Like almost any technology, trend, or hobby, vaping has very basic roots. We've come a long way since the days of cheap gas station cig-a-likes and vape pens that were feeding us crude, PG-laden e-liquids.
However, bigger isn't always better. Sure, a lot of us love the feeling, flavor, and cloud production of a high VG e-juice in a sub-ohm tank. But for those, us that are only interested in nicotine consumption, using high VG-based e-liquids is kind of like owning a Ferrari—flashy for most, but not practical for all.
Virtually everyone that vapes started vaping as a means of quitting smoking. Graduating to the big leagues of 100-watt devices and 5mL tanks should be a choice, not a necessity. Sadly, this means that people who prefer a smaller, cheaper, and a more discreet vaporizer will have to settle for a vape pen that is unpleasant overall—or fork over tons of cash and navigate a tiny supercomputer.
Nicotine salts, however, seem to be a magic solution - the veritable penicillin to cure some of the ailing vapers out there. That said, let's have a look at this brand-new innovation and see where – and who – it fits in the vaping world.
Freebase Nicotine: The Current Standard
There's a fundamental difference between the conventional "freebase" nicotine we use in our e-liquids and the newer "salts" that have been quickly making headlines. It is this difference that, not only classifies it separately but also creates an entirely new experience.
To better understand what salts are, let's compare them to their big brother, freebase nicotine. Without getting too technical, freebase is the purest form of nicotine and is the default "go-to" for most manufacturers. This nicotine solution is simply added to a mixture of vegetable glycerin (VG) and propylene glycol (PG) which "carry" the nicotine with them when vaped. It's also what we use in nicotine replacement therapies—like gums, patches, sprays, and lozenges.
Furthermore, freebase has been the norm in cigarettes for decades, thanks to Phillip Morris of Marlboro back in the 1960s. He found that "freebasing" nicotine-paired with ammonia delivered a significantly larger amount of nicotine (which did wonders for keeping customers hooked). Since we're trying to offer an effective nicotine replacement in vape juices, it only makes sense that we use the best form available.
So we've established that freebase-nicotine is nicotine at its purest. If that's the case, then why would vapers want something that's not as inherently effective? Like Phillip Morris's little freebase trick, the answer can be found in chemistry.
What are Nicotine Salts?
At its core, nicotine salts are comprised of the same exact nicotine that's found in its natural state within the tobacco leaf. If this form of nicotine was added to the liquid that we vape, we'd need to vape it at extremely high temperatures for the nicotine solution to be effective, and it still wouldn't be as easily absorbed (bioavailable) as freebase nicotine. Similarly, like freebase, salts need some modification too. The key here is benzoic acid.
A Quick Chemistry Lesson
We won't try to overwhelm you with too much jargon, so let's stick with the basics: pH and alkalinity. Freebase nicotine has a higher pH, which leads to increased alkalinity. This dramatic increase in alkaline causes a harsher throat-hit, thus causing people to vape at smaller amounts than they may need.
Benzoic acid has the opposite effect. It lowers the pH levels of nicotine, reducing alkalinity in the process. The end result is a much smoother vaping experience.
Furthermore, this allows the mixture to be vaped at lower temperatures in cheap vape pens and cig-a-likes with higher concentrations of nicotine. For instance: vape juices mixed with nicotine salts – while less potent – can reach nicotine levels as high as 50mg. Try vaping something like that in your traditional sub-ohm tank/PG-mixture and let us know when your lungs stop burning.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Nicotine salts have pros and cons. However, what could be seen as a disadvantage to some will, in fact, be an advantage to others. Let's explain what we mean.
Satisfaction: Many vapers who try conventional liquids for the first time often find that they don't get the same satisfaction or "punch" from their nicotine. What's more, it may not be enough to satisfy their cravings.
Smoother nicotine hit: A huge turn-off for many "would-be" vapers is that conventional e-liquids are too harsh, and nicotine is to blame. Cigarette companies use anesthetics like menthol or eugenol to cover-up and mask the harshness. Vape juices don't, so the smoother feeling of nicotine salt liquids makes a huge difference.
Less flavor impact: Those of us who kicked the habit and prefer nicotine-free e-liquids may notice a marked difference in flavor, despite smoking the same product. This is because freebase nicotine affects the liquid's overall flavor. Salts have next-to-no effect in this area, leading to a richer, flavorful, and more enjoyable vaping experience.
Cheaper: Let's face it—an efficient sub-ohm tank or box mod is significantly more expensive than a tiny little vape pen, as well as the many premium e-liquids that go into the vape pen. If all you need is an inexpensive and discreet vaping experience that helps you get just the right amount of nicotine, then salts are for you.
Too much for some: While heavy smokers need a heavy dose of nicotine, lighter smokers can make do in the 3-12mg nicotine range. This also happens to be the ultimate sweet spot for sub-ohm devices. As a result, people can use smooth, high-VG e-juices in their sub-ohm tank and feel completely content with the experience they get.
Fewer options: Nicotine salts are limiting because you'll generally have to stick to vape pens. The more traditional mods and sub-ohm tanks allow for nearly endless tank/mod combinations—each pair allowing for their own unique cloud production and flavor experiences. Not to mention the coil combinations and styles of the more advanced rebuildable atomizers – you get the idea.
Lower fun factor: A great way to describe freebase juices compared to nicotine salts is "fashion over function" (again, think Ferrari vs. smart car). Nicotine salts are the perfect choice if you need a strong dose of nicotine and prefer a more cigarette-like experience.
Are Nicotine Salts Right for You?
This is where things get tricky, and only you will know the answer. So when you're deciding what to do, ask yourself the following questions:
Am I a heavy smoker (one or more packs a day)?
Do I want a more genuine smoking experience, or am I looking for something new?
Will I want smooth vapor and high nicotine?
Do I need a stronger or more subtle nicotine "punch" (buzz)?
Is discretion important, or are massive clouds my thing?
How much money do I initially want to spend?
These are just guidelines. Starting off with a small device and using nicotine salts is a good approach, and you can always switch to high-VG/lower-nicotine sub-ohm setups as you wean yourself off and start to branch out. In fact – salt or no salt – it's better to grasp the basics with a simple vaporizer before navigating through the different types of coils, tanks, and settings.
The safest bet is to ask a knowledgeable vape shop owner. Remember, he or she was once in the same boat – a smoker looking for a better way out.