The safety of electronic cigarettes is still an open question, since no rigorous and conclusive scientific studies have been done on their long-term use. That leaves people to make their own decisions, at least for now. And the only way to think intuitively about the safety of e-cigarettes is to look at what’s in them – and more specifically, what’s in e-liquid, which is used to create the vapor that’s inhaled.
What’s In E-Liquid
The primary ingredient in the production of e-cigarette vapor is a solution, called e-liquid. It usually contains some level of nicotine. Electronic cigarettes have a wick which extends into the solution and leads to a heating element known as the coil. When the e-cig is activated the coil warms the e-liquid solution, creating vapor.
E-liquid is a combination of several ingredients, with either propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin (VG), or polyethylene glycol 400 (PEG 400) as the base. Additives in the solution add flavor. While the exact contents vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, here’s what’s most commonly inside.
Glycol or Glycerine Compounds
90 percent of most e-liquid is propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, or PEG 400. Each of these products is approved for use through by the FDA in products such as injectable drugs, oral hygiene products, and pharmaceuticals. It is also used as a food additive (under the name E1520). The substance has no smell, no color, and has a sweet taste to it. It also has a low or non-existant level of toxicity. Through the last few decades, products using PG, VG and PEG 400 have been extensively tested and have not shown any cancer-causing properties. They don’t even cause skin sensitivity.That isn’t enough to definitively conclude that the primary ingredient in e-liquid is “safe,” but it’s certainly a good sign.
Nicotine is found in most e-liquid. It is actually not a chemical, but rather a natural product produced in the leaves of the tobacco plant, which stops insects from eating the leaves. When a mammal ingests nicotine it creates a stimulant effect. There’s actually very little nicotine in e-liquid (or in tobacco cigarettes, for that matter), only about one milligram. However it does create a dependency in users, and is the ingredient that create the continued desire to smoke.
In terms of nicotine’s toxicity, we do know that it is far from the worst component of the traditional cigarette. Experts agree that it is not as bad for you as many other chemical-based products in tobacco cigarettes. Nevertheless, it does have some negative effects in people, including an increase in adrenaline release which can cause rapid heartbeat, an increase in blood pressure, and a slowing of the release of insulin into the bloodstream (which can lead to or contribute to the development of diabetes). It can also cause shallow, rapid breathing, and has been linked to high cholesterol in some users. Finally, it can cause the burning of calories at a faster rate than normal.
Manufacturers also add flavoring agents to the e-liquid, since nicotine itself does not have much of a flavor. In fact, during the nicotine distillation process, tobacco flavor is virtually removed from the nicotine used in an e-cigarette. That leaves an empty palette for manufacturers to add taste to their products. Additives are used to give e-cigs flavors similar to tobacco or menthol, or novelty flavors such as vanilla, strawberry, coffee or pina colada.
As for the health risks associated with e-liquid flavors, there’s been no real scientific study on the subject. There are said to be no known risk factors associated with these flavorings, according to manufacturers, but they do not provide a full list of their flavoring agents, just as cigarette manufacturers do not release a list of ingredients. The companies claim that there’s basically no difference between adding flavoring to an e-cig and adding it to a bakery product. But this cannot be definitively confirmed, however, without more research.
The Traditional Cigarette
Continuing with our intuitive approach to e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes, let’s take a look at what’s inside traditional cigarettes. The American Lung Association says that cigarettes have more than 600 ingredients, with more than 4000 chemicals present. Studies have shown that fifty of those ingredients are known to cause cancer, including acetic acid, ammonia, tar, carbon monoxide and acetone. None of them, however, have been found to be present in electronic cigarettes. Again, there are no definitive scientific studies showing that e-cigs are safe – but you can draw your own conclusions about the relative safety of each product.
One Other Fact
The United States government does not test e-liquid, most of which is manufactured in China where manufacturing standards are not as stringent as they are in America. Some American manufacturers of e-cigarettes have decided to sell only e-liquid made in the US; whether that’s for safety reasons or marketing reasons, only the companies know. Either way, at this point there are no documented cases of health issues associated with the use of e-liquid from either country.