Nicotine Salt E-Liquids Explained: What They Are and How They’re Made
Most of the evolution in vaping technology has come in the form of new mods and tanks, but the world of e-liquid isn’t static either. The release of the Juul accompanied the development of nicotine salt e-liquid, and with it came promises of a more satisfying vaping experience. With juices available in huge strengths but still promising a smooth vape, it’s easy to see why many vapers were intrigued.
But what are nicotine salt e-liquids? How are they different from ordinary e-liquids? Are they worth trying out? And if you do try them, is there anything you need to know? We’ve put together this post to answer these questions and more.
What Are Nicotine Salts?
Understanding nicotine salt e-liquid is easier if you look at the distinction between “freebase” nicotine and “salt” nicotine. Freebase nicotine is the type used in e-liquids, pharmaceutical nicotine products and the type that cigarette manufacturers tried to increase the quantity of in smoke. The reason is simple: freebase nicotine is absorbed more readily by the body, so if you increase the amount of freebase nicotine in cigarette smoke, you make the cigarette more addictive.
This is why freebase nicotine is used in most e-liquids and why pharmaceutical products use them too. It’s the form that gets to the brain and blood most efficiently and so it’s the most effective form of nicotine to use, on a basic level.
But in its natural form in the tobacco leaf, nicotine doesn’t come in freebase form. It is found as nicotine salts, which are a combination of the pure nicotine molecule and another organic compound that imparts additional protons. This creates a more stable form of nicotine that can remain in-tact in the leaf.
Because cigarette and nicotine product manufacturers ordinarily use freebase nicotine, they need to process this naturally-occurring nicotine to turn it into freebase form. They do this by adding ammonia, which has the effect of removing protons and other components from the nicotine, and also increases the pH of the smoke (i.e. makes it more alkaline).
The increased pH also gives the nicotine more of a punch on the inhale. This is what gave Marlboro cigarettes more of a kick than their competitors when they discovered the benefits of freebase nicotine, and why higher-nicotine e-liquids are quite harsh to vape.
How Nicotine Salt E-Liquids Are Made
Now you know what nicotine salts really are, you might be wondering why making e-liquid using them would be a good idea. After all, cigarette manufacturers realized a long time ago that freebase nicotine is more effective at delivering nicotine to the user.
The big motivating factor is how the higher pH makes inhaling nicotine a harsher experience for the user. In a cigarette – when you’re inhaling smoke full of loads of harsh chemicals but also many other ingredients intended to make it smoother – it doesn’t make much of a difference. In e-liquid, you can tell the difference between a 24 mg/ml juice and a 6 mg/ml juice from the throat hit alone. Theoretically, if you could make a lower-pH form of nicotine that could still be absorbed by users, you could get the best of both worlds.
The breakthrough came to Pax Labs when they were developing the Juul. By adding benzoic acid, the nicotine salts were able to be vaporized at lower temperatures, and this also reduced the pH of the nicotine. This specific component also leads to chemical reactions that help the nicotine be absorbed despite the salt form. In short, nicotine salt with benzoic acid is less harsh to inhale at high strengths, can be effectively used in vaping devices and is still absorbed by your body much like freebase nicotine.
When the initial tests of the new e-liquid showed that nicotine made it into the blood faster from nicotine salt e-juice, and the Juul became a success (and was fine to inhale despite a substantial 59 mg/ml nicotine strength), this approach to making nicotine salt e-juice really took off across the vaping industry.
Pros and Cons of Nicotine Salt E-Liquids
Nicotine salt e-liquid definitely brings advantages with it, but as with any new development there are both positives and negatives to consider. Here is a quick run-down of the benefits and downsides of nicotine salt e-juice.
- Much higher nicotine strengths can be comfortably vaped.
- More satisfying for heavier smokers.
- Work more effectively with lower-powered devices.
- Cheaper in the long-run because you use less juice.
- Arguably less impact on the flavor of the juice than freebase nicotine.
- They aren’t ideal for higher-power devices.
- Less choice in e-liquid flavors at present.
- Too much nicotine for some vapers.
- Benefits limited in some areas: e.g. the EU’s TPD limits nicotine strength to 20 mg/ml.
What Type of Device Should I Use Nicotine Salt E-Liquid With?
Nicotine salts are really intended for a specific type of device, and this isn’t necessarily the type preferred by most vapers. The Juul is the archetypal device that nicotine salts work well with: low-powered, compact and discreet. Pod systems and simple vape pens don’t put out much vapor and the batteries are quite small, and with ordinary e-liquids this is a huge downside. They might be more portable and easier to use, but they generally aren’t as satisfying and you need to vape a lot to get the nicotine you want, draining the battery more quickly. Nicotine salt e-liquids make these devices much more viable as a long-term vaping solution.
While you could use nicotine salt e-liquid with an ordinary box mod and sub ohm tank combination, the reality is that this would likely get you way too much nicotine. So if you’re going to try a high-strength nicotine salt e-liquid, then it’s best to get a pod system device or at least a low-powered, simple vape pen to use it with.
Is Nicotine Salt E-Liquid Right for you?
The only remaining question is whether nicotine salt e-liquid is worth trying out for you. This is really a decision only you can make, but if you think about what’s important for you in your vaping experience, you can work out whether it’s worthwhile. The main reasons to try nicotine salt e-juice are:
- If ordinary e-liquid just isn’t satisfying for you. The higher strength from nicotine salt e-juice could really help.
- If you want to use a discreet and portable device but still need substantial amounts of nicotine.
- If ordinary e-juice is too harsh for you to vape. Even lower-strength salt e-liquids will be smoother to vape than the equivalent in freebase nicotine e-liquid.
- If you aren’t interested in big clouds. Cloud-chasing and nicotine salt e-liquids don’t mix too well because of the devices you’ll need to use.
- If you don’t mind a reduction in flavor options. Most e-liquids (including Black Note’s tobacco e-liquid) are freebase nicotine, so you won’t have as much choice with nicotine salts.
The truth is, nicotine salts aren’t a massive game-changing innovation, but for some vapers and some types of device, they do offer benefits. If these benefits match up well with what you’re looking for from your vaping experience, they’re definitely worth trying out. But if you have an ordinary vape mod and get enough nicotine from your device, there is little motivation to switch to a salt-friendly setup.