What are nicotine salts?

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Vaping has helped millions of people quit smoking, but for some, it isn’t enough to kick the habit. They’re missing that ‘hit’ they get from a cigarette.

Nicotine salts could be the answer.

Nic salts is a new form of nicotine that better simulates the experience of smoking. Used predominantly in pod devices it has become the new way for many people to quit.

In fact, Juul Labs, who pioneered nicotine salt, dominates 75% of the US vaping market.

Let’s start with the obvious question. Why is it called salt?

This can be confusing for those without a background in chemistry. Salt means an acid reacting with a type of base. Adding benzoic acid to regular nicotine (the base) creates nicotine salts. 

The traditional form of nicotine we’ve all been vaping is freebase nicotine. Freebase is another word used in chemistry and it means to convert nicotine into its base ‘pure’ form. It’s a potent version of nicotine and is highly bioavailable, meaning it’s readily absorbed into the bloodstream.

Nicotine salts are not the same as table salt and won’t make your vape taste salty. In fact, nicotine salts result in a more pure flavour compared to freebase, which can sometimes add a ‘peppery’ flavour to e-liquids.

The problem with freebase nicotine

If freebase (traditional) nicotine is readily absorbed and is more potent, you might be wondering why all the hype around nic salts?

Have you ever vaped at a much higher nicotine strength than you normally vape? You probably managed a quick puff or two before you started coughing.

This is due to the throat-hit, which is the slight burning sensation you get in the back of your throat when nicotine is vaped. Freebase nicotine has a high pH level and increased alkalinity, which causes that strong feeling in the back of your throat.

You also get a throat hit from cigarettes, and it’s that familiar feeling which has helped people quit smoking and take up vaping. Without the throat hit, many current vapers may have kept on smoking.

The problem with freebase nicotine, is that as you increase the strength to over 15mg, it becomes difficult to vape. The throat hit becomes uncomfortable for most people.

This means you can’t vape it at a strong enough concentration to experience the nicotine effect you get from a cigarette.

The chart below compares blood concentration between a cigarette and freebase nicotine over a 30 minute period.

You’ll notice a spike in nicotine levels with cigarettes that freebase nicotine can’t deliver. If you’ve ever smoked, then you’ll know cigarettes give you a more intense nicotine hit than vaping, and this chart most likely reflects your own experience.

Let’s make cigarettes more addictive

You may be surprised to learn that nicotine salts occur naturally in the tobacco leaf. And until the 1960s was the only type of nicotine found in cigarettes.

The main problem with the natural form of nicotine salts is that it’s not the most efficient way to deliver nicotine. Your body doesn’t absorb it as easily as the pure freebase version.

This was something that Phillip Morris, the owner of the Malboro brand, set out to overcome in the 1960s.

Remember when smoking was healthy?

The evil scientists at Phillip Morris discovered that by converting the naturally occurring nicotine salts into a ‘pure’ freebase nicotine, it would deliver a faster, more intense nicotine hit. Ammonia was used to convert the nicotine to a freebase version to create a cigarette that was a lot more addictive. 

Due to this breakthrough, Marlboro cigarettes become the most popular brand in the world for many years, until their competitors figured out the secret. Other tobacco companies eventually copied the technique to create their own super addictive cigarettes. 

The tobacco industry denied publicly for years that cigarettes were addictive. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that they finally admitted the truth.

Nicotine for vaping

The nicotine used in vaping is extracted from the tobacco plant and converted to its freebase form. This is the same pharmaceutical nicotine that’s used in patches, gum and lozenges.

As discussed, freebase nicotine is effective in cigarettes because it’s absorbed so efficiently by the body. However, it doesn’t translate as well to vaping because the throat hit prevents usage at a high enough strength to reach a similar blood concentration.

Juul solves the puzzle

Juul Labs set out to develop a form of nicotine that was as easily absorbed as freebase, but without the harshness experienced when vaping at a higher strength. 

This led them to look into nicotine salts, which, with its lower pH level they figured  would produce a smoother vape. 

They experimented with a variety of acids to convert freebase back to a salt. One in particular, benzoic acid, did exactly what was needed. It maintained the same absorption factor as freebase nicotine, allowing them to create liquids that could be vaped comfortably at a much higher strength. 

Benzoic acid is a common preservative naturally present in many types of foods and is also sometimes used as a preservative in processed foods – ice cream, soft drinks, beer, cheese and processed meat.

This became the formula they used in their Juul pods. 

With this new form of nicotine salts, Juul was able to use 50mg nicotine strength in their pod devices – which was previously unheard of.

They had discovered a form of nicotine for vaping that’s closer to the experience of smoking a cigarette than anything else seen before.

Let’s revisit the previous chart and include the data for nicotine salts.

The hit from nicotine salts also results in a spike of nicotine to the bloodstream. Although not quite as intense as cigarettes, it’s still close enough for many ex-smokers to satisfy their cravings.

Nowadays you don’t need to vape a Juul pod to use nicotine salts. Many e-liquid companies have created their own flavours in a variety of strengths.

Don’t use nic salts in high wattage devices.

While this seems like great news for all vapers, nicotine salts are not really recommended for use in high wattage devices. That’s because most liquids using nic salts come in super high strengths and have been designed specifically for use in lower powered pod systems. With a pod you’re not inhaling a huge cloud of nicotine in one hit. They usually produce about the same amount of vapour as the smoke you would get from a cigarette. 

Many vapers still prefer freebase nicotine, especially in more powerful high wattage devices, but the introduction of nic salts has given vapers another option in the quest to remain smoke free.

Have you vaped with nicotine salts? I’d love to hear your experience.
Leave a comment or send an email to marc@thevapestore.co.nz

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