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What Are the Ingredients of E-Liquid, and What Do They Mean?

September 13, 2020 6 min read

From the consumer’s standpoint, shopping for e-liquid is a better experience today than it has ever been. One of the biggest reasons for that is because shoppers are empowered with more information than ever. Today’s mainstream e-liquid makers use automation to make their products completely consistent from one batch to the next. Each bottle is imprinted with a lot code for quality tracing, and every bottle has a list of ingredients, so you know exactly what you’re vaping.

E-Liquid Ingredients

Knowing what you’re vaping is, of course, a good thing – but what do the ingredient names on an e-liquid bottle actually mean? That’s what we’re going to discuss in this article. Apart from the fact that different e-liquids use different combinations of flavors, there aren’t actually many differences from one bottle to the next. Knowing what the ingredients of your e-liquid are, though, can help to ensure that you always end up with the perfect vape juice flavor for your needs.

So, what’s in that bottle of e-liquid? These are the most common e-liquid ingredients.

Vegetable Glycerin and Propylene Glycol

E-liquid contains more vegetable glycerin (VG) and propylene glycol (PG) than anything else. Most e-liquid contains both of those ingredients, and it’s the ratio in which those ingredients are blended that determines what the end product is like. Vegetable glycerin is a byproduct of the soapmaking industry, and propylene glycol is synthesized either from glycerin or from other precursors. VG and PG dilute e-liquid’s other ingredients and keep them mixed. Those are also the ingredients that create the clouds you see when you vape.

VG has a slightly sweet flavor and can be used as an alternative to sugar in sweet foods. Both VG and PG retain moisture and inhibit microbial growth to keep foods fresh. They are also effective emulsifiers and solvents. You’ll find both VG and PG in many foods, drinks, cosmetics and topical products. In other words, VG and PG were already daily parts of your life before you started vaping.

Most e-liquid ingredient lists will include both VG and PG, and it’s the ratio of those two ingredients that determines the e-liquid’s performance and cloud production characteristics. VG is the more viscous of the two liquids. An e-liquid with more VG will have a fuller mouth feel and will produce larger clouds. An e-liquid with more PG will be thinner and less sweet, but it’ll also have a more clearly defined flavor profile.

Natural and Artificial Flavors

The flavor profile of an e-liquid comes from a combination of natural and artificial flavors. E-liquid makers use the same flavoring ingredients that are available to companies in the food industry, and just like in the food industry, e-liquid makers consider their specific flavor combinations trade secrets and do not publish their exact flavor blends for fear of other companies copying them.

The reason why e-liquids taste as great as they do is because vape juice companies use the same flavors that makers of snack foods and beverages use. If you’re a big fan of a particular candy, for instance, you can most likely find an e-liquid that’s a nearly exact copy of that candy because creating a clone of a popular food or beverage is simply a matter of using the same combination of flavoring agents.

E-liquid flavors usually use vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol as bases. A few flavors may be set in grain alcohol. Vape juice makers do not use oil-based flavorings because oils are unsafe to inhale.

Nicotine

Nicotine is an optional e-liquid ingredient. Although most e-liquid does contain nicotine, almost every vape juice brand also makes nicotine-free e-liquid for those who would rather buy that.

The vast majority of the nicotine used for e-liquid is natural. It’s extracted from tobacco plants using a solvent such as ammonia. Nicotine extracted by that method is also widely used for nicotine replacement products like nicotine lozenges, patches and gum.

Synthetic nicotine also exists. Laboratories can create synthetic molecules that are similar in structure to nicotine, and then they use catalysts to extract nicotine from those molecules. When processes for creating synthetic nicotine were first discovered, those processes were far too costly to be of any use in mass-produced products like e-liquid. Over time, though, laboratories have refined their methods and are now able to produce synthetic nicotine at much lower costs.

A few e-liquid companies are now using tobacco-free nicotine in their products, and that practice is likely to become more common in the future as vape juice companies continue to distance themselves from the tobacco industry.

Menthol, Koolada and Other Cooling Agents

Menthol is a popular cigarette additive because it cools the throat and reduces the harshness of the smoke. It serves the same purpose in vaping. In fact, menthol e-liquid is more enjoyable than a menthol cigarette could ever be because e-liquid doesn’t have any harshness that needs covering.

The menthol that’s used to make menthol e-liquid is the same as the menthol in cigarettes. It creates a very cold sensation in the mouth and throat, and it adds a distinctive minty flavor because it’s usually extracted from peppermint. If you want a menthol e-liquid delivering an experience that’s fresh and cool like a breath mint, you want an e-liquid that uses actual menthol.

Some e-liquid companies, however, have also experimented with menthol alternatives such as Koolada in their products. Koolada and the other alternative cooling agents used in vape juice were developed by the company Wilkinson Sword during the 20th century. Many of the cooling agents developed by WS have been in use for so long that they’re generally regarded as safe for human consumption, hence their use in e-liquid. WS developed those cooling agents as alternatives to menthol in products like shaving creams because menthol can irritate the eyes.

Koolada and the other WS cooling agents tend not to deliver quite as powerful a cooling sensation as menthol. However, they also don’t greatly alter the flavor of an e-liquid as menthol does. It’s popular in fruit and beverage e-liquids designed to taste like they’re “on ice.”

Benzoic, Lactic and Other Acids

Nicotine salt e-liquid is one of the hottest things in the vaping industry these days, and it’s created by adding a mild acid such as lactic or benzoic acid to a standard nicotine base. The acid lowers the pH of the nicotine base – which is normally slightly alkaline – and alters the structure of the nicotine molecule to change it from a free base to a salt.

Because it’s less alkaline than freebase nicotine, nicotine salt e-liquid isn’t irritating to the throat at high nicotine concentrations. That feature makes nicotine salt the best form of nicotine for small vaping devices like pod systems. Because nicotine salt vape juice generally comes in very high nicotine strengths, it’s usually not appropriate for use in sub-ohm vaping devices. Low-strength nicotine salt e-liquids do exist, but they aren’t common.

If an e-liquid uses a nicotine salt base, it’ll almost always say “Salt” somewhere on the label. If you see an acid such as benzoic acid or lactic acid on an e-liquid’s ingredient list, though, you’re definitely looking at a nicotine salt e-liquid regardless of what the label says.

Distilled Water

You may occasionally see distilled water on an e-liquid’s list of ingredients because an e-liquid that contains only vegetable glycerin as a base – and does not contain any propylene glycol – will generally be quite thick. Some people prefer PG-free e-liquid, though, either because they’re sensitive to propylene glycol or because they simply want their vape juice to have excellent cloud production.

The more VG an e-liquid contains, the more impressive its cloud production will be. The problem, though, is that a 100-percent VG e-liquid may also be so thick that it has difficulty flowing efficiently through most standard vape tanks. An extremely thick e-liquid might not cause a problem for RDA users, but most people use tanks rather than rebuildable atomizers. A few drops of distilled water can thin an e-liquid slightly, making it possible to use that e-liquid in a tank without experiencing dry hits.

Pure Grain Alcohol

The last e-liquid ingredient that you’ll see occasionally is pure grain alcohol. Like water, alcohol is sometimes added to very thick e-liquids to thin those e-liquids slightly. The difference, though, is that water doesn’t affect the performance of an e-liquid in a noticeable way when it’s just a few drops to an entire bottle of vape juice. The water gives the e-liquid a slightly lower viscosity, making it possible to use that vape juice in a vape tank.

Grain alcohol, on the other hand, does affect the performance of an e-liquid in a noticeable way by slightly enhancing its throat hit. You might like that if you use an e-liquid with a savory flavor – like a tobacco vape juice – and a low nicotine strength. A few drops of grain alcohol can bring back the sensation of throat hit that you used to enjoy in the past when you were still using higher-nicotine vape juices.

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