e Cigarettes – What Chemicals are Involved?

Dan Wiggins

by Dan Wiggins

8th July 2015

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) estimates that there are currently 2.6 million adults in Great Britain using e cigarettes, Of these, approximately 1.1 million are ex-smokers while 1.4 million continue to use tobacco alongside their e cigarette use. 

Electronic cigarettes, or e cigarettes are often dubbed as a “healthier & cheaper alternative”. They generally tend to be purchased and consumed by users attempting to either quit smoking, cut down, or as a complete replacement to generic tobacco consumption.

E cigarettes allow users to inhale nicotine through the use of vaporised liquid, which is often flavoured. They do not contain tobacco, which tends to be primary cause of disease and death associated with nicotine use, and according to Cancer Research UK (PDF), e cigarettes are “almost certainly” a much safer way of inhaling nicotine. Everything about e cigarettes seems to be a much better, healthier, cheaper and safer substitute to general cigarettes, but what are the chemicals involved in e cigarettes and how exactly do they work?

How Do e Cigarettes Work?

The user inhales through the mouth piece at one end of the e cigarette, which triggers a sensor that switches on an atomiser, which is a small rechargeable battery powered heater. The liquid from the cartridge is heated to around 55°C, when it reaches this temperature it begins to create an aerosolized vapor. The liquidised nicotine creates a puff of hot gas and reaches the lungs when inhaled, just as normal tobacco smoke. When the user inhales and the atomiser is triggered, a light is activated at the front of the e-cigarette. Once the user exhales a cloud of ‘PEG’ (propylene glycol) vapor dissipates, which is similar to theatrical smoke.


Chemicals in an e Cigarette

Nicotine Cartridges

The liquidised nicotine in an e cigarette cartridge usually consists mostly of carrier solvents, such as glycerol and/or propylene glycol. Averagely, around 95% of the liquid is made up of these solvents, but sometimes users can purchase cartridges with flavorings, which depending on the flavour, would contain various other chemicals. On a VIP ‘Strong’ Original USA Tobacco 24mg, 10ml liquid nicotine container, it states on the label that the product contains 2.4% nicotine per ml.

Vapour & Smoke Exhalation

“Aerosol ‘smoke’ is created from e cigarettes is commonly but inaccurately referred to as ‘vapour'” as stated in an article from Tobacco Control BMJ . When the vapour is released, both the particulate and gas phases are mixtures of chemical substances in e cigarette aerosols. After the user inhales the vapour from the e cigarette into theirlungs, the remaining aerosol or ‘vapour’ is released into the surrounding environment. In a regular cigarette, chemicals such as tar, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen cyanide and ammonia are released into the environment and can be inhaled by passers-by, hence the phrase ‘passive smoking’. Since these chemicals are removed from e cigarettes it could be detbated that passive smoking is not a problem, when the user exhales the vapor in public. However, some studies have suggested that harmful chemicals can be traced and can cause damage, as reported in this article by The Guardian. 

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