E-cigarettes work by electronically heating a liquid to its evaporation point, creating a vapor that can be inhaled, similar to smoke, but what are vape juices made of?
These liquids are often called “juice,” or “e-liquid,” but what exactly are these fluids? Let's take a look and find out.
Vape juices are usually made of the following primary ingredients.
Propylene glycol (PG)
Despite being chemically closely related to ethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze, it is non-toxic to humans and many animals (unless consumed in large quantity) and not withstanding the fact that some people do experience an allergic reaction to PG. It is a solvent, humectant (a substance that retains moisture), and preservative, used in a wide range of food and non-food products.
Vegetable glycerin (VG)
Vegetable glycerin is derived from triglycerides in plant sources, usually from soybeans or palm. Like propylene glycol, it is an odorless, colorless, viscous liquid that is non-toxic and has a slightly sweet taste. It is commonly used as a sweetener, but is also a humectant and a solvent. Also like propylene glycol, it is used to prevent water from freezing, and was the predecessor for modern anti-freeze in automotive applications.
As the name implies, early e-cigarettes were thought to be a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, and nicotine was almost always included in early vape juices. The propylene glycol and glycerin vaporized the nicotine and made it inhale-able without conventional cigarette smoke. Today, nicotine is not in every kind of vape juice, and is an optional ingredient.
Nicotine is an alkaloid chemical found in many plants, but usually in the highest concentration in tobacco plants. It is an effective insecticide, and can be poisonous or even lethal to humans in sufficient amounts, and may cause birth defects if used during pregnancy. In smaller amounts, it is a stimulant, a relaxant, and is known to be highly addictive.
Unlike many drugs, it is both a stimulant and then a sedative as the dosage increases. Despite its health risks, nicotine has also been shown to boost mood, improve motor abilities, improve attention, improve working memory, and even boost metabolism.
It has been difficult to accurately study the effects of nicotine on humans, because nicotine is typically administered by smoking. Cigarettes, cigars, and tobacco pipes all administer nicotine, but also a wide range of other chemicals, for a complex array of negative health effects. For example, smoking is a known cause of cancer. However, nicotine alone has not been shown to cause cancer in humans.
For these reasons, e-cigarettes, even with nicotine, are considered a safer alternative than smoking traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes contain none of the ash, tar, or carbon monoxide found in tobacco cigarettes. In fact, Public Health England has determined that smokers can avoid 95% of the health risks of analog cigarettes by switching to e-cigarettes.
There are huge array of vape juice flavors available, and they are made from a variety of different chemicals derived from different sources. Vape flavors can be based on natural flavors like berries or coffee, to food flavors like apple pie or energy drink.
It can be difficult to assess what is actually in these flavorings, as the ingredients are usually listed as simply “flavorings.” While these flavoring ingredients are usually recognized and approved as food-safe when eaten, not all chemicals have the same effects when eaten as they do when they are inhaled.
There are currently no regulations that require vape juice manufacturers to label or disclose their flavoring ingredients, and some organizations feel that they should be required to. Decades ago, the FDA banned the use of sweet flavorings in analog cigarettes to reduce their appeal to children, and some groups feel that similar standards should be applied to e-cigarettes as well.
Some vape juices advertise a rather strange array of other ingredients, ranging from vitamins to caffeine. While these additives may be dubiously safe to inhale, it is doubtful that they add anything positive to the vaping experience, and most experts advise you to avoid them.
So vape juices usually contain only these four ingredients: vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, nicotine, and flavorings. It is likely that future regulations will improve the labeling and ingredient requirement for flavorings, so that vapers will be better informed about what is in their juice, and also likely that there will be greater study in regards to the difference between the health effects of inhaling ingredients rather than eating them.
In the meantime, never add food flavorings from the grocery store to attempt to flavor your own vape juice; they can definitely pose health risks.
In a period when the FDA and health authorities are scrambling to better understand the effects of vaping a wide range of ingredients being used in vape juices you can use a basic 'rule of thumb' to vape with a healthy approach by avoiding vape juices that have flavors or additives and other possible unknown ingredients that sound exotic but which you have trouble finding information about.
Avoiding PG in your vape juice along with an exotic flavors and additives is advisable. This may mean you have to sacrifice a flavor hit and deal with a faster build of residue in your vapor, but arguably the safest vape juice that allows you to drop PG with positive health effects is pure CBD vape juice that does not have PG or flavorings in its fomula.
All that being said, whatever you are vaping, the amount you vape, meaning the amount of vaped material you expose your body to daily, will have an impact and informing yourself on safe exposure limits is a wise approach too. Just like any health supplement there is a useful and safe amount or dosage but an excessive exposure can bring problems.
More knowledge and insight can only improve the safety and enjoyability of vaping, and make it even safer and more enjoyable than it is now.