We’ve all heard about the latest ‘hype’, otherwise known as nicotine salts – or as the cool people call them, nic salts. So what are they? What’s the difference between nicotine salts and run-of-the-mill, old-fashioned freebase nicotine? I’ve been looking into this salty topic, finding out exactly what the difference is. The answers just might surprise you.
There’s actually three different forms of nicotine: Free-base (Nic), monoprotonated (NicH+) or diprotonated (NiCH2+). Which form you find in your vape depends on the pH of any watery liquids around it. The freebase form is more bioavailable, which means that is more easily absorbed by more types of cell within the human body. However, the three forms of nicotine can swap between each other under the influence of their surrounding pH.
What Are Nicotine Salts?
Nicotine salts, nic salts or monoprotonated nicotine (NicH+) are a form of e-juice nicotine that is becoming increasingly popular among vapers. Tobacco leaves contain the salt form of nicotine. The salt in these leaves usually offers a better e-juice flavor impact and a bigger throat hit or “punch” that vapers enjoy.
Here’s something interesting. Even the type of material your vape cartridge is made of can actually help to turn some nicotine salts into freebase nicotine; the form of nicotine in your vape depends on the acidity or alkalinity (pH) of its surroundings. That means even the current from a vape battery can make changes to the structure of nicotine. And as pH is dependent on hydrogen molecules (H+), you can see that the difference between Nic and NicH+ isn’t that much. If you really want to impress your friends, tell them that a positive hydrogen atom is a Brønsted–Lowry acid, which very easily donates its single proton to surrounding molecules in a solution. A Brønsted–Lowry acid will change ammonia (NH3) to ammonium (NH4), or nicotine salts (NicH+) to nicotine (Nic) in the blink of an eye.
Are you still with me? Probably not. Don’t worry though. It’s basically a process in which the nic salt will change itself into regular nicotine inside your vape tank. You won’t notice much about this difference, as the throat hit is roughly similar. More about that in the next section of this article.
Research shows that if your vape juice cartridge is made of Teflon or Quartz, up to 65% of the salts can be turned into freebase nicotine. Even worse, glass fiber cartridges, being alkali, love to accept that easily donated H+ and this reaction turns all nicotine salts into freebase nicotine. Which as we’ve just seen gets absorbed into all types of tissue a lot more easily. Juul devices, made from food-grade plastic which doesn’t react much to either acid or alkali even in the presence of water have less freebase nicotine than other types of vape which use nicotine salts.
What Is The Difference Between Salt Nicotine And Regular Nicotine?
On a vaping experience level, the difference between salt nicotine and regular (or freebase) nicotine is the improved e-juice flavor impact, better throat hit, but also a decreased level of pure nicotine that is absorbed by the body, which is significantly healthier for the e-cigarette user in the long term.
The original freebase substance is not regular in the pure sense of the word, but essentially the result of tobacco company research. Philip Morris used ammonia to replace the salts in the natural form of nicotine in tobacco leaves, known as nicotine salt or protonated nicotine. The difference between these two forms is a single molecule of hydrogen. Philip Morris first added alkaline ammonia to nicotine salts in the 1960s to ‘improve the flavor’ (they still won’t say that this was done to make cigarettes more addictive). In this process, ammonia gas is passed through tobacco leaves which makes the nicotine salts give up their hydrogen atom to the ammonia to become freebase nicotine. Both ammonia and freebase nicotine is extracted through steaming.
But by using acid, and not an alkali, to release nicotine from tobacco, nicotine salts are much less likely to change into freebase nicotine. As an acid has more H+ than an alkali there’s less incentive for the NicH+ to give its hydrogen atom up. So it is safe to say that Juul pods are manufactured using practically 100% nicotine salts but whether it stays that way depends on the chemicals in the juice and the temperature. The ingredients of Juul pods are:
- Glycerol: Almost neutral, very slightly acidic;
- Propylene glycol: Most glycols are acidic;
- Benzoic acid: It’s an acid, so acidic;
- Natural oils: No pH as there’s no water in oil (and oil won’t dissolve into water);
- Extracts and flavor: Extracts are natural, but flavors? Who knows. Either can be acidic (think fruits) or alkaline.
As you see, with all the acidic ingredients, there’s no reason why Juul nicotine salts should give up that hydrogen atom and become nicotine. Whether this is the case in other types of vape is another question.
Can You Use Salt Nicotine In A Regular Vape?
Salt nicotine differs from freebase nicotine by a single atom of hydrogen. The final product of nicotine production whether salt or freebase has roughly the same texture and is always added to glycerol and glycol to produce vape juice. You can, therefore, use salt nicotine in a regular vape device.
Nicotine salts, not being volatile, will have a longer shelf life than freebase nicotine, which is good news for DIY vape juice makers, but they are more expensive. However, making your own nicotine salt e-juice needs a little attention. Although not taken into the cells of the human body as readily, the percentage of available nicotine in salt form is higher.
You might also need to rethink your recipes as taste can change dramatically. You will also get a purer, higher, quicker nicotine hit as there’s nothing to slow its metabolism, so be aware of the percentage. To make your own nic salts from regular nicotine all you need is an acid. That means the Nic will find a ready supply of H+ atoms around and won’t feel like it has to share them with the other molecules in your vape juice. DIYers usually prefer benzoic acid as do official Juul e-juice manufacturers.
Best Salt Nic Devices
Here are a few recommendations for closed and open system vape mods that work just fine with salt nic. And if you have some open system low wattage models hanging about in a drawer that never quite hit the spot, it’s time to get them out and see how they work with protonated nicotine. Why? Even low settings will still create a great hit when the juice is salt nic.
- Juul: The first closed system nic salt e-cigarette which uses the fewest ingredients deserves the top ranking.
- Mi-Pod: Disposable and refillable cartridges, no leakage, and looks great, too.
- SMOK Novo: With new 1.5 ohm pods available this SMOK pod-mod has up to 16W output for great MTL.
- Aspire Breeze 2: Not great for long draws as this one tends to get a little hot, but works well with salt nic and is very affordable.
- Aspire Nautilus AIO: Another Aspire favorite which uses the minimum of parts and keeps going when others die.
- Lost Vape Orion DNA: Like the Nautilus an All In One pocket mod, but unlike the Nautilus, lots of parts that enhance firing and even allow configuration via your computer!
Are Nicotine Salts Better For You?
Nicotine salts are not good for you, but are a ‘healthier’ and better option than freebase nicotine e-juices and cigarettes. Salt-based vape products decrease the overall amount of nicotine absorbed into the body, making them the better and less harmful option. This is why many manufacturers promote nic salts.
Made popular by Juul e-cigarettes (who some people think invented a new product), nicotine salts are actually a natural form of this addictive chemical. In 1994, five cigarette manufactures produced a list of all the additives they put in their products which totaled 599 products (yes, you read that right) which ran from flavorings like ‘wine sherry’ to sugar, and from raisin juice to pineapple juice. It’s easy to see that the tobacco industry has been doing what it can to make smoking more enjoyable and addictive – after all, sugar’s addictive, isn’t it?
When we smoke or vape, the nicotine (both salt nic and freebase) gets absorbed into our bloodstream and metabolized. The body does this using CYP2A5 and CYP2A6 enzymes which break down the nicotine molecules. As regular nicotine in cigarettes has added chemicals which are natural inhibitors of these enzymes, and the addition of other chemicals like sugar makes smoking more ‘tasty’, this combination of slower nicotine metabolism and additives to make the experience more addictive makes us (and lab rats) want more. Oh, and unhealthy brain and blood nicotine concentrations are higher in females. Sorry, girls.
So now you’re thinking, “but that’s cigarettes, they’ve got an extra 599 chemicals in them. Vaping’s okay”. Well, that depends on your vape. Those chemicals that slow down the body’s metabolism of nicotine aren’t all complicated additives invented by the big tobacco companies in the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties. One inhibitor that increases the addictiveness of nicotine is menthol. So if you like a menthol zing from your alkali vape juice in your fiberglass vape cartridge which converts all the nicotine salts into freebase nicotine, you might not get as addicted as quickly as if you smoke regular cigarettes, but you will still get addicted. Which is why a non-smoker who starts vaping nicotine juices is a bad idea.
Understanding Nicotine Salts
I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article. I know I enjoyed writing it. There’s so much research going on at the moment about vaping and reading through it all to find out about nicotine salts brought me back to the chemistry lab at school. Except for this time around it wasn’t boring. Salt nic, nic salts, nicotine salts, protonated nicotine or just plain old NicH+, I think we’ve learned a lot more about what it is and we can now feel confident enough to start rethinking our old freebase recipes. If you don’t like the mod-pods or AIOs I listed earlier on, my best vape gear recommended products page might give you some more ideas. Together with loads of articles which cover every possible topic and subtopic in the vaping world, I know you’ll enjoy browsing through the pages.