Do you ever find that your vape is too harsh? Prefer a satisfying nicotine hit to vast clouds of vapour?
Nicotine salts (also commonly known as nic salts) might be your answer! Thanks to a smooth throat hit, and the popularity they have found in disposable devices, nic salts are becoming one of the most popular forms of e-liquid.
In this post we’ll look at what nicotine salts are, their pros and cons, and what equipment you’ll need to use them. While writing this post, we also spoke to Public Health & Tobacco Dependence expert Dr Jacques Houzec to get some expert insights into nicotine salts and how they work.
- What are nic salts?
- Freebase vape juice
- Nic salts in depth
- Pros of using nic salts
- Cons of using nic salts
- How do you use nic salts?
- What type of hardware is suitable for use with nic salts?
- Vape Devices
- Wrapping up
Nicotine salts (commonly called nic salts) are a type of vape juice (aka e-liquid) that use the natural form of nicotine found in the tobacco leaf. It has a smoother throat hit than regular (freebase nicotine) juice.
To gain a deeper understanding of nicotine salts, it’s worth looking at freebase vape juice first.
Freebase e-liquid is ideal for use with more powerful vape devices.
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 these salts don’t just contain nicotine – they also contain other compounds and protons.
To create the freebase nicotine found in most vape juice 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 deliver a more effective nicotine hit.
The result is nicotine which is more volatile and more satisfying when used in cigarettes. In fact, according to Steven and Proctor 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.
The properties of freebase nicotine also made it ideal for vaping, as it is more easily turned into a vapour form.
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.
However, in their original form nicotine salts are both unstable and harsh on the throat. Juul found a way around this by combining pure nicotine with a weak acid - a process known as protonation.
This has the following advantages:
- It allows nicotine to be vapourised at a lower temperature.
- It lowers the ph level of nicotine.
- It may make the nicotine more absorbable.
On the last point, it is sometimes claimed that nicotine salts are absorbed faster into the blood than freebase nicotine. However, Dr Jacques Houezec was sceptical about this. He suggested that the real reason people get more nicotine is that they can take bigger puffs because of the reduced throat hit.
A 2019 study did find that nicotine from salt e-liquids was absorbed as rapidly into the bloodstream as nicotine from conventional cigarettes, but did not compare nicotine salts to freebase e-liquid. Indeed, another analysis found that freebase and nicotine salts delivered the same amount of nicotine, although that does not address the speed at which it is delivered.
What acids are used to make nicotine salts?
A number of acids can be used to make nicotine salts; the most common acids are lactic, benzoic, and levulinic. A combination of acids can also be used. Juul’s patent claims that certain nicotine salts formulations work better than others - which likely refers to the different types of acid used.
Nicotine salts have a number of differences from freebase e-liquid.
1. Smoother throat hit. Nicotine salts are smoother on the throat than e-liquid with freebase nicotine. They are particularly useful when used at higher nicotine levels. This is because nicotine adds to the harshness of vapour, and the stronger the nicotine level the harsher the throat hit.
So if you find your regular vape juice harsh on the throat, 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.
A 2021 study by Levanthal, Madden and Peraza seems to back this up, stating that:
Acid additives in e-cigarettes that change nicotine from free base to salt appeared to enhance the appeal and sensory experience of vaping.
2. Nicotine salts are an economical way to vape, as they are typically used with low-powered devices. As a result, many users will use less e-liquid than when using freebase or high VG e-liquid such as shortfills.
3. Nicotine salts may deliver a stronger nicotine hit and/or deliver nicotine to the bloodstream more quickly. As we have seen this is controversial, but it may be that people do take in more nicotine because they inhale more deeply when the throat hit is softer.
From a personal perspective, and possibly for the reason above, I have certainly found that nicotine salts seem to deliver a stronger nicotine hit.
Not everybody needs to use nicotine salts – and not everybody should use nicotine salts. Here’s why:
1. Nicotine salts do not work well with high-wattage devices.
Higher wattage devices are designed for low nicotine, high VG freebase e-liquids. When used with nicotine salts, the nicotine delivered is too high for most vapers, and the mismatch of e-liquid and device may cause leaking issues.
2. Not suitable for Direct-Lung vaping
Due to their VG:PG formulation, and the fact they are best used with low wattage devices, nicotine salts produce less vapour than freebase e-liquid with a high VG content.
3. Weak throat hit.
You might not want a smooth throat hit. Some people enjoy the hit on the back of the throat. I certainly found that when I first tried nicotine salts, I missed the feeling of the hit on the back of my throat (although that’s changed over time).
If you prefer a harsher feeling on the back of the throat, one which replicates a strong cigarette, you might be better off with freebase e-liquid.
The process of using nicotine salts is exactly the same as using freebase e-liquid. Simply add it to your tank or pod and allow it to soak into the coil for a few minutes before inhaling.
If you have a variable wattage device, do make sure you are using an appropriate setting - as recommended by the coil manufacturer.
Low-powered devices like the XROS 3 & XROS 3 mini are ideal for use with nic salts.
Nicotine salts are best used with low-powered devices such as vape starter kits and basic pod systems. Our current favourite reusable device for nicotine salts is the Vaporesso Xros 3 device, but any low-powered kit is suitable for using with nic salts.
Nicotine salts are also available in disposable form, but do be aware this is one of the most expensive ways to vape. A good alternative to disposables are prefilled pods, such as the Elfa Pro Bar.
You can also use the Aspire R1, which is a cross between a disposable and a reusable device. Refillable and rechargeable, this device lasts about 7 refills before needing replacing.
A broad rule of thumb here is to use the vape coils and pods you’ll find with low-powered starter kits. These typically have a higher resistance than coils used for cloud vaping.
For example, a coil for cloud vaping might have a resistance as low as 0.1Ω, but the lowest we would recommend for nicotine salts is 0.6Ω.
The Hexa Pro uses hybrid nicotine salts to create a cigarette-like draw.
What is hybrid e-liquid?
One interesting approach combines nicotine salts and freebase e-liquid to create an e-liquid somewhere between nicotine salts and e-liquids. An example of this is the Hexa Pro device, which uses hybrid e-liquid in its pre-filled pods.
What are bar salts?
The newest form of nicotine salts liquids are ‘bar salts’. These salts have a stronger flavour concentration than regular salts of vape juice and are often a lot sweeter too. They are designed to replicate the taste of disposable vape devices.
Are nicotine salts more addictive than freebase e-liquid?
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.
However, 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.”
Nicotine salts are rapidly growing in popularity, and I think we can expect to see many new flavours released over the coming months. If you’re looking for a smoother throat hit, or want to switch from disposable devices to reusable devices, why not give them a try?