How Electronic Cigarettes Work

Electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes or ecigs) come in many different forms, the most common being the cigalike and the refillable tank system.

These electronic devices are designed to provide you with nicotine (unless you are using zero nicotine refills) and imitate the action and feel of tobacco smoking, but without the use of tobacco. Unlike regular tobacco cigarettes, electronic cigarettes produce vapour instead of smoke, which is odourless and does not linger like conventional tobacco smoke.

In this section we provide a short guide to how electronic cigarettes work. For more information, see The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Electronic Cigarettes.

How Electronic Cigarettes Work

While there is some variation between different types of electronic cigarettes, there are some basic principles which apply to all electronic cigarettes.

All electronic cigarettes contain e-liquid. E-liquid contains nicotine, propylene glycol (PG) and vegetable glycerine (VG) and flavourings. Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine produce vapour and the sensation on the back of your throat – although PG produces more vapour and VG produces more throat hit.

Inside the cartridge or clearomiser there is a wick or wadding which soaks up and holds the e-liquid. There is also an atomiser, which is heating element in the shape of a coil. When the e-cigarette is activated, the coil heats up the e-liquid, producing vapour which resembles smoke.

Scientists have told us that the crucial difference between cigarettes and e-cigarettes is combustion. When a cigarette is lit, it burns tobacco producing smoke. As the smoke cools down, it creates tar and carcinogens. In comparison, an electronic cigarette vaporises a liquid instead of burning it. For more information, see our Interviews with the Experts series.


Cigalikes are electronic cigarettes that resemble traditional cigarettes. In contrast to most more modern devices, cigalikes have a sensor that automatically detect when air is inhaled. This sensor activates the heating element in the cartomiser (a cartridge which contains an atomiser).

Tank Systems

Tank systems use a ‘tank’ or clearomiser. These are clear, allowing you to see how much e-liquid is contained. In addition, there is a reduced amount of wadding or wick, which soaks up the e-liquid as it is needed. Most tank systems are manual, and you will need to push a button before vaping.

Advanced Devices

Over the last few years the technology behind e-cigarettes has exploded, creating a range of exciting new devices.

Variable voltage devices allow you to control the amount of power input into electronic cigarettes, while variable wattage allows you to precisely control the power output. Some devices allow you to switch between variable voltage and variable wattage devices. To learn more about these devices and how to use them see The Vaper’s Guide to Voltage Watts and Ohms.