Nicotine Salts: Everything You Wanted to Know

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In the world of vaping, there has been a lot of talk about nicotine salts, also known as nic salts. Are they good or are they dangerous? How do we use them and in what kind of devices? What exactly are they all about? This article will try to answer all of that and more. Then at the bottom, we sum up the pro and cons of nicotine salts.

nicotine salts or nic salts

The structure of nicotine. Vchorozopoulos CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

What are Nicotine Salts?

Nicotine salts result when manufacturers take free base nicotine and add certain types of acids. This creates a super absorbable and smooth form of nicotine. In theory, nicotine salts are readily absorbable even at lower temperatures. In chemical terms, a salt results when an acid reacts with a base (alkali). Contrast this to free base nicotine that manufacturers also modify for rapid delivery into the body and brain for a powerful nicotine effect. Most people have heard of freebasing of cocaine. Well, the chemical process is similar for nicotine.

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Since the 1960s, large tobacco companies like Phillip Morris researched ways to make cigarettes more addictive. How could they increase the delivery of nicotine to the body for a stronger, faster effect? They discovered that if they free the nicotine (free base) from the acids that were naturally present in the tobacco leaf, they could achieve this. So why does it appear that some e-liquid manufacturers are moving backward by turning free base nicotine into nicotine salts?

Consumption is different from absorption; the main factors associated with the effects of nicotine are the levels in the bloodstream and the speed of absorption.

National Institutes for Health

Note: This article will not delve deeply into the chemistry of free base and protonated (the opposite of free base) nicotine but will try to give you information in broad terms.

Free Base Nicotine

With traditional cigarettes, nicotine is present in both the particulate matter and the gas of the smoke. Within the particulate matter, there are three forms of the nicotine – diprotonated, monoprotonated, and unprotonated. The gas phase strictly contains nicotine in a free base. As you can make out, unprotonated means it does not have any protons, hence it is a free base. This form of nicotine is most absorbable by the body and brain and provides a quicker and stronger effect.

Free base nicotine is also more lipid soluble and crosses the blood-brain barrier more readily than other forms. This leads to the release of dopamine. Scientists indicate that higher levels of free base nicotine entering the lungs correlate with a higher initial strength or kick and addictive potential of the nicotine. (National Institutes of Health 2005).

When certain types of acids are added to free base nicotine, those acids not only turn the nicotine into a salt but may also help to free the nicotine into a highly absorbable form when heated.

Why Use Nic Salts?

In its natural form, nicotine, as it is contained within the leaves of the tobacco plant, is not a free base but exists with acid in the form of a salt. This type of nicotine is less absorbable by the body. However, when certain types of acids are added to free base nicotine, those acids not only turn the nicotine into a salt but may also help to free the nicotine (into a free base) when heated to a certain temperature – as during vaporization. At least this is the claim of Pax Labs, Inc., which obtained a patent for a nicotine salt in 2015.

Additionally, when nicotine salts or nic salts are used to make e-liquid instead of the pure free base form, the quality of vaporization supposedly changes; the hit is smoother, making inhalation easier. In the free-base form, nicotine “bites” the throat, as it is very alkaline. But in the initial salt form, a higher concentration of nicotine may be more tolerable for inhalation, allowing the user to experience a stronger nicotine effect without the harshness.

Pax Labs JUUL Salts

As noted, in 2015 PAX Labs patented their JUULsalts formulation of nicotine salt for use in its e-cigarette device, the JUUL. The compact low-temperature device utilizes e-liquid pods that contain high levels of nicotine (in the form of nicotine salts) – 59 mg/ml per pod – intended to match the strength of a traditional cigarette. In general, the e-liquid industry standard for nicotine content ranges from 0-24 mg/ml. Most high wattage vapers use lower nicotine levels because with the powerful sub-ohm devices, they are able to now match the nicotine blood absorption rate of a traditional cigarette (PubMed 2016). “Consumption is different from absorption; the main factors associated with the effects of nicotine are the levels in the bloodstream and the speed of absorption” (National Institutes of Health).

Pax JUUL nicotine salts

The Pax JUUL eLiquid pods contain nicotine salt. Photo: Vaping411.

The company claims that they use an outside organization to research their e-liquids. In the patent description, reference was made to the prevailing conclusion that free base nicotine compositions generated greater satisfaction over nicotine salts in a combustion process that involves high temperature. Their patent states that there are conflicting results.

Higher Nicotine at Lower Temperatures

The patent goes on to describe an “unexpected” discovery. They found that certain formulas of nic salts delivered greater satisfaction than free base nicotine with low-temperature vaporization. Those nic salts also matched the satisfaction of a traditional cigarette. The Pax website indicates that they add benzoic acid to the JUUL salt e-liquid formula. “The nicotine salt formulations are formed from an acid with a vapor pressure that is similar to the vapor pressure of free base nicotine at the heating temperature of the device,” according to Pax’s 2015 patent. Basically, they’ve made it as volatile as possible to be effective in low-temperature devices. Furthermore, they discovered that certain nicotine salts (using different acids) yielded better performance than others.

The natural form of nicotine as it exists in the tobacco leaf is by nature more stable and less bio-available to humans.

It’s All in the Type of Acid

According to the patent, certain nicotine salts outperformed other nicotine salts and free base nicotine. Those nic salts resulted in a maximum level of blood nicotine in the lowest amount of time. For these tests, they used a low-temperature vaporization pathway to deliver the nicotine. In other words, some types of acids worked better than others in terms of creating a nicotine salt with efficient delivery into the body when vaped with a low-temperature device.

They found that using acids with particular vapor pressures achieved the highest concentration of nicotine in the blood. It also led to the fastest absorption. A higher vapor pressure corresponds to a lower boiling or vaporization temperature. The patented commercial nicotine salt achieved a level of nicotine of 5 ng per ml at 1.5 minutes. One and a half minutes was the time measured after the first puff in a series of 10 thirty-second spaced puffs. Among tests of various nic salts, as well as a free base, the least satisfying was the free base.

Satisfaction Metrics

nicotine salts

This graph shows the Pax Labs test achieved similar blood nicotine content as traditional smoking. Image Credit: Engadget

Test subjects achieved a heart rate of 1.2 times the norm 40 seconds after the first puff by the patented nicotine salts. The free base composition achieved the same in 110 seconds. In two minutes, the patented nicotine salts formulation achieved a heart rate of 105 to 110 beats per minute. A nicotine free base formulation only achieved 86 bpm at 7 minutes.

Pros and Cons of Nicotine Salts

PROS:
  • Longer shelf life and less oxidation. Nicotine in its natural state is more stable and less likely to oxidize. Oxidation of nicotine in e-liquids causes an off-flavor and discoloration.
  • Possible smoother hit. This is due to the lower alkalinity of the nicotine salts. Alkalinity, e.g., free base, results in a “bite.”
  • High levels of nicotine. This may be very helpful for people who are trying to quit smoking. Vapers of low wattage devices can absorb as much nicotine as with a cigarette.
  • Less vaping required to achieve nicotine satisfaction. With higher levels of nicotine, less vaping is necessary. The vaper may put down the device more often resulting in less usage of battery and e-juice. This could provide noticeable cost savings.

CONS:
  • High levels of nicotine commonly offered with “nic salts” are undesirable for some people. The Pax JUUL, for example, does not offer zero or lower levels of nicotine.
  • Companies generally do not recommend nic salts for high wattage or sub ohm devices.
  • At Nude Nicotine, nicotine salts appear to be more expensive than regular nicotine. We have not evaluated if this is marketwide.
  • Uncertain effects of benzoic acid. This is the ingredient that supposedly gives the JUULsalts its desirable qualities. Although experts generally consider benzoic acid to be relatively non-toxic, the following excerpts are for your information.

For Your Own Research

Cases of urticaria, asthma, rhinitis, or anaphylactic shock have been reported following oral, dermal, or inhalation exposure to benzoic acid and sodium benzoate. The symptoms appear shortly after exposure and disappear within a few hours, even at low doses (Toxnet).

Irritation to the nose, throat and lungs if inhaled, which may cause coughing, wheezing and/or shortness of breath (MSDS Online).

A provisional tolerable intake [of benzoic acid] of 5 mg/kg body weight per day can be derived, although benzoates at lower doses can cause non-immunological contact reactions (pseudoallergy) in sensitive persons. As there are no adequate studies available on inhalation exposure, a tolerable concentration for exposure by inhalation cannot be calculated (INCHEM).

In conclusion, nic salts may help to fill a market void. Before nicotine salts came around some people may have wondered, “How can we get higher levels of nicotine and absorption (and satisfaction) from a small, discreet, low-temperature device?” Perhaps we now have an answer.

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Jim H

I started vaping in January 2011 and haven't had the desire to smoke a traditional cigarette since. It inspired me so much that I created this website to help others like me who want to quit smoking. I hope you enjoy the site and please leave a comment.

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