Trends come and go, and what’s extremely popular today might already be obsolete within a few years or even months. Because developments happen so quickly in the vaping industry, it’s reasonable to view new, flashy products with scepticism. Still, looking back from 2017 up to this year, there’s a trend that continues to run strong, with the potential to disrupt vaping permanently and that’s nicotine salts.
Nicotine salts have been embraced by the mainstream as an alternative to regular e-liquid, but is it mostly powered by hype, or will we be seeing more of it even in the far future?
Nicotine salts for vaping are hardly a new invention. However, the rise of nicotine salts can be closely tied to a single product: the Juul. This sleek, portable device was released by Pax Labs, now Juul Labs, in 2015. Every detail was carefully thought out, from its stick-like design to breath-powered activation. But for all its slick features and trendy marketing, the Juul proved to be revolutionary because of its usage of nicotine salts.
For many, nicotine salts give a much more satisfying buzz compared to regular e-liquids, with a strong enough nicotine kick to delight even chronic cigarette smokers. The Juul is also thin and lightweight, loosely mimicking a cigarette stick. Given that the majority of vapers are ex smokers, it tapped into a potent market.
The Juul is now one of the most rapidly growing consumer products ever in history, and offices are being opened around the country and even abroad. Already controlling at least 76% of the e-cigarette market in the US, the Juul has also become a UK favourite.
As more vapers bought Juuls, they became exposed to nicotine salts. Likewise, Juul introduced pod vaping, where cartridges containing nicotine salts are inserted into the device for easy replacement and refilling. Without Juul or a replacement product, nicotine salts would still have remained relatively obscure rather than inspiring the thousands of followers they have today.
The nicotine found in tobacco leaves is already a salt, but you can’t incorporate this directly in e-liquids because you’d need an extremely high temperature for it to vapourise and it’s not absorbed well into the body. Instead, regular e-liquids use what’s called freebase nicotine. This is essentially nicotine with the positive charge removed, so it’s no longer a salt. Freebase nicotine is much more volatile, which is considered a good thing in vaping because it gives a more potent kick.
The nicotine salts being sold in the market aren’t that different from freebase nicotine. It’s actually the result of combining freebase nicotine with an acid. During its beginning phases, Juul experimented relentlessly with the formula, trying to find the perfect acid. They eventually arrived at benzoic acid, which led to the nic salts that we know now. When freebase nicotine is mixed with benzoic acid, it can vapourise at lower temperatures, it’s more easily absorbed into the bloodstream, and its pH dips down, reducing the discomfort of the throat hit.
The main improvement of nicotine salts over regular e-liquids is that they can deliver much more nicotine while keeping the throat hit smooth.
Standard e-liquids have a maximum nicotine strength of 24 mg, although most vapers tend to go for 3 or 6 mg. It’s chemically possible to throw in more nicotine, but this is considered the limit because your body won’t be able to handle it. The throat hit would be harsh and overwhelming, and you’ll be coughing instead of enjoying your vape.
The same effect won’t happen with nicotine salts. You can even vape with as high a nicotine strength as 50 mg, and it’ll be comfortable. Although the effect of the actual nicotine varies per vaper, the nicotine kick from nic salts usually lasts longer, unlike with regular e-liquids where it fades away after a few minutes. This effect is palpable even with nicotine salts having as low as 3-5 mg/mL. Because nicotine salts are also more potent with each puff, you tend to consume less e-liquid all in all.
If you like your nicotine strong, then you’re most likely going to love nic salts. Most smokers will fall under this category. Even though its market notoriously involves a lot of teenagers, the Juul was meant to help smokers quit. Juul’s founders wanted to create an experience that resembled smoking so much that it could be a healthier substitute, and so they came up with nicotine salts. Smokers might find nicotine salts much more appealing than regular e-liquids since they do a good job of satisfying that nicotine craving.
Another group that’s well-suited for nic salts would be beginner vapers, or vapers who like keeping it convenient. The devices best paired with nic salts are usually easy to use, and pod vaping is an especially fun, fuss-free way to get into vaping.
However, sub-ohm vapers or those who like huge vapour production won’t be too happy with these. Vapers who would rather keep their nicotine at zero might also look elsewhere.
In the UK or anywhere else in Europe, the maximum nic salt strength you’ll see is 20 mg/mL. Even if this is hardly as risky as the 50 mg/mL you can find in the US, it’s still worth noting that nic salts generally have a high concentration of nicotine. For nicotine strengths inching towards 15 mg/mL and higher, use only low-wattage and low-power devices. Pod vapes are always an option, but you can also turn to classic vape-pens and milder mods. A high-powered device might overload you with nicotine, which can result in nicotine poisoning—a situation that you should definitely avoid.
You’ll find two types of vaping devices for nic salts: open or closed. Open devices can be manually refilled with nic salts of your choice, while closed devices only work with pre-filled cartridges or pods.
As for obtaining the nicotine salts themselves, pod users have it easier. Juul pods and their corresponding cartridges are becoming increasingly available in local vape shops and even gas stations. Nic salts in general, though, still have far to go before being as accessible as regular e-liquids. Flavours are also limited, especially since some pods are only compatible with certain nic salts.
It’s difficult to make predictions when it comes to what will catch on and what won’t in the vaping world. However, most innovations in the industry come in the form of technology, such as new device features or more advanced chipsets. Despite the huge creativity allowed in the form of flavours, e-liquids have remained relatively stable.
Nic salts are the exception. They’ve been in the public eye for a while, and they’ve attracted a loyal following of vapers that buy nic salts regularly rather than e-liquids. Crucially, their rise is also tied to a multi-billion pound business that’s relentlessly ramping up its growth. Nic salts will never be for everyone—sub-ohm vapers and DIY enthusiasts counted—but they’re far more than a passing trend, either. By pushing nicotine strength to its limits, nic salts respond directly to a need in the vaping community that had never been met before, and vapers want more. Whatever the future holds, expect to see more nicotine salts in vape shops and in the hands of vapers