Parents Guide to Detecting Teen Vaping

The teen vaping epidemic poses a threat to the health of minors through the dangers of nicotine addiction. As a vaper, I am quite attuned to the signs of vaping and completely opposed to underage vaping. This article will give you every tool you need to figure out if your child is vaping without intrusive testing.

Spotting the Signs of Teen Vaping

Vaping is not always easy to detect, but there are certain devices, gadgets and physiological signs which warrant further observation. The best case scenario is that you will have no reason to deploy this new found knowledge.

Kids and Juul

It is impossible to discuss teen vaping and not discuss Juul. This is the device preferred by minors. It does not resemble a cigarette, the long stick battery cartomizers or a big boxy “mods” that are often associated with vaping.

If you want to have a firm grasp about what this Juul device is all about, check out our feature “The Truth and Technology Behind Juul and Nic Salts Revealed.”

There is a popular misconception that a Juul looks like a USB drive. A Juul is actually a full 3.5 inches long and does not resemble any USB drive that I have ever seen.

The USB comparisons refer to the charger dock. Keep your eyes peeled for this thing. It plugs into a USB port and looks a bit like a USB thumb drive. But it has a recessed top which a Juul fits into, and metal charging contacts clearly visible.

Juul docked in charger, Juul charger, and Juul device with pod.

Why Do Minors Prefer Juul?

Now to address the elephant in the room. The popularity of Juul with minors cannot be entirely pinned on fads or a social media campaign they ran 2 or 3 years ago. The device has specific attributes which make it easier for a teenager to use than a bulkier, high performance vape mod.

  1. It is small and easily concealed
  2. It has an excellent shelf-life and works right out of the box
  3. It contains a very high level of nicotine
  4. It generates minimal vapor
  5. It does not take many puffs to get a nicotine fix.
  6. It is refilled by snapping prefilled pods into place. No need to carry an ejuice bottle.

Kid-Friendly Flavor Myth

There is a lot of talk about Juul’s use of flavors. Flavor bans have appeared in many cities and there is even a bill in Congress, the SAFE Kids Act. The problem is that these bills do not actually deal with the vaping device that kids prefer.

Juul offers a very limited selection of flavors. The fanciful and oft-vilified sweet flavors that are named after candies, cookies, desserts and cereal are not the ones being vaped in high school bathrooms. These flavors target Generation X and Millennials. The top flavor among today's minors is Juul Mint. Keep in mind the Millennial does not equal minor. They range from from 23 to 38 years of age, and smoke cigarettes at roughly the same rate older generations.

There are always exceptions and the wisdom of making an ejuice look like an edible food item is questionable, but generally retro packaged e-juice flavors are marketed to adults. Juul has embraced staid packaging.

No Captain Crunch or Gummi Bears on this packaging.

With that out of the way, here are some tell-tale signs that your kid may be vaping.

Vape Smells in the Air

Vaping does not emit foul smoke, tar or ash. E-cig vapor quickly dissipates, especially if a smaller device like a Juul or vape pod system is being used.

If your child is vaping and attempting to be sneaky about it, they may adopt countermeasures to further mask the smell of vaping.mUnlike cigarettes or marijuana, a wall of incense and canned air freshener isn’t necessary to mask the odor, and the use of smell masking agents could be a sign that vaping is going on behind closed doors.

Unusual and faint smells not associated with air fresheners, incense etc. are an even more definitive sign that your child may vape. The vapor from sweet smelling eliquids does not linger in the air for long, but vaping is not odorless. It is also not invisible. A hazy room raises questions

If you notice the bathroom, bedroom, car or other enclosed area frequently smells faintly of vanilla, fruit, mint, or another unexplained odor it may be time to investigate further.

The bathroom is ground zero for indoor vaping in the house, for obvious reasons. There is a fan to remove vapor, plenty of time for a quick fix and an extreme level of privacy.

The bedroom is the other hot zone. But a prefilled pod device can basically be used in plain sight and the vapor “zeroed out” by being held in the lungs or blown through the neckhole of a shirt or a sleeve.

Vape Juice Oil Stains

Other than finding an actual device or catching a minor in the act, this is the most permanent and difficult to hide sign of vaping. Many teens gravitate to small vape pod systems due to ease of use. All you need to do is snap a pod into place and take a draw. No filling up with a bottle, and no button.

Juul's prefilled pod system reduces the chances that it will leak ejuice. But a Juul pod is not airtight and some of their pods will leak. A novice user and a consistent user are both at risk of oiling themselves.

Leaking e-juice leaves a tell-tale sign of vaping.

A leaking vape device can result in permanent and semi-permanent oil stains. These stains can take quite a bit of effort to remove, and usually mark where the vaping device is being stored.

Pocket bottoms on pants, purse linings and shirt fronts seem to be magnets for e-juice stains. The oil stain will also have a faint smell of the juice spilled, and not pizza.

Oil stains on pants pockets, shirt fronts, and flat surfaces may be a sign that your child vapes.

If your child is using a larger device that is refillable, like a box mod, the odds of oil stains increase.

Oil stains are not limited to clothing. From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that an oil stain emergency requires immediate resolution. This is usually the nearest flat surface.

Have you found unusual oil stains that aren’t food related on your furniture, tables and desks? There may be nothing nefarious afoot, but it behooves an alert parent to figure out the source. Oil generally does not fall from the sky, and very few people repair oily mechanical devices on the bathroom sink.

Vaping Gadgets and Devices

Finding a vaping device is near incontrovertible proof that your child vapes. But would you recognize one if you saw it in passing? A picture of a Juul was provided above. But there are lots of other small discrete devices that are ideal for covert vaping. Most are recognizably vaping devices, but some have a lozenge shape. Make sure you can identify these by sight.

I am not trying to make a sale here (unless you currently smoke cigarettes) but this guide to Top 10 Juul Alternatives has pictures and the dimensions of other popular and small vape pod devices. These are all refillable and come in a wide array of shapes. There are also plenty of prefilled vape pod systems that compete directly with Juul.

Vape pods come in all shapes and sizes. Images not to scale.

Mysterious Chargers and Cords

Does your child have a micro-USB cord but own an iPhone that uses a lightning cable? Take a look at their charger cords. Do they correspond with the electronic devices they use? Or are there a bunch of mysterious and new USB cords laying around. Have you noticed any improbably short micro-USB cords? Short micro-USB cords are standard equipment with many smaller refillable vape pod systems.

It is even easier to identify is a Juul charger. If you see one of these floating about, there is probably a Juul or similar vape pod system in area.
A cagey minor might want to use a battery pack to charge their Juul rather than a more difficult to conceal laptop or wall outlet.

In the less likely event that your child is using a box mod, this type of device requires larger batteries. Although they use micro-USB technology, and the cord provided is generally the same size as those which come with a Kindle.

For convenience and safety, many mod users will purchase a purpose built charger. Basic 18650 battery safety involves transporting vape batteries in a plasti case. In previous generation e-cigarettes, like the eGo Twist, the stick battery is screwed into the charger. Any one of these chargers or batteries is a dead giveaway.

Clockwise from top: Juul charger, Juul charger in computer, 18650 battery charger, 18650 battery case, 510 eGo battery charger, short micro-USB cord for Smok Nord vape pod.

Tools of the Vaping Trade

A teen interested in discrete vaping is unlikely to be a full-blown vaping hobbyist. But there are minors who are drawn to rebuildable coils and mechanical mods. And there are tools of the trade. Cotton, coils, small screw drivers, thin wires, coiled wire, ceramic tipped tweezers, pliers, and other vital implements.

Typical vape tool set for rebuildable coils.

Discarded Vape Pods, Coils and Atomizers

A typical user will go through a prefilled Juul pod in a matter of days. A discarded pod is direct evidence that a minor is vaping. They are very distinct if you know what to look for, but are quite small.

Each Juul pod also comes with a small colored dust cover. Even if you don’t see any pods, identifiable because of their clear juice reservoir and visible metallic coil in the middle, these covers only come from one place. And that is a Juul pod.

Discarded coils are another giveaway. These coils come from larger devices. They will generally be oily and smell strongly of vape juice. Here are a few coils.

A selection of popular coils.

Physiological Signs that Your Child Is Vaping

Unlike marijuana, tobacco or alcohol, the signs that a child is vaping are quite subtle. They won’t stink of booze or weed. But vaping is not without a physiological impact. This means that there are behavioral signs that may allow you to detect teen vaping. It is possible to detect teen vaping without catching them in the act or finding a device, oil stains, or chargers.

Vape Breath/Dry Mouth

Vaping is not going to cause punishing halitosis, and unlike like liquor it can be masked with a mint. But it is mildly dehydrating because of the e-liquid’s components. This is why vaping can dry nasal passages and the mouth. An extreme reaction would be frequent bloody noses. With less saliva being produced, the smell of the e-vapor is more likely to linger on the breath for a few minutes.

Dehydration

Related to vape breath, the mild dehydration caused by vaping can increase thirst and water consumption.

Caffeine Sensitivity

The reason that teen vaping is such a concern can be boiled down to one word: nicotine. Some studies have shown that nicotine can make an individual more sensitive to caffeine.

If for some reason you are fine with your kid guzzling four cups of coffee, a 2-liter of Coke and five Red Bull’s a day, but are on the hunt for signs they are vaping, a sudden decrease in caffeine consumption can correspond with e-cig use.

Nicotine Withdrawal Moodiness

I am not sure how easy this is to separate this from teenage angst, but nicotine withdrawal is a real thing. Crankiness, anxiety, and privacy seeking behaviors could be a sign your child vapes. Or signs they are a child. Acute withdrawal symptoms like insomnia are easier to detect.  

Constant Use of Bathroom at Social Gatherings

Nicotine withdrawal elevates anxiety. And there is nothing like a family function or outing to get that anxiety flowing and to cut off a teen from a secretive vaping habit.

The easiest way to get some distance and privacy is to head for the commode. This is an ideal covert vaping location. The question is how can you tell if they are suffering from acute intestinal distress or going to the well once too often.

There is one way to investigate commode vaping, but there is no quicker way to lose credibility and the moral high ground than an organoleptic bathroom air quality inspection.