How do nicotine salts work in e-liquid?
The story so far is a little confusing. Companies offering nicotine salt vape juices claim that it’s much more satisfying to vape than traditional freebase nicotine e-liquid, and yet the tobacco industry appears to have come to the exact opposite conclusion. Are the e-liquid companies missing something? Is nicotine salt e-liquid just a marketing gimmick?
This would have been the case were it not for some experiments performed by Pax Labs, who created the JUUL. Through many experiments with different formulations (explained in detail in a patent but in a much more readable format here), their researchers discovered that specific nicotine salts actually appeared to work better than freebase nicotine e-liquid. They call the finding “unexpected,” but tests of the blood nicotine levels obtained by users confirm the results.
The key ingredient was benzoic acid, which was added to control the specific nicotine salt formed in the e-liquid. By considering the reactions that occur at vaping-like temperatures, they were able to make a juice containing nicotine salts that still got you plenty of usable nicotine when you vape it.
The additional benefit is the effect of the acid on the pH of e-juice (i.e. whether it’s acidic or basic/alkaline). In general, a higher pH leads to more freebase nicotine in smoke or vapor, but it also makes the resulting mixture harsher to inhale.
By adding benzoic acid, the vapor from nicotine salt e-juice has a lower pH and is less harsh to vape, but chemical reactions occur during vaping that maintain high freebase nicotine content in the vapor. This means you can comfortably vape higher-nicotine e-juice. If you’ve tried the JUUL pods – which has a 59 mg/mL nicotine strength – you’ll be able to attest to this first-hand.
The truth is that the tobacco companies did have it right, but the reality isn’t quite as simple as “freebase is better.” Through more experimentation and consideration of vaping conditions (where temperatures are lower in general), Pax Labs has found a way to make nicotine salts a viable method of vaping, and arguably a better one.