In the last few years Vapes have spread viciously and quickly across the globe. In Australia, they’re so widespread, that schools have gone so far as to install motion detectors in their bathrooms in an effort to deter the behaviour.
But like most vices, there’s a dissociation between what’s actually in them, how bad they are for us, and how they make us feel.
But you have to wonder, what’s actually inside that little devil stick you vape? What’s that vapour made of that goes into your lungs? What makes it so damn addictive to the point that it’s the last thing you do when you go to bed and the first thing you do when you wake up?
Well, we have the answers.
We sent Dr. Celine Kelso, at the School of Chemistry and Molecular BioScience at The University of Wollongong, three of the most popular vapes on the market – an IGet XXL (Kiwi Ice), an IGet King (Passionfruit, Pineapple and Cranberry ICE) and a Gunpod (Wildberry) – to test the make-up of what you’re actually inhaling.
Purchased from a local convenience store – no, you don’t have to get into a car with a stranger to buy them off the black market – the total for three came to about $85 (depending on where you go, the prices will differ).
We packaged them up, sent them off, and got back the results.
Firstly, Dr. Kelso says, the device needs to be cracked open to get to the core of the device that has the liquid in it. Inside each vape there’s a battery covered with cotton padding (so it doesn’t move around inside the vape) which is attached to a coil and a sensor that activate the coil when drawing on the device. The coil in inserted into the pod that contains the e-liquid, the whole assembly being located just before the mouthpiece.
To test the liquid, it’s diluted with solvent so they can run an analysis of it.
“The results say that all samples are made up of liquid containing Vegetable Glycerine and Propylene Glycol, and the ratios of each can vary depending on the manufacturer,” Dr Kelso told VICE.
Both chemicals have a big role to play in how much “vape cloud” is created.
“Most of the samples that we test we’ve found between 70% to 30% of one to the opposite, to 70% to 30% the other way,” she said. “The percentage of each will affect the amount of vapour (that is in fact an aerosol) that’s created when vaping. So, if you have a lot of Vegetable Glycerin, you will get a big cloud. If you have less of the Vegetable Glycerin, you’ll have a little cloud, which means that the rest of the percentage is made of Propylene Glycol.”
Though research is still at its infancy on how Vegetable Glycerine and Propylene Glycol impact the body, one study found that inhaling both can lead to lung inflammation.
However, Dr Kelso says that the health consequences of long-term exposure to these chemicals from e-cigarettes has not been investigated, and they are likely not the most harmful ingredients involved while inhaling.
“Exposure to some flavours (banned ones) would be more harmful. Also, some other compounds are formed in low quantities during the vaping process (aldehydes) which are more toxic.”
THE SWEET FLAVOURING AND COOLANTS
The next ingredient was the flavouring.
Dr Kelso’s lab is continuously extending its library and can test today for around 40 flavours, with each flavour made of a distinct chemical compound. Depending on what flavour is advertised on the packet there’ll be a number of compounds that make up one flavour.
The IGet XXL Kiwi ice contained 8 distinct chemical compounds to create the Kiwi flavour: Ethyl Butanoate (fruity, pineapple), Cix-3-hexene-1-ol (green, grassy), Benzyl Alcohol (cherry, floral), Menthol (mint), Ethyl Maltol (sweet, caramel, candy), Methyl Cinnamate (cinnamon, spicy), Vanillin (vanilla) and g-undecalactone (fatty,creamy).
Depending on how much of each flavour compound is added to the vape, the intensity will vary. In our results, the IGet King was found to have more flavouring than both its adversaries, which means it would likely have a stronger, more intense, taste.
While the IGet XXL and Gunpod had around 0.5-11 milligram per millilitre of each corresponding flavour, the IGet King had anywhere between 0.5 to 87 mg per ml.
“In terms of the flavouring used in there, it’s common flavouring. So you’d find it in typical lozenges, candy and in other kinds of commonly consumed compounds,” says Dr Kelso.
“But those are meant to be ingested – eating them. There’s very little data in terms of the adverse effects of those compounds when they’re inhaled.”
All three vapes she tested also had around the same level of coolants – which is a chemical added to counteract the throat hit felt during vaping of high concentrations of nicotine. While both IGets contained the coolants WS-23 and WS-3, the gunpod only had WS-3. Though little is known about the risk of synthetic cooling agents, they’ve regularly been reported to present risk to the organs of humans and animals.
“Cooling agents are widely used in foods, medicines, and tobaccos. Although coolants like WS-3 and WS-23 are regulated by the FDA as food additives, but not for inhalation,” says Dr Kelso.
“Only a few studies have tested the inhalation of these compounds and long-term inhalation of these coolant are unknown.”
When it came to the major difference between all three vapes, chemical-wise, Dr Kelso says there were none. All had Vegetable Glycerin and Propylene Glycol as the base. Each had legal flavourings distinct to what flavour the vape had advertised on the packet. And each had around the same levels of nicotine per ml.
SO HOW MUCH NICOTINE IS IN EACH VAPE?
Dr Kelso’s results show that the nicotine levels in each vape are pretty much the same. The IGet XXL had 43.6 milligrams per millimetre. The IGet King had 39.1 milligram per ml and the Gunpod had 44.7 milligram per ml.
To see how much nicotine each vape has individually, that number needs to be multiplied by the amount of millilitres in the whole vape.
So, according to calculations, the IGet XXL would have 305.1 mg of nicotine. The IGet King would have 332.6 mg of nicotine and the Gunpod has 357.7 mg. That means Gunpod would take the crown when it comes to the most nicotine in the least amount of liquid.
But how much is that in comparison to a cigarette?
“There can be anywhere from 8 milligrams to 20 milligrams of nicotine found in a single cigarette, with the average amount being around 12 milligrams,” says Dr Kelso.
“However, when smoking a cigarette, not every mg of nicotine is inhaled as it burns. The average quantity of nicotine inhaled is about 1.1-1.8 mg of nicotine per cigarette. This means that for a pack of 20 cigarettes, you’ll likely inhale 22 to 36 mg of nicotine.”
If each cigarette had 12 mg’s of nicotine, that would mean that one full Gunpod is the equivalent of almost 30 cigarettes. But since you are actually only inhaling 1.1 – 1.8mg per cigarette, the amount of nicotine you’d get from one puff of a vape could be somewhat higher.
Ultimately though, it’s difficult to figure out the amount actually inhaled in one puff of a vape because no one is really sure how many puffs are in a vape. Sure, they advertise as having thousands, but do they really?
Nicotine intake can also depend on how long someone draws on a vape, or how often. According to Dr Kelso, calculating the actual amount of nicotine each person inhales is highly dependent on their vaping habit and would only be possible through an extensive subject survey.
WHAT’S WORSE FOR YOU?
There’s been a lot of debate around whether cigarettes or vapes are more harmful for you. While, obviously, neither are beneficial to your health – Dr Kelso’s view is that vapes are “less harmful” compared to smoking because they contain less harmful chemicals.
“It’s well known that there are a lot of other chemicals, other than the flavour and the nicotine, that you’re inhaling when you smoke a cigarette. So vaping is bad but it’s less harmful than an actual combustible cigarette.”
Though that’s the case, Dr Kelso says that there’s still much debate around whether vaping is an effective alternative to smoking when trying to quit.
WHAT’S THAT METAL FLAVOUR WHEN YOU GET TO THE END?
So you’re at the end of your vape and it starts to taste a bit funny. Like it’s burning, like you’re inhaling metal.
There’s rumours that it’s the battery liquid seeping into the remnants of the vape – but that is a myth. Instead, that nasty metal taste is the coil overheating.
“It’s not from the battery,” says Dr Kelso.
“The coil, which is made out of metal, starts to heat up and cause scorching of the material that contains the liquid. Once the liquid is no longer there, then the cooling action of the liquid on the coil is no longer happening. So you’ll get that taste.”