“What’s actually in a bottle of vape juice?”
If you’re going to make the switch from smoking to vaping, it’s completely natural that you’ll want to know exactly what you’ll be putting in your body. You already know what vape juice doesn’t contain – smoke, of course! – but what are you actually inhaling when you use that vape kit? As it turns out, e-liquid is a fairly simple product that effectively contains just four different things. These are the vape juice ingredients that you should know about as you begin your transition from smoking to vaping.
Vegetable glycerin (VG) and propylene glycol (PG) comprise the vast majority of what’s in any bottle of vape juice and make up about 90 percent – or even more in some cases – of the vapor you inhale and exhale. We cover VG and PG extensively elsewhere in this blog, but we’ll also provide some quick information here in case you’re short on time.
So, what is vegetable glycerin? It’s an extremely useful product of the soapmaking industry. Soap, as you may know, comes from fat. The fat can be animal or vegetable in origin. We use the term “vegetable glycerin” in the vaping industry to clarify the fact that animal-based glycerin isn’t used for vape juice. Soap is created in a chemical process called saponification, which is what happens when you add lye to fat. You get two products as a result of that process, and those products are soap and glycerin. Glycerin is an effective moisturizer for the skin, so it’s sometimes added back in to create a mild soap that doesn’t dry the skin.
In everyday consumer products, glycerin is used to:
- Add moisturizing properties to soaps, lotions, haircare products and cosmetics.
- Prevent shelf-stable foods from drying out or spoiling due to microbial growth.
- Add sweetness to low-sugar foods and snacks.
Almost all vape juice contains both VG and PG. The two liquids differ in their properties, though, and that’s why e-liquid makers put the VG/PG ratios of their products on the bottles. In an e-liquid with a higher VG/PG ratio, the properties of VG will be more evident. The properties of PG will be more evident in an e-liquid with a lower VG/PG ratio. A VG/PG ratio of 70/30, for instance, indicates that the e-liquid’s base is 70-percent VG and 30-percent PG.
An e-liquid with a higher VG/PG ratio will have these properties:
- It’ll generate bigger vapor clouds and will have a fuller mouth feel because VG is much thicker than PG.
- It’ll have a sweeter overall flavor because the flavor of VG is somewhat sweet.
- It’ll provide a smoother vaping experience because VG is very low in throat hit.
Propylene glycol is a liquid that’s synthesized in laboratories from a variety of natural and artificial base compounds. Some of the compounds that can be used for the creation of PG include corn, soy, petroleum and even glycerin. PG has a variety of both human and industrial uses. Since petroleum-derived PG isn’t considered food grade, it’s used for industrial purposes rather than for consumable products like vape juice.
In everyday consumer products, propylene glycol is used to:
- Carry flavors and medicines because it is an effective solvent.
- Enhance the effectiveness of products such as deodorants and air fresheners because it kills many types of microbes.
- Provide emulsifying properties in liquid products such as lotions, cosmetics, haircare products, liquid medications and some consumable products such as drink mixes.
For a very small percentage of the population, the VG/PG ratio of vape juice is extremely important because those people are allergic to PG. We have to note here that a PG allergy is most likely something that you don’t need to worry about because you probably come into contact with PG every day when you use your lotion, deodorant and shampoo. If you had a PG allergy, you'd probably already know. If those products give you itchy hives, though, the potential for a PG allergy is something that you might want to consider. People who are allergic or sensitive to PG generally prefer to buy vape juice made with 100-percent vegetable glycerin.
An e-liquid with a lower VG/PG ratio will have these properties:
- It’ll generate smaller vapor clouds and will offer more consistent performance with the smallest vaping devices because PG is much thinner than VG.
- It’ll have a clearer and more defined flavor because PG isn’t sweet and doesn’t have a noticeable flavor of its own. That’s why PG is commonly used as a flavor carrier.
- It’ll have a stronger throat hit because PG vapor produces a slightly scratchy sensation in the throat.
Food-Grade Natural and Artificial Flavors
The flavor of a vape juice is incredibly important – it’s the primary reason why you like an e-liquid or not. Vape juice makers work unbelievably hard to develop flavor profiles that will resonate with the vaping community, and the flavor profile of a given e-liquid may come from as many as a dozen or more individual flavoring compounds.
So, where do the flavors for vape juice come from? The answer is that they’re the same natural and artificial flavorings used by the companies that make snacks, candies, beverages and other foods.
Earlier in the article, we discussed the fact that propylene glycol is an effective solvent, which makes it a good carrier of flavors. Vegetable glycerin is also a decent solvent, so a flavoring compound used for e-liquid making will almost always use PG or VG as a base. Since PG and VG are also the base liquids used for all vape juice, that’s perfect – a company can add its chosen flavors directly to a VG/PG base without worrying that the flavors will separate out from the mixture.
In the past, it was also fairly common for e-liquids to use flavors set in grain alcohol. That, however, has become much less common in recent years. If you do happen to buy a bottle of e-liquid with a flavor that has a bit of a harsh alcohol edge, steeping the e-liquid may help to remove that undesirable flavor.
The one thing that an e-liquid flavor should never contain is oil. Oil is a common base for flavors used in the food industry, but it isn’t used by vape juice makers due to the potential health concerns involved with the inhalation of oil.
As for the flavors themselves, e-liquid makers use both natural and artificial flavors. While a natural flavor is extracted from an actual fruit, vegetable or plant, it isn’t necessarily extracted from the named food. A natural strawberry flavor, for instance, is extracted from an actual plant – but it may not be a strawberry. An artificial flavor, on the other hand, is a flavor molecule that’s synthesized in a laboratory and tastes like the named food. Making an e-liquid with a great flavor profile usually requires the judicious application of both natural and artificial flavors.
The primary reason why you vape is because vaping provides an alternative form of nicotine consumption that doesn’t involve the inhalation of smoke. You already know that, but what you might not know is that nicotine is actually the least plentiful vape juice ingredient. The most popular nicotine strength among e-liquid buyers is 3 mg/ml – and in that nicotine strength, the nicotine is just 0.3 percent of the overall mixture.
Although you can certainly buy vape juice without nicotine, most people do opt for nicotine when buying e-liquid – and if you do, you should know that the nicotine in vape juice can come in three forms.
- Freebase nicotine is extracted from tobacco leaves using a solvent such as ammonia. Although the vaping market is rapidly evolving in favor of synthetic nicotine, freebase nicotine has historically been the most common type used for e-liquid. You’ll most commonly find freebase nicotine in an e-liquid with a nicotine strength of 6 mg/ml or lower.
- Nicotine salt starts out as freebase nicotine, but its molecular structure is altered by the addition of a mild acid. The acid lowers the pH of the nicotine, which is fairly alkaline in its freebase form. The more neutral pH greatly increases the smoothness of the vapor, making it possible to create e-liquids that have much higher nicotine strengths but are still very easy to vape and don’t cause throat irritation. You’ll most commonly find nicotine salt in an e-liquid with a nicotine strength of 20 mg/ml or higher.
- Synthetic nicotine is the new direction in which the entire vaping industry is now heading. Until laboratories developed a process for synthesizing the nicotine molecule affordably, vape juice – along with all nicotine replacement products – used nicotine extracted from tobacco. The vaping community has long requested a tobacco-free form of nicotine, though, and the industry has wanted it as well. Although e-liquid makers have long wanted a way to create a product containing no tobacco or tobacco-derived compounds, it wasn’t possible to do so affordably until recently. Today, it’s finally possible to create synthetic nicotine vape juice at a price that’s affordable for consumers. We support this clean break from tobacco, and our intention is to carry only tobacco-free nicotine vape juices going forward.