Departed FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb hit the interview circuit hard in the last weeks of his tenure, and he has made it abundantly clear that the FDA may ban pod systems like Juul. If this ends up being the case, it would be nice if the FDA acknowledged that sweet flavors are not driving the teen vaping epidemic.
Juul will do everything in their power to parry this regulatory assault. With Marlboro maker Altria buying 35 percent of Juul, the ecig giant will have plenty of expertise and capital at their disposal. Altria supports a flavor ban, which would take the attention off of Juul. Another obvious scape goat are nicotine salt e-juices, often referred to as nic salts or salt nic.
As the future of vaping is in the balance, you may want to familiarize yourself with what makes the Juul device and nic salts unique. Our feature, The Truth and Technology Behind Juul and Nic Salts, thoroughly examines both.
But if you use a refillable pod system, or want to learn if salt nic ejuice is the right choice for your vaping journey, you have come to the right place. Get ready for a deep dive into the fascinating history and real world performance of nicotine salt ejuices.
The nicotine found in the classic e-juices, which have been vaped for about a decade, is called freebase nicotine. In the last couple of years, a new type of e-juice nicotine has emerged: nicotine salts.
Salt nic ejuice packs a much bigger nicotine punch than their freebase brethren. This greater potency reduces the amount of e-liquid and vapor you need to get a nic fix. Best of all, it does not take a very powerful device or many puffs to get the job done.
Juul and several rivals use prefilled salt nic pods, which limits compatibility and flavor selection, but ejuice manufacturers have entered the fray with bottled salt nic flavors of their own. Generally sold in 30ml bottles, they are usually offered with a nicotine strength of 25mg/ml or 50mg/ml.
In terms of appearance, salt nic ejuices resemble the classic freebase ejuices. The viscosity is dependent on the same blend of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin used in the formulation of freebase nicotine e-liquids.
Less powerful devices with high resistance coils are perfect for a potent salt nic e-juice. A small detail which made a big difference for Juul was the use of silica wicking for the device coil instead of cotton. Silica wicking was common during the early days of vaping but fell out of favor due to a silicosis scare and muted flavors.
Silica wicking possesses a couple of traits which make it perfect for a mass marketed item sold at retailers. It needs less break-in time, has a longer shelf life, and coil does not hit with a burnt cotton flavor when dry fired.
Device manufacturers have responded to the popularity of nic salts. The market is flooded with excellent refillable pod systems that are customized for nic salts, but also have the flexibility to use regular ejuice as well. The Smok Nord is an excellent example, and exemplifies the flexibility provided by a refillable, or open, vape pod device. It comes with a 0.6Ω mesh coil for freebase e-juice and a 1.4Ω coil which is great for nic salt ejuice.
We reviewed the best refillable pod devices in our feature on Top 10 Juul alternatives earlier this year.
Refillable pod systems are perfect for beginners because they are easy to use, and for veterans because of their portability and flexibility. Unlike a prefilled pod system like Juul, which has a limited selection of flavors and nicotine strengths, a refillable pod user has thousands of amazing salt nic, and freebase ejuice options to choose from.
Now it is time to pull back the curtain and explain the science behind nicotine salts, and what makes them different than freebase nicotine ejuices.
The term nicotine salt is derived from the molecular structure of nicotine. The word salt may make you think Morton or Epsom, but in this case “salt” refers to a compound formed when an acid reacts with a base.
In tobacco leaves, nicotine is present in the form of naturally occurring nicotine salts. This means that the nicotine molecule has bonded with amino acids to create a more stable molecule.
The nicotine salts used in salt nic e-juice are not the same as the nicotine salts which occur in nature. The nicotine salts used in ejuice are manufactured when freebase nicotine, more on that below, has benzoic acid added to it in during the manufacturing process.
The naturally occurring nicotine salts in the tobacco leaf are not particularly bioavailable. This is a fancy way of saying easily absorbed. In the 1960s, Phillip Morris pioneered a chemical process that converted the naturally occurring nicotine salts in tobacco leaves into freebase nicotine.
Phillip Morris used ammonia to deprotonate, i.e. remove the natural nicotine salts from the tobacco leaf. The result was freebase nicotine. This simply means a nicotine that is no longer bound to another molecule in the form of a salt.
“The ammonia (NH3) is thereby transformed into a cation (NH4+), and the positively charged nicotine acid salt is deprotonated to become neutral. This neutral, deprotonated nicotine is “free” in that it is no longer bound to another molecule (or anion) in the form of a salt.”
Freebase, which is a scary word in its own right, describes nicotine in its purest form. Freebase nicotine absorbs more readily, but industry documents from the 1970s reveal that the process of removing the nicotine salts from the tobacco leaf actually increases the pH level of freebase nicotine. This resulted in, “A greater physiological (throat and chest) impact and toxicity.”
This high pH level is what limits the amount of nicotine you can put in a freebase nicotine e-liquid. You won’t find a freebase e-juice that has much more than 2 percent or 2mg/ml of nicotine, and most have far less.
Despite this limitation, freebase nicotine is still found in cigarettes and until recently was the source of nicotine in all of the ejuices on the market. Compared to the naturally occurring nicotine salts, the lower vaporization point and ease at which freebase crosses the blood brain barrier outweighed the drawbacks.
Salt Nic E-Juices Turn Big Tobacco's Nicotine Strategy Upside Down
If freebase nicotine was preferable in cigarettes, and more than satisfactory for most vapers, where does nicotine salt fit in?
Recall that Phillip Morris stripped away the naturally occurring nic salts to create free base nicotine. In 2015, Pax Labs (Juul) turned this strategy on its head.
Phillip Morris stripped away the naturally occurring nicotine salts in leaf tobacco with ammonia to create freebase nicotine. Juul has taken this nic salt free, freebase nicotine and added benzoic acid to create the current form of nicotine salt ejuice.
The reasoning behind this is explained in their patent:
“It has been unexpectedly discovered herein that certain nicotine salt formulations provide satisfaction in an individual superior to that of freebase nicotine, and more comparable to the satisfaction in an individual smoking a traditional cigarette.”
The end result is that Juul was able to increase the nicotine levels in their ejuice to levels unheard of in a freebase ejuice. Juul’s original nic salt formula in the US has a nicotine level of 50mg/ml. Other nic salt manufacturers have pushed that level to 60 and above. This is two or even three times more nicotine than the most potent freebase nicotine, and almost 20 fold stronger than the popular 3 mg/ml strength used by subohm vapers.
According to their patent for JuulSalts, not only is the nicotine level higher in benzoic acid nicotine salt but it crosses the blood brain barrier more readily. This makes the experience more like smoking an actual combustible cigarette.
PAX Labs, the precursor company for Juul, found not all nic salts are created equal. Naturally occurring nicotine salts in the tobacco lead may be inferior to freebase nicotine from a user perspective, but changing which acid the freebase nicotine is bonded to changes everything.
Unlike the naturally occurring nicotine salts in the tobacco leaf, freebase nicotine treated with benzoic acid creates a nicotine salt with very useful properties for an e-juice.
Benzoic Acid Provides Nic Salt E-juices Three Use Properties:
- Benzoic acid reduces the alkalinity in freebase nicotine. This allows manufacturers to increase the nicotine level in nic salts well beyond the point where a conventional ejuice would be intolerable to vapers.
- Benzoic acid nic salts cross the blood brain barrier more quickly than freebase nicotine. It allows the nicotine salt to vaporize at a lower temperature. This allows for a smoother throat hit.
- Nic salt ejuices can be vaped at a lower temperature as well. So cheaper and less powerful devices were back in the game again.
Reverse Engineering Nic Salts
The Verge interviewed engineers describing their efforts to reverse engineer Juul’s salt nic juice. They knew Juul had treated a freebase nicotine with acid to create nic salts, and it was a matter of figuring out which acid they used. They started with acetic acid, which is essentially concentrated vinegar. “Here we are all excited going, ‘Oh, shit. Okay, acetic matches this. Maybe it is that obvious, it was very, very bad. Literally like inhaling vinegar.”
They were their own test subjects and it was obvious when they found the correct combination, “You felt it immediately through your veins.”
The science is so simple that there are DIY nic salt recipes online.
Home chemists add citric acid to freebase nicotine to create their nicotine salts. We recommend leaving salt nic manufacturing to professionals.
Is Salt Nic E-Juice Right for You?
If you vape using a subohm device, freebase nicotine is your best option. Almost every manufacturer and seller will warn you not to use nic salt e-juice in a subohm device. The sophisticated Lost Vape Orion DNA Go is a rare exception, their nic salt pod is subohm.
If you are using a subohm mod, you are probably vaping a nicotine strength between zero and 6 mg/ml of nicotine. This is well below the threshold, about 20mg/ml, where the higher pH level of freebase nicotine starts to make its presence known in the form of throat burn. Compare that to a typical salt nic and its 25 to 65 mg/ml nicotine strength.
There are also millions of ejuice users who consume e-juices at the high end of freebase potency, 18 to 24mg/ml, using classic cartomizers and high resistance coils. These are mouth to lung vapers, and many actually enjoy the higher pH because the throat burn adds authenticity to the experience.
Refillable pod systems are generally recommended for nic salts, but a tank with a high resistance coil can also handle nic salts. Versions of the popular Nautilus BVC coils have been repurposed and tweaked for several pod systems, including the Aspire Nautilus AIO.
A cartomizer device also has the correct performance envelope for nic salts. The only complicating factor is the greater viscosity of most salt nic eliquids. They generally have a high vegetable glycerin ratio, and a cartomizer optimized for high propylene glycol juices will get gummed up by the ejuice, reducing coil life. Due to its cartomizer design, this is not an issue with the Vapor Zeus.
Prefilled pod systems, might be under fire from the FDA but they remain the most popular option. The spiritual heir to disposable and prefilled cartridge ecigs, they are user friendly but offer limited flexibility. If you love your prefilled pod system, I recommend at least investigating a refillable or open vape pod system. There are a wide range of devices to choose from. Some devices, like the Smok SLM, have a nice, restrictive draw and are no bigger than a Juul.
If plan on remaining forever wed to your prefilled vape pod device, make sure your voice is heard. The vaping industry under siege, and closed pods are being specifically targeted by regulators. We need advocates to drown out their anecdotes and innuendo with real-life success stories.