salts aren’t just nicotine; they’re compounds containing nicotine and another organic components. This could be in combination with one or more of the other chemicals in tobacco leaves, but the result is the same – a more stable molecule is formed.
The form of nicotine ordinarily used in e-liquid is called “freebase” nicotine. This is nicotine not bonded to anything else, and is generally considered preferable for vaping and other purposes because it’s a more “volatile” (i.e. easily vaporized) form of nicotine.
In fact, the tobacco industry went to considerable effort to increase the quantity of freebase nicotine in smoke. A major contributing factors to the success of Marlboro cigarettes, because Philip Morris was the pioneer of this successful approach.
How do nicotine salts work in e-liquid?
The story so far is a little confusing. Companies offering nicotine salt vape juices claim that it’s much more satisfying to vape than traditional freebase nicotine e-liquid, and yet the tobacco industry appears to have come to the exact opposite conclusion. Are the e-liquid companies missing something? Is nicotine salt e-liquid just a marketing gimmick?
This would have been the case were it not for some experiments performed by Pax Labs, who created the JUUL. Through many experiments with different formulations (explained in detail in a patent but in a much more readable format here), their researchers discovered that specific nicotine salts actually appeared to work better than freebase nicotine e-liquid. They call the finding “unexpected,” but tests of the blood nicotine levels obtained by users confirm the results.
The key ingredient was benzoic acid, which was added to control the specific nicotine salt formed in the e-liquid. By considering the reactions that occur at vaping-like temperatures, they were able to make a juice containing nicotine salts that still got you plenty of usable nicotine when you vape it.
The additional benefit is the effect of the acid on the pH of e-juice (i.e. whether it’s acidic or basic/alkaline). In general, a higher pH leads to more freebase nicotine in smoke or vapor, but it also makes the resulting mixture harsher to inhale.
By adding benzoic acid, the vapor from nicotine salt e-juice has a lower pH and is less harsh to vape, but chemical reactions occur during vaping that maintain high freebase nicotine content in the vapor. This means you can comfortably vape higher-nicotine e-juice. If you’ve tried the JUUL pods – which has a 59 mg/mL nicotine strength – you’ll be able to attest to this first-hand.
The truth is that the tobacco companies did have it right, but the reality isn’t quite as simple as “freebase is better.” Through more experimentation and consideration of vaping conditions (where temperatures are lower in general), Pax Labs has found a way to make nicotine salts a viable method of vaping, and arguably a better one.
Benefits of nicotine salt
Taking a step away from the science of nicotine salt e-juice, what does this all mean for you as a user? Why should you try nicotine salts rather than just sticking to ordinary freebase nicotine juice?
- You’ll get more nicotine, more quickly: In general, nicotine salts formed using a suitable acid and paired with the right sort of device seem to get nicotine to your blood more quickly.
- You can use higher-nicotine juices: You don’t need to consume 10 mL of e-juice per day if you can have a 60 mg/ml e-juice instead of a 6 mg/mL one.
- Nicotine salt e-juice has a longer shelf-life: Nicotine salts are more stable than freebase nicotine, which means that nicotine salt e-juice will last longer in storage without the nicotine degrading.
- You don’t need a powerful device: Nicotine salt e-liquids are more efficient at getting you nicotine, so you don’t need to compensate with a 150 W box mod – a simple, tiny device can be just as satisfied.
How to vape nicotine salt
Vaping nicotine salt e-juice isn’t like vaping ordinary e-juice. If you picked up a bottle of high-strength nicotine salt e-juice and vaped it from a box mod and sub ohm tank setup, you’d likely get a substantially and fairly unpleasant hit of nicotine. But nic salt e-juice does also come in low “dripping” dosages, although the jury is still out as to whether it’s any more effective than regular nic at lower levels.
Nicotine salts e-liquid is intended for use in lower-power devices. The JUUL is a great example of a device that would ideally be used for nicotine salts. It’s compact and low in power output, essentially like a well-made cigalike. Pod-style devices are optimal for nicotine salts, but you can use more conventional, easily refillable devices too. A basic vape pen will offer more than enough power to get a satisfying vape from a higher-nicotine salt blend.
The big advantage here is for newer vapers, who will both benefit from the more efficient nicotine absorption and the fact that you don’t need overly complicated gear to get the most from it. If you have a higher-power device, you can also get nicotine salt e-liquid in lower nicotine levels too. Whether these are actually noticeably better than ordinary freebase nicotine e-juice at the same nicotine level is unclear, because one of the big benefits of using nicotine salts is that higher nicotine levels can be comfortably vaped.
Is nicotine salt safe?
This is an understandable question, but the truth is that nicotine salt itself is probably just as safe as freebase nicotine. Ultimately, even if it’s originally in the form of a salt, the nicotine affects the body in the same way, so there are no real differences in terms of risks.
However, there is one important factor to consider. To make nicotine salts work in e-juice, benzoic acid is added to the mix. While this isn’t known to be very toxic to humans, most of the evidence concerns ingestion rather than inhalation. Studies on animals suggest little risk, but the truth is that we’re not too sure what the long-term effects will be for humans inhaling benzoic acid at the concentrations found in nicotine salt e-juice.
Despite this big question mark over the risks of inhaling benzoic acid, it goes without saying that vaping nicotine salt e-liquid is still going to be much, much safer than smoking. In addition, the reduction in the amount of vapor you’ll have to inhale could arguably make a high-strength nicotine salt e-juice even safer to use than an ordinary e-liquid.
Is nicotine salt addictive?
Although the word dependence is more suitable when discussing “addiction” to nicotine outside of smoke, in everyday (i.e. less precise) language, nicotine salt is addictive. Other components of smoke do enhance the addictiveness of smoked tobacco, but nicotine itself is still the primary addictive component of smoke. In short, nicotine salt e-liquid is just as addictive as freebase nicotine e-liquid, and if it leads to sharper spikes in blood nicotine levels (which Pax’s data suggest it does) it could actually be slightly more addictive than normal e-juice.