Millions of people now vape as an alternative to smoking. With Public Health England estimating that it’s at least 95% safer than smoking, it’s been a massive success.
But many more millions of people continue to use tobacco cigarettes.
One reason is that while vaping replicates the hand to mouth experience of cigarettes, it doesn’t deliver nicotine to the body as quickly as tobacco cigarettes.
And there’s more. Although nicotine is often demonised as being a terribly addictive drug, it’s not as addictive as tobacco. There are other elements in tobacco which contribute to smoking addiction. And, at least with the older and more basic devices that have been the focus of most studies, e-cigarettes don’t deliver nicotine as effectively as cigarettes.
That’s not all bad. People who have successfully switched to vaping are now one step further away from smoking.
But what about the remaining smokers, especially those who have tried and failed to switch to vaping? Switching can be difficult – especially now the EU have limited the maximum in e-liquid strength of nicotine to 2%.
That’s where nicotine salts come in.
In this post we’ll cover what nicotine salts are, what we know about them and who they might be useful for.
There’s little information available online, so we also reached out to expert Dr Houezec, who has been studying nicotine and smoking cessation for 30 years, to help us fill in some of the blanks.
What are nicotine salts?
Nicotine in Vape Liquid
Before diving into nicotine salts, it’s worth understanding where the nicotine in your e-liquid comes from.
Nicotine is found in tobacco leaves. It’s found elsewhere (including in some everyday vegetables!) but tobacco leaves are particularly high in the substance. In tobacco, it’s found in the form of salts. But the salts don’t just contain nicotine – they also contain other compounds and protons.
To create the freebase nicotine found in most e-liquid and cigarettes, the salts need to be stripped of these protons. To do so, they are soaked in ammonia, which frees the nicotine from its protons. Once freed of its protons, the nicotine turns into a gas-phase form more easily.
Gas phase nicotine is more easily deposited in the lungs and crosses membranes more easily. That means it’s going to reach the brain more quickly and more effectively deliver a nicotine hit.
The pharma grade nicotine used in quality e-liquid is pure nicotine (usually 99.9% pure or higher.)
The result is a nicotine which is more volatile and more satisfying. In fact, when Marlboro discovered the process in the 1960’s, they found that it kept smokers satisfied even when they were using lower strength nicotine cigarettes (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2424107/).
That makes it ideal for vaping, as it is more easily turned into a vapour form.
In contrast, nicotine salts are the natural form nicotine occurs in. Originally it was thought that nicotine salts would not be effective in e-liquid. However, US manufacturer Juul claims that certain types of nicotine salts actually worked better than freebase nicotine.
One key element to successfully using nicotine salts is the addition of Benzoic acid. Benzoic acid:
- allows nicotine to be vapourised at a lower temperature
- lowers the ph level of the nicotine
- makes the nicotine more absorbable
Juul claim that their nicotine salts are absorbed faster into the blood than freebase nicotine. However, Dr Houzec was sceptical about this. He suggested that the real reason people get more nicotine is because they can take bigger puffs because of the reduced throat hit.
Are nicotine salts safe?
There’s now been a huge amount of research into vaping. Public Health England, the health arm of the UK government, has surveyed the research into vaping and has concluded it is at least 95% safer than smoking.
However, that research has focussed on e-liquid with freebase nicotine. At the moment, there is very little research available on nicotine salts.
One concern has been the use of benzoic acid to create nicotine salts. One study did find Benzene in vapour. Fortunately, an analysis of the study conducted by Professor Farsalinos shows that this was due to errors in the study, and when used by vapers benzene levels were lower than that in air.
In fact, nicotine salts could be safer than regular e-liquid. Dr Houezec told us:
To me, it is always safer to vape at lower power with higher resistance value rather than doing sub-ohm vaping. This also allow the user to use higher strength of nicotine, and then get satisfaction faster with less vapor inhalation and liquid consumption.
In summary, there’s no reason at present to think that nicotine salts might be riskier than regular vaping.
Why use nicotine salts?
1. Stronger nicotine hit. Nicotine salts are for people who can’t get the hit they need from regular e-liquid. Because it delivers nicotine to the body faster than vaping, it should be a more effective alternative for smoking.
2. More nicotine with less vaping. It’s also a good idea to use nicotine salts if you want to reduce the amount you vape, as the nicotine hit is more satisfying.
3. Smoother throat hit. Finally, nicotine salts are smoother on the throat than e-liquid with freebase nicotine. So if you find your regular vape harsh on the throat, or are not keen on throat hits, nicotine salts could be the option for you.
Dr Houzec summarised it nicely as:
The advantage of salts is that they are less irritating than nicotine base, so people can inhale the vapor more easily. It is at first a new tool for those smokers who are unable to inhale vapor without coughing. To me it is a transition tool, and when smokers have totally stopped smoking, they can then use a classical e-liquid.
Why wouldn’t you use nicotine salts?
Not everybody needs to use nicotine salts – and not everybody should use nicotine salts. Here’s why:
1. Too much nicotine. You may find that nicotine salts provide too much of a nicotine hit for you.
2. Not ideal for heavy vaping. What’s more, if you vape a lot, and want to continue doing so, you might be better off with a regular e-liquid. Because nicotine salts deliver more of a nicotine hit, you don’t need to vape as much.
3. Weak throat hit. Not everyone wants a weak throat hit. Some people (myself included) enjoy the hit on the back of the throat. If you’re the same, the smoother throat hit is not likely to be as satisfying as a an e-liquid such as Halo.
4. Lack of research. Cautious vapers might want to wait for more research before using nicotine salts.
If you do try them, it’s worth going slowly to start with, as the increased nicotine hit could take you by surprise otherwise!
How do you use nicotine salts?
Simple! Just buy e-liquid with nicotine salts.
Why type of vapes are suitable for use with nicotine salts?
The Aspire Gusto is specifically designed for nicotine salts, but any low powered tank system should be able to handle nicotine salts. The key is low power, though, and around 10-14 watts should be fine. The Innokin Jem vape kit is an example of a vape device which would work well with nicotine salts.
One interesting approach that that pod system manufacturer HEXA 2 has taken is to combine nicotine salts with regular e-liquid. The result is stupendous – at the time of this update (June 2019) I’d say the HEXA 2 is the best closed pod system we have tried so far.
Are nicotine salts more addictive?
Some data shows that nicotine salts lead to sharper spikes in nicotine in the blood than the freebase nicotine in other e-liquids. We speculated that this could mean that nicotine salts are more addictive. Not so, Dr Houezec told us:
Nicotine is nicotine, being in base form or salt form. Salts are just the result of the reaction of nicotine base with an acid, it is in a way a sort of reverse engineering as in the tobacco plants nicotine is present as salts.”
Are nicotine salts safe?
Nothing is safe, but the UK government’s public health arm estimates vaping is 95% safer than smoking. Much of that is based on research done on e-liquid with free base nicotine, but so far there don’t seem to be any concerns in regard to using nicotine salts.
Where can I buy nicotine salts?