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Ask the scientist: What is salt-based nicotine?

2 Mins read

Nicotine salts have emerged as a leading trend this year, with an increasing number of e-liquid manufacturers trying their hand at nic salts.

What do you know about salt-based nicotine and its chemical make up? Where does the salt come from? Here’s a myth-buster, you won’t find it in your kitchen.

Nicotine is found naturally in the tobacco leaf and exists in a salt-form but this particular salt is unsuitable for vaping.

Generic structure of a nicotine salt

This ‘salt’ is not to be confused with table salt!

In the late 1950s to early 1960s, companies began adding ammonia or diammonium phosphate to improve the flavour of cigarettes.

This created a nicotine ‘free-base’ which when smoked, gives a stronger hit through more rapid absorption into the bloodstream and therefore user satisfaction, leading to dominance across the tobacco market for decades.

To isolate nicotine from the tobacco leaf, it is first converted to its free-base form and is then extracted using a solvent.

It’s this free-base nicotine that is most commonly used for vaping, however the rate of nicotine absorption versus a combustible cigarette is lower. This is possibly due to the larger particle size of the vapour compared to an ash cloud and not being able to penetrate as deeply within the lung, where the most rapid nicotine uptake occurs.

Through experimental investigation it has been found that certain nicotine formulations with organic acids when vaped gave comparable nicotine hits to cigarettes by monitoring heart rate, user reported satisfaction and measuring blood plasma nicotine levels of test participants.

In addition, these formulations showed improved stability and a reduced throat hit to the free-base nicotine used most commonly by vapers.

This is why some believe nic salts could be more useful for smokers trying to quit as there is a more comparable nicotine hit and feeling of satisfaction to that of cigarettes when making the switch to vaping.

One such formulation is nicotine benzoate salt, which is formed by the addition of benzoic acid to nicotine. This is what is used in popular US pod devices.

About the author

Dr Richard Cunningham has a Ph.D in medicinal chemistry from Queen’s University Belfast where he also worked as post-doctoral researcher for a number of years before working in the US at the Mitchell Cancer Institute in Alabama. Among his areas of expertise are organic synthesis, nucleosides, nucleotides, cellular biology, vitamins, aminoglycosides, drug delivery, phosphorous chemistry and chemical analysis. He is now the director of quality control at Liquid Sciences LLC in the UK.

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