The vaping industry has seen a massive amount of innovation in a short space of time – what are Nic Salts?
Nicotine salt (or nic salts, to use their mainstream abbreviation) has been used in e-liquid for a few years now. However, the rise in popularity as a major vaping innovation has been fairly recent.
Nic salts are particularly popular in the US, which is linked to the JUUL closed vaping pod system which, in America, is sold with a punch-packing 50% nicotine salts based e-liquid. The more recently available EU version is sold with the maximum 20% nicotine level allowable by the TPD regulations.
Due to the rise in popularity and demand, we’ve recently increased our own range of nic salt e-liquids. We created this guide to help you understand nicotine salts fully, and make an informed decision about whether vaping nic salts is right for you.
What is freebase nicotine?
Before we get into explanations about nic salts, it’s important to understand a bit more about the more common form of nicotine – freebase.
Cigarettes, nicotine replacement therapies (gum, patches, etc.), and traditional vape liquids contain freebase nicotine. It’s been the norm since the 1960s when Phillip Morris (of Marlboro fame) fronted the research which discovered that by freebasing nicotine, they could make their cigarettes stronger and, therefore, more addictive.
Freebasing is achieved by converting nicotine from its naturally occurring ‘salt’ state into its base ‘pure’ form. It’s a way of increasing potency without increasing the dose. Ammonia is used to strip protons from the nicotine salts which increases the pH level (alkalinity) and returns it to a deprotonated ‘freebase’ state.
So, if freebase nicotine is nicotine in its purest form, why would vapers benefit from a switch to nicotine salts? To answer that question fully, we first need to explore the main drawback of using freebase nicotine in e-liquid.
The downside to vaping freebase nicotine
The fundamental goal of vaping as a successful aid to smoking cessation is to make the sensation of vaping as close to that of smoking a cigarette as possible. For this to work, the efficiency of the nicotine delivery has to replicate that of traditional cigarettes.
Until recently, a freebase nicotine solution was the only way to deliver the nicotine required in your vape juice. The removal of the protons means that it is able to effectively travel through our cells to bind with the nicotine receptors in our lungs and brains.
However, we’ve already discussed that freebase nicotine has a higher pH value, which makes it more alkaline. This means that it is extremely harsh in high doses.
The throat hit from a high mg dose of freebase nicotine is found to be too severe for most vapers to enjoy, or even endure. This can lead to new vapers reducing the nicotine content of their eliquid to lessen the throat hit.
The negative effects of doing this is that reducing the nicotine levels too soon can cause vaping newbies to go rushing back to cigarettes when they don’t satisfy those early intense cravings.
Alternatively, they might choose to take more hits from their vape to satisfy the cravings, thereby increasing the amount of e-liquid they burn through and not seeing the cost savings they were promised.
The scientists behind nicotine salts for e-liquid wanted to find a way to remove the trade-off between fully satisfying the nicotine cravings, and getting a smooth vaping experience. Before we discover how they achieved that, let’s take a look at what nicotine salt actually is…
What is nicotine salt?
First and foremost, what it is NOT is table salt (sodium chloride). It does not make your vape juice taste salty, and will not increase your sodium intake.
In chemistry, a salt is made up of a chemical reaction that has a positive charge (acid) and a negative charge (base).
Nicotine found in tobacco leaves has the chemical composition of a salt. In fact, tobacco leaves contain nicotine ONLY in its salt state. It is these exact same nicotine salts that are chemically altered to create freebase nicotine.
However, the chemical make-up of nicotine salt has a weak base which seeks out positively charged particles (protons) in order to become stable (ionised). Because ions have a hard time moving through our cell membranes, they don’t travel easily to the nicotine receptors in our body.
If unadulterated nic salts were added to the VG/PG that comprises e-liquid, it would need to be vaped at extremely high temperatures for the nicotine to be effective. Even then, the nicotine would still not be as easily absorbed (bioavailable) as its freebase counterpart. So, in order to make it effective, the nic salt requires a little chemical modification of its own.
Making nic salt suitable for vaping
There is a huge amount of chemical jargon that we could reel off at this point; however, we don’t want to overwhelm (or bore) you with the precise molecular breakdown. Basically, what it boils down to is pH levels.
The clever scientists behind vapable nic salts theorised that if you increase the acidity of the nicotine salt, you could deliver much higher doses of nicotine without the nasty throat hit.
Acids bond well to nicotine, and there are certain acids that are naturally occurring in every cell of the human body which have been found to make nicotine salts particularly effective when vaped.
The most commonly used is Benzoic acid, with Citric acid following closely in prevalence. The addition of the acid has three clear benefits:
- It gives the nicotine a chemical structure which is far more rapidly absorbed by our bodies
- It enables the nicotine salt to vaporise at lower temperatures
- It lowers the pH level resulting in a much smoother throat hit
By modifying nicotine salt in this way, it can deliver a concentration of nicotine to the blood that is comparable to combustible cigarettes, in roughly the same amount of time.
Nicotine salt vs. freebase nicotine
Now you know the science, let’s take a quick look at the major differences between freebase nicotine and nicotine salt to help you decide which is right for you.
- Contains Benzoic or Citric acid
- Is absorbed faster into the bloodstream
- Is smooth at high doses
- Can’t handle high flavour complexity
- Does not enable large cloud production
- Suited to mouth-to-lung vaping style
- More expensive by volume
- Suitable for high nicotine strengths
- Ideal for new vapers, or mixed users
- Well suited to pod vapes and lower power vape devices
- Less liquid needed for comparable nicotine hit
- Slow oxidation means longer shelf life
- Contains no additives
- Has a slower absorption rate
- Is harsh at high doses
- Can handle high flavour complexity
- Enables large cloud production
- Suited to mouth-to-lung or direct-to-lung vaping styles
- Less expensive by volume
- More suited to low and medium nicotine strengths
- Suited to vapers with lower nicotine requirements
- Higher power devices needed for maximum vaporising
- More liquid needed for comparable nicotine hit
- Faster oxidation means shorter shelf life
Which is safer – nicotine salt or freebase nicotine?
The only difference between nicotine salt vape juice and standard e-liquid is the addition of benzoic or citric acid. Since they are both naturally occurring in our bodies, salt nicotine is likely to be no more or less safe than freebase nicotine.
The World Health Organisation’s International Programme on Chemical Safety advises that we consume no more than 5 mg of these acids per kilogram of body weight per day; this equates to about 415 mg for an average 185 lb UK man, or 350 mg for an average 154 lb UK woman . It is unlikely that anybody would be able to vape that amount, considering that 1 ml of nicotine salt e-liquid contains just a few milligrams of benzoic or citric acid.
Which should you choose?
Nicotine salt e-liquid might be the right fit for you if you fit any of these criteria:
- You want to quit smoking
- You’ve tried vaping before but without success
- You’re not looking for an overly technical vaping device
- You want higher nicotine levels than regular e-liquid can provide
Hopefully this guide has provided you with everything you need to know in order to make an informed decision about which version of nicotine e-liquids are right for you. However, if you have any more questions, we’re always on hand to offer expert guidance and advice – please feel free to get in touch.