What Are Nicotine Salts? A Simple Explanation

By Lee Johnson Posted March 11, 2019

What Are Nicotine Salts

 

The world of vaping is constantly evolving, from the devices we use right down to the e-juice we load them up with. Veteran vapers will remember the days when e-juice was essentially always high-strength and tended to be 80 percent PG to 20 percent VG, while the overwhelming majority of companies opt for 70 percent VG and lower nicotine levels these days. However, since the release of the Juul, there has been another rising trend in the world of e-juice: nicotine salts. But what are nicotine salts? How are they different from ordinary e-liquids? And what are the benefits of using nicotine salt e-juice compared to normal e-liquids?

 

The topic can get quite complex, but you don’t need to go into details about the science to understand the key points you need to work out whether nicotine salts are right for you as a vaper. Here’s a run-down of what you need to know about nicotine salts.

 

Most E-Liquids Use “Freebase” Nicotine

 

Freebase vs. Nicotine Salt

 

The majority of e-liquids on the market use what’s called “freebase” nicotine. This is essentially “pure” nicotine, and it’s the form of nicotine that has an effect on your body. When cigarette companies adjusted the formula of their tobacco – using ammonia-based additives – their goal was to increase the amount of freebase nicotine that makes it to the smoker. This was simply to make cigarettes more addictive, because that’s the form of nicotine that produces effects when you inhale it.

 

Nicotine salts are an alternative type of nicotine, and this is how it’s found in tobacco leaf. It’s a more stable form of the nicotine molecule, where the freebase nicotine is essentially combined with some type of acid. The salts themselves don’t have an effect, but whether through the chemical reactions that take place during smoking or vaping, or because of additives companies incorporate into the mix, they can become freebase nicotine when you inhale.

 

So most e-liquid companies just use freebase nicotine because it’s simpler. You don’t have to mess around with the chemistry of the e-juice or make sure it’s converted from salt to freebase form during vaping, you just add the nicotine and it works.

 

How Pax Labs Made Nicotine Salts Work for Vaping

 

Juul Nicotine Absorption Graph

 

This all changed with the release of the Juul from Pax Labs. This device uses nicotine salts as opposed to freebase nicotine. The goal was to make vaping more satisfying for the smokers who’ve tried vaping but never been able to completely switch. Their theory was that by adding an acid to the mixture – benzoic acid specifically – the nicotine salts in the juice would be converted to freebase nicotine during vaping. They tested this, and found that their assumption was right.

 

Even more than this, the results suggest that the nicotine makes it into your blood much faster than it does with ordinary e-juice. You’ll notice from the graph above that the spike in blood nicotine levels from the commercial version of the Juul is very close to that obtained from combustible cigarettes. Their goal seems to have been achieved in style.

 

But there is a notable difference between nicotine salt e-liquids like those used in the Juul and ordinary e-liquids. While most brands don’t offer any juices over 24 mg/ml (even this is rare these days), the Juul is about 59 mg/ml for the standard 5 percent nicotine strength. So isn’t it the sheer amount of nicotine that makes the Juul more satisfying? Why can’t you just make stronger freebase nicotine e-liquids and get the same result?

 

It all comes down to the pH of the mix.

 

pH and Nicotine Throat Hit

 

Nicotine pH and Throat Hit

 

The reason for the huge gulf between the nicotine strengths of ordinary e-liquids and those of nicotine salt e-juices is that nicotine salt juices have a lower pH. This is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a mixture from 0 to 14, with a lower pH meaning a more acidic mix.

 

Nicotine in freebase form is slightly alkaline, with a pH of 8 (where anything over 7 is considered alkaline or “basic”). This higher pH is what gives nicotine a distinctive throat hit when you vape it. You’ll have undoubtedly noticed that higher nicotine e-juice is much harsher on your throat than lower-nicotine e-juice, and this is largely down to the pH of the mix.

 

Cigarettes, in contrast, have a pH of 5. This lower pH (in combination with other additives companies incorporate) is why you can get a lot of nicotine into your system by smoking a cigarette without experiencing the level of harshness you get with high-strength e-liquid.

 

But the benzoic acid incorporated into the nicotine salts by Pax Labs also works to lower the pH of the vapor. Doing this makes the throat hit from the e-juice much smoother. The advantage for you as a vaper is that you’ll be able to have higher-strength e-liquid without the additional harshness you’d expect. This is why you can vape 59 mg/ml on a Juul without having issues, but even a 24 mg/ml ordinary e-juice will be almost unpleasantly punchy on the back of your throat.

 

Pros and Cons of Nicotine Salt E-Liquids

 

Nicotine Salt E-Liquids

 

So now you know the basics of nicotine salt e-liquids and how they work, we can move to the most important part for you as a vaper: what are the benefits and downsides of nicotine salt e-juices?

 

Pros

 

  • More satisfying: The higher nicotine levels available in nicotine salt e-juices make them more satisfying to vape overall, which is especially useful for heavy smokers trying to switch.
  • Works with lowerpower devices: To get a satisfying vape with lower-nicotine juices, you need a mod and a sub ohm tank, but nicotine salts can give you a comparable hit from a much simpler and more affordable setup.
  • Smoother throat hit: Nicotine salt e-liquids tend to have a much gentler throat hit than ordinary e-liquids for equivalent nicotine levels, but even higher-strength salt e-liquids are often smoother on your throat than lower-strength freebase ones.
  • Less liquid consumed: You don’t need to vape as much with nicotine salt e-juices to get the nicotine you’re looking for, which means you’ll use a lot less juice.

 

Cons

 

  • Not as widely-available as traditional e-juice: Nicotine salt e-liquids are becoming much more common, but you’ll still be somewhat limited in terms of where you can pick them up and the range of flavors you have to choose from.
  • Not much benefit for longer-term vapers: If you already have a high-power device and you’ve been vaping for a while (so aren’t as dependent on nicotine as you were before) there isn’t much benefit to nicotine salt e-liquid unless you want to vape less or switch to a simpler e-cig.
  • Some people like the throat hit: Although a smoother throat hit is a benefit for some, not everybody agrees. If you like the slight harshness on your throat, nicotine salt e-liquids might not be for you.

 

What Devices Should I Use for Nicotine Salts?

 

Nicotine Salt E-Liquid Vape Pen

 

Nicotine salt e-liquids really come into their own when you pair them with the right sort of device. Although they will work with any type of e-cigarette that you can refill, they’re designed to work effectively with simpler, lower-power devices. These devices are great for stronger nicotine salt e-juices, which tend to range from 25 to 50 mg/ml.

 

  • Pod-style vapes: Pod devices like the Juul that kick-started the whole trend, refillable options like the NextMind CT1 or others like the Suorin Drop and Smok Mico or Nord are ideal for nicotine salt e-juice. They’re portable, generally affordable and perform really well.
  • Vape pens and basic clearomizers: If you’re just getting into vaping, even though mods are common, there’s a good chance you’re vaping with a basic pen setup. A great thing about nicotine salts is that they work perfectly in devices like this, and even just getting some new juice could make vaping a lot more enjoyable for you.
  • Mouth-to-lung tanks: Mouth to lung (or MTL) tanks like the Nautilus X tend to have higher-resistance coils and work better at lower power settings. This makes them well-suited to nicotine salt e-juices.

 

If you have a mod or a direct-to-lung tank (like most sub ohm tanks), you can still use these with nicotine salt e-liquids, but it’s better to choose lower-strength salt e-liquids unless you want a substantial amount of nicotine. It tends to be more tolerable with nicotine levels below 25 mg/ml. Even 12 mg/ml of nicotine salts in a high-power device will get you nicotine very efficiently.

 

Nicotine Salts: Not as Complicated as it Seems

 

Nicotine salt e-liquids really aren’t as complicated as you might think at first. You can take a deeper dive into the science behind them if you’re interested, and in particular the interesting question of whether there’s a benefit to the salt nicotine itself or whether it’s all because it’s easier to tolerate higher strengths. However, from a vaper’s perspective it’s a simple issue: if you have a basic device and want more nicotine without increasing throat hit, nicotine salt e-juices are your friend.