Nicotine Salt E-Liquid: The Pros and Cons

When people look back on the history of the vaping industry one day, they’ll almost definitely call 2019 the year of nicotine salt e-liquid. Pod vaping systems have been around since the release of the JUUL e-cigarette in 2015, and by 2019, the JUUL brand was far too big for other companies in the vaping industry to ignore. Virtually every vaping product manufacturer now has a pod system available, and people know – because the vaping industry has told them endlessly – that you need to use nicotine salt e-liquid if you want to have the best possible experience with a pod system.

So, what exactly is nicotine salt e-liquid, and what are its pros and cons? If you already vape, are you going to miss out on something big if you don’t jump on the nicotine salt bandwagon? Those are the questions we’re going to answer in this comprehensive overview of nicotine salt e-liquid and its pros and cons.

What Is Freebase Nicotine E-Liquid?
Before you can understand nicotine salt e-liquid, you need to understand the e-liquid you’re using now. If the label on your e-liquid doesn’t say “nicotine salt,” you’re using freebase nicotine e-liquid – and to understand what that means, you’ll need a bit of a history lesson.

Making Paper From Tobacco
In the old days, cigarettes were made from tobacco leaves. The leaf of the tobacco plant is the part that tastes the best when it’s smoked. Hand-rolled cigars are also made from whole tobacco leaves. Separating the tobacco leaves from the ribs and stems resulted in a lot of waste for the cigarette companies, though, so they looked for a way to use the material that they were discarding. By the 1930s and 1940s, cigarette companies were using tobacco ribs and stems to make reconstituted tobacco. Reconstituted tobacco – or recon – is essentially tobacco paper. Once it’s made, it can be shredded and used as a filler for cigarettes.

The Beginning of Ammoniated Tobacco
In order to create high-quality reconstituted tobacco, you need to add a substance that releases the pectin from the plant material. Philip Morris – the maker of the Marlboro cigarette – began adding ammonia to its reconstituted tobacco in the 1950s. The ammonia helped the paper gel into a cohesive whole, and it also had the pleasant side effect of improving the recon’s flavor. Philip Morris’s researchers found that the addition of ammonia made the resulting smoke sweeter, milder and more aromatic. By the end of the 1960s, Philip Morris had patented its method for making reconstituted tobacco sheets with ammonia.

The Discovery of Freebase Nicotine
As it turned out, the addition of ammonia also had a second side effect: it freed the nicotine from the salts that bound it to the tobacco leaf. It converted the nicotine from a salt to a free base. Freebase nicotine is much more volatile than nicotine in its natural state. It travels through smoke more easily, and it’s absorbed by the body more quickly. Freebase nicotine helped to make Marlboro the most popular cigarette brand in the world. It also gave Philip Morris an edge in the “light cigarette” product category by making it possible to create low-nicotine and low-tar cigarettes that were just as satisfying as other companies’ full-flavored cigarettes.

So, that’s a brief explanation of what freebase nicotine is and how the tobacco industry discovered it. Today, many cigarette brands – even “no additives” brands – contain ammonia or have otherwise had their nicotine delivery manipulated by pH adjustments. Since ammonia also acts as a solvent that releases nicotine from tobacco leaves, it’s used in the process of extracting nicotine from tobacco to create products such as nicotine gums and liquid nicotine for e-liquid.

What Is Nicotine Salt E-Liquid?
If your first vaping device was a traditional cigalike or small vape pen – and you stopped smoking when you started vaping – you probably remember feeling pretty rotten for the first few days after making the switch. There’s a good reason for that; small vaping devices with freebase nicotine e-liquids aren’t good at delivering nicotine to the body. With smaller devices, a 2014 Scientific Reports study suggests, the ideal nicotine strength for true cigarette replacement is about 50 mg. Until recently, though, no e-liquid had a nicotine strength of 50 mg because such an e-liquid would be incredibly harsh and irritating to inhale. The story of nicotine salt e-liquid is the story of how the vaping industry managed to achieve that nicotine strength.

Breaking the 50 MG Nicotine Barrier
The success of the JUUL e-cigarette is no accident. It’s a product backed by years of research and one very important patent. PAX Labs – the dry herb vaporizer company that originally developed the JUUL – set out with the goal of developing an e-cigarette that could deliver nicotine as efficiently as a tobacco cigarette. They most likely knew that creating a usable e-liquid with a nicotine strength around 50 mg was their ultimate goal, and they eventually discovered that following the tobacco industry’s playbook and manipulating the pH of the nicotine would make it possible to achieve that goal. PAX Labs developed and patented the industry’s first commercial nicotine salt e-liquid formulation.

Nicotine Salt E-Liquid: Marketing vs. Reality
When PAX Labs originally released the JUUL, they distributed a handy graph showing that using the company’s nicotine salt e-liquid resulted in blood-nicotine levels similar to the levels one would achieve from smoking a cigarette. That graph – and a healthy dose of influencer marketing – helped to catapult JUUL to almost instant success. It wasn’t long before other companies in the vaping industry were producing and bottling their own nicotine salt e-liquids, and that’s what led us to where we are today.

Nicotine Salt Isn’t More Satisfying…
Many of the companies that have produced nicotine salt e-liquids – and many of the vape shops reselling those e-liquids – have told consumers that nicotine salt e-liquid is more satisfying than traditional freebase nicotine e-liquid. Some marketers say that nicotine salt is more satisfying because the molecular structure of the nicotine is more like that of the nicotine in the tobacco plant. Some people even say that nicotine salt has a faster absorption rate. The truth, though, is that the research doesn’t support those statements at all. Any increased satisfaction you might derive from nicotine salt e-liquid has nothing to do with the nicotine salt itself.

Rather, the increased satisfaction comes from the fact that nicotine salt e-liquid simply contains more nicotine than freebase nicotine e-liquid. Traditional e-liquids have nicotine strengths that usually top out at around 18 mg. Nicotine salt e-liquids, on the other hand, have nicotine strengths up to 50 mg. When one type of e-liquid has nearly triple the nicotine of another type, you’re going to have significantly higher blood-nicotine levels when using that e-liquid.

…But It Does Make More Satisfying E-Liquids Possible
If the amount of nicotine is the only real difference, why weren’t e-liquid makers producing e-liquids with 50 mg nicotine strengths already? The answer, as we mentioned above, is that standard e-liquids with such high nicotine strengths would be far too harsh to inhale. There are very few freebase nicotine e-liquids available in the world with nicotine strengths over 18 mg because nobody wants to buy them.

If you read the history of Marlboro and freebase nicotine cited above, you know that increasing the pH of the smoke is the reason for adding ammonia to tobacco cigarettes. The higher pH makes the nicotine more volatile and more bioavailable. It also makes the smoke smoother and easier to inhale. When it comes to smoothness in e-liquid, though, the higher pH seems to have the opposite effect; it leads to harshness at higher nicotine strengths.

Nicotine salt e-liquid is actually a very simple thing; it is simply standard e-liquid with a bit of acid – benzoic acid is a popular choice – added. The acid changes the molecular structure of the nicotine and gives the e-liquid a more neutral pH. People find the less alkaline e-liquid smoother to inhale, and that makes it possible to create higher-nicotine e-liquids that people actually want to use.

What Are the Benefits of Nicotine Salt E-Liquid?

Nicotine Salt May Make the Switch to Vaping Easier
Nicotine salt e-liquid is most likely to make a difference for those who currently smoke and have not yet made the switch to vaping. Studies have shown that an e-liquid with a nicotine strength of 50 mg can produce almost the same blood-nicotine levels that you would get from smoking. On the other hand, if you switch to vaping using a traditional small vape pen or cigarette-shaped e-cigarette, you’ll have to adjust to lower blood-nicotine levels during the transition. Nicotine salt may help you switch to vaping without an uncomfortable transition phase.

Nicotine Salt Reduces Your Vaping Costs
If you already vape, you may like nicotine salt e-liquid because it allows a tiny pod-based vaping device to be just as satisfying as a large sub-ohm device that generates enormous clouds. Since switching to a pod system would mean that you’d need less e-liquid to produce the same blood-nicotine levels, you wouldn’t have to buy as much e-liquid as you do now. You’d also spend less on atomizer coils because your coils would last longer.

Nicotine Salt Enables Discreet Vaping
Do you ever feel uncomfortable about vaping in public because you’re afraid that the huge tropical-scented clouds will annoy nonsmokers? There’s no need to worry about that when you use a small pod-based vaping device. If you hold the vapor in your lungs for a few seconds, you won’t even exhale a visible cloud.

What Are the Drawbacks of Nicotine Salt E-Liquid?

Nicotine Salt May Increase Blood-Nicotine Levels
If you already vape, you should think very carefully before switching to nicotine salt e-liquid. If you switch, for example, from a powerful vaping device and a nicotine strength of 3 mg to a pod-based setup and a nicotine strength of 25 mg, you may actually increase the total amount of nicotine you consume unless you also vape less often throughout the day. If your eventual goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate your nicotine consumption, switching to nicotine salt is probably not conducive toward that goal.

Nicotine Salt Doesn’t Usually Work With Sub-Ohm Vaping Hardware
In the United States, most nicotine salt e-liquid comes in two strengths: a lower strength of around 25 mg and a higher strength of around 50 mg. Neither of those nicotine strengths will work with sub-ohm vaping hardware because those nicotine strengths aren’t appropriate for devices that produce huge clouds. A few lower-strength nicotine salt e-liquids do exist – and they’ll become more common in the future – but for now, switching to nicotine salt e-liquid will usually mean that you’ll need to purchase a smaller vaping device such as a pod system.

Nicotine Salt May Have No Inherent Benefit
As mentioned above, lower-strength nicotine salt e-liquids aren’t common, but they do exist. Let’s suppose, then, that you switch to a nicotine salt e-liquid at the same strength as the e-liquid you’re currently using. In that case, you may not notice anything at all. You may actually find nicotine salt e-liquid less satisfying than your current e-liquid. The fact remains, people react to nicotine in different ways. Remember, though, that freebase nicotine – not salt-based nicotine – is more bioavailable. It’s unlikely that you’ll find nicotine salt e-liquid more satisfying unless than your current e-liquid unless it's nicotine strength is higher.