Nicotine Salts – A Big Fat Fad or The Next Hit Thing?
The vaping industry has seen its fair share of innovations. Like with everything else, some have been flops, but most seem to have stuck around. Sub-ohm vaping is still going strong, as is high-powered vaping; even squonk devices are making a comeback. Still, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between marketing ploys and real innovations, as is the case with the most recent buzzwords in the vaping world. Of course, we’re talking about nicotine salts.
Although the concept of vaping on something called nicotine salts (or Nic Salts, as it’s abbreviated) sounds a tad unappealing, the hype is pretty real. We have the JUUL to thank for that – their pods popularized nic salts, being arguably the strongest e-liquids out there (50mg nicotine liquids do pack a pretty punch, there’s no doubt about that).
Before we go into what nic salts are and what they are not (hint: they’re not crystals, so don’t worry), let’s check out what vapers who’ve used them have to say about the upsides.
Benefits of Using Nicotine Salts:
- They deliver more nicotine in a single puff, which means that most smokers who are using e-cigs to quit can now save a substantial amount on vape juice.
- Smokers are always searching for that something that’s like smoking, but not exactly it. Using nic salts provides a sensation similar to smoking, even with small pocket-size devices.
- In regular vape juice, as nicotine level goes up, so does the subjective feeling of throat hit. With nic salts, that sensation is curbed, which means that you can now vape on higher concentrations without feeling like your throat is on fire.
- In the last couple of years, vape devices have been growing in size. Vapers who wanted top performance would often opt for larger and bulkier e-cigs. There’s no need to do that anymore – nicotine salts work great in smaller devices, such as pod systems or small vape pens.
There are certainly benefits to using nicotine salts compared to regular e-liquids. So, how come we haven’t heard about them before? Are they a recent breakthrough? And, what exactly ARE nic salts?
What Are Nicotine Salts Exactly?
Most vapers (and smokers, for that matter) never heard of nicotine salts before the recent buzz started. However, this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been around for a pretty long time. In fact, an argument can be made that nicotine salts are the only naturally-occurring nicotine out there, and it would definitely hold water.
You see, not only do we not know a lot about nicotine salts (as consumers), but we’re also woefully uneducated about nicotine itself. It might come as a surprise to you, but tobacco leaves contain only nicotine salts, and no pure, freebase nicotine.
In tobacco leaves, nicotine is present in two distinct forms: diprotonated and monoprotonated. What this means is that the nicotine bonds with certain acids in the plant to create a much more stable molecule. When that bonding happens, the result is a nicotine salt. There are different types of nicotine salts, depending on the acid involved in the whole process (citric, malic, lactic, and so on).
However, none of these salts are present in traditional cigarettes or regular vape juice, which begs the question: how do we get regular nicotine?
The Difference Between Freebase Nicotine and Nic Salts?
Regular, or freebase nicotine, was invented by the tobacco companies back in the 1960s, and it’s completely unprotonated. In fact, it was Phillip Morris that spearheaded the research in this area in order to make cigarettes stronger and more addictive. By adding ammonia to the mix, PM ensured an increased potency of their tobacco blends If you’ve ever asked yourself where does the nicotine in an e-liquid come from, there’s your answer – effectively, the whole vaping industry is capitalizing on the discoveries made decades ago by Big Tobacco.
But, why go through all that trouble?
Nicotine salts, while stable and available organically, are not extremely bioavailable. What this means is that they are not absorbed by the human body as readily, and their addictive properties can’t compare with those of freebase nicotine. Today, the nicotine that’s found is cigarette smoke is 100% freebase, stripped of all its protons, and that increases its bioavailability dramatically. This type of nicotine is also more lipid soluble, which means that it crosses the blood-brain barrier quite easily, triggering a dopamine release more effectively than nicotine salts normally would.
So, in a nutshell, while nic salts are organic and readily available, they just weren’t addictive enough, so the tobacco industry spent millions of dollars ‘improving’ the formula in order to hook more unsuspecting smokers.
If that’s the case, how come nicotine salts are coming back? Do vape juice manufacturers know something that slipped by Phillip Morris’ vast research team?
Why Are Nicotine Salts Gaining Momentum Again?
This new nic salt craze started way back in 2015 when PAX (manufacturer of JUUL pod vaping system) patented a new formula to use in their JUUL pods. Since PAX was marketing mostly to people looking to quit smoking, they were faced with a problem. Traditional vaping is similar to smoking, but it’s not exactly like lighting up a cigarette. The feel is not the same and, more importantly, the amount of nicotine that gets delivered also falls short of that of combustible cigarettes.
Most regular vape juices are available in different nicotine strengths, but you will rarely find anything that goes over 24mg. That’s because freebase nicotine is acidic, and therefore harsh on the throat. Because of that, it would be almost impossible to vape a 50mg nic vape juice on a vape device that delivers a decent amount of vapor.
Still, new JUUL salts pods boasted around 59mg of nicotine, while providing an almost smooth vaping experience. In addition to that, nicotine salts in these pods were as bioavailable as freebase nicotine found in combustible cigarettes. How is that possible?
The answer lies in the type of acid that PAX used to create their particular nic salt.
We’ve already mentioned that different acids can be bonded to nicotine and that the result will be a bit different with each one of those. PAX used benzoic acid to create their patented nic salt and tested it exhaustively to find out if it can rival the bioavailability of freebase nicotine.
Their research confirmed that that particular formulation worked great – maximum concentration of nicotine in blood plasma and the time needed to achieve it were both comparable to combustible cigarettes.
Although PAX was to create a stable nic salt that can be absorbed readily, their solution had one additional interesting side-effect. The addition of benzoic acid lowered the pH value of the vapor, resulting in a much smoother vape. Essentially, PAX shot down two birds with a single stone, creating one of the strongest e-liquids that can be enjoyed without suffering cough fits.
Which Devices To Use When Vaping Nicotine Salts?
Nic salts were created for a specific purpose – a strong nicotine hit from small, portable devices. Pod systems, such as the JUUL, work great for them. That said, you definitely don’t have to be a JUUL owner to use them. Any lower-power device and tank setup will do the trick, so if you own a vape pen and an old M2L tank, you can now put them to good use.
Owners of high-powered vape devices (aren’t we all at this point?) shouldn’t despair, though. While vaping JUUL-type nicotine salts with your Alien 220 and a sub-ohm tank is not advisable, this doesn’t mean that the process can’t be hacked a bit. You can easily buy or make a lower concentration nicotine salt (around 18mg) and enjoy a reasonably smooth vaping experience and decent clouds, all thanks to the fact that nic salts deliver less of a throat hit than regular vape juices.
Are Nicotine Salts Bad For You?
The persistent mainstream hysteria around vaping has taken its toll even on us, so it’s only natural that we’re all wondering are nic salts safe at this point. The truth is, they are as safe as freebase nicotine (which is relatively safe, if we don’t account for its addictive properties), so, from a pure health and well-being oriented standpoint, there’s no extra reason for concern.
However, there are still a few points we’d like to stress here:
- Nic salts are potentially more addictive – just by virtue of higher concentration, these salts might be more addictive than regular vape juice. That’s because they lead to higher nicotine blood content in a shorter amount of time, triggering neurochemical reactions faster.
- Effects of benzoic acid still under investigation – although arguably not extremely toxic to humans, benzoic acid (used to create smooth nic salt vape juices) might still be a reason for concern. Some studies suggest that it can trigger coughing, while others state that it can cause pseudoallergic reactions. As of now, we have no data on inhalation exposure, which something we hope will change in the near future.
- Perceived harmfulness of nic salts – as always, the media might use this opportunity to pounce on vaping once again, arguing that the manufacturers are ‘spiking’ vape juice to make it more addictive (spins of this sort are not all that uncommon for our industry). With the FDA’s recent announcement about reducing nicotine content in analog cigarettes, this scenario is not totally unimaginable.
Who Should Consider Using Nicotine Salts?
As always, it’s tempting to jump on every new fad that sweeps across the vaping industry. However, nic salts will not be everyone’s cup of tea and, in any case, they were created for a specific target group.
Consider using nicotine salts if you are:
- A transitioning smoker looking for strongest e-liquids, and if regular vape juice is just not cutting it for you.
- A seasoned vaper who’s looking for a smoother experience on your sub-ohm tank (just remember to use lower concentration nic salts, up to 18 mg).
- A price-conscious DIYer and you want to get more bang for your buck.
- A stealth vaper who uses a small device and wants discreet hits that won’t envelop the whole room in clouds.
Noticeably absent from this list are cloud chasers. Extreme power vaping shouldn’t be attempted with nic salts. Although the feel is smoother than with regular vape juice, the combination of excessive power and high nic content can result in really bad throat hits, as well as nicotine poisoning.
Are Nicotine Salts Here to Stay?
One thing is for certain, nic salts are definitely covering a market gap right now, mostly targeting beginner vapers who are looking to rid themselves of analog cigarettes. Will they completely push out regular vape juice? Not likely, as cloud-chasing is still a favorite sport for vapers, and that’s not something that you can safely do with nicotine salts. They will certainly grab their share of the market, however, and we predict that a lot more manufacturers will start offering them in 2018.