What Exactly is E Liquid, and is it Safe?

What Exactly is E Liquid, and is it Safe?

What Exactly is E Liquid, and is it Safe?

Is E Liquid Safe?

Vaping has been around for a long time now and has seen a huge increase over the last five years.  As of May 2016, an estimated 2.8 million people vape in the UK, which is an increase of over 2 million since 2012.  In the United States it was estimated in 2015 that up to 4.2 million people used e cigarettes exclusively and have quit smoking tobacco altogether. Compare this to the 40 million that still smoke though, and it’s clear there’s still a long way to go for vaping to catch up.


The NHS and the Royal Physicians of Surgeons are both strong advocates of vaping as a gateway out of smoking. The NHS carried out an independent study that found e cigarettes to be 95% less harmful than tobacco. The House of Lords had a deep discussion about e cigarettes and some members strongly recommended tobacco smokers switch over to e cigarettes.

There’s over 4000 chemicals in a standard cigarette, and most of them are toxic. Some are considered deadly such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, and DDT. It’s estimated around 6 million people die every year from smoking related illnesses, with 100,000 dying in the UK alone. According to ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), smoking costs the UK £13.9 billion per year in sickness, premature death and social care. If that isn’t bad enough the tobacco industry also has a severe negative environmental impact. Tobacco farming destroys more than 500,000 acres of forest per year.

When all the facts are considered it’s clear that smoking is a huge global problem. Cigarettes were designed to be as addictive as possible so that big tobacco companies can make huge profits. It’s estimated almost 20% of the world’s population smoke. The reason people smoke is because they’re addicted, and for most people it’s extremely difficult to quit.

In the UK and worldwide governments have been trying to fight the causes of smoking. This went from putting warning labels on packets (including graphic photos of diseased lungs and people dying), to advertisement bans, to hiding cigarettes behind shutters, and in 2016 to making all packaging the same. The facts of the matter are that all this effort over the last 30 plus years hasn’t made any significant reduction in the number of people who smoke.

E cigarettes have done more for smoking cessation than all other efforts combined.

The rise in e cigarettes has been a phenomenon. There hasn’t been a significant global study on e cigarettes, but with almost 3 million vapers in the UK it’s clear that people are deciding for themselves that vaping is safer, cleaner and cheaper than smoking cigarettes.

With e cigarette use rising so rapidly, in 2014 the EU decided there needed to be some regulation on the market. They introduced the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), which came into effect on May 20th 2016. The TPD has an impact in all areas of vaping for consumers, manufacturers and retailers. It restricts things like advertising and tank sizes, as well as putting a nicotine limit on e liquid. One of the most welcomed parts of the ruling, and one that is going to cause possibly the biggest changes and controversy, is that all e liquid manufacturers need to have a full list of ingredients submitted for approval.

Until now we’ve had a rough idea what ingredients have gone into our e liquid, but with so many manufacturers creating new flavours it’s been impossible to know exactly what we’re vaping.

E Liquid Ingredients

The three main ingredients that go into e liquid are Propylene Glycol (PG), Vegetable Glycerine (VG) and Nicotine.

Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol is an organic compound used in food processing and has the E-number E1520. It’s an approved pharmaceutical product and used in lots of products from inhalers to beauty products and orally digested pharmaceuticals. It’s classified by the FDA as ‘generally recognised as safe’ for use as a direct food additive. It has been thoroughly tested in lab conditions by a number of eminent scientists and been proven that ‘air containing these vapours in amounts up to saturation point is completely harmless’.

Vegetable Glycerine

Vegetable Glycerine is a simple polyol (sugar alcohol) compound which is colourless, odourless and widely used in pharmaceutical formulations. It’s essentially a vegetable product and is a ‘non-toxic’ substance deemed safe to use. It’s used in many food products and as a sugar substitute.


Nicotine is a highly toxic chemical and can be considered the most toxic chemical in e liquid. The TPD rules that e liquid should contain no more than 20mg of nicotine. Many brands now are restricting their nicotine levels to 10mg, but we have seen strengths up to 36mg. E liquids are usually always offered with varying degrees of nicotine, ranging from 0mg up to 20mg, and it’s at the user’s discretion which nicotine level they prefer. The reason why e cigarettes are favoured by people wishing to quit smoking tobacco is because they can regulate their nicotine intake, and even gradually reduce their intake down to zero.

Propylene Glycol and Vegetable Glycerine are classed as safe to vape and there can be no arguments about their toxicity. Where things start to get a bit murky is when flavourings are added.

The e liquid industry is extremely competitive, and gets more competitive year on year. Manufacturers are constantly working on new, exotic flavours that will help their brand stand out among the competition. It’s almost impossible to say in the current state of the market exactly how many e liquid flavours there are, because in theory e liquid is so easy to make. There are people, companies and brands making their own flavours all around the world. There are literally hundreds of recognised brands, each with multiple flavours, and when you take into account the unrecognised brands on a national/international level, there must be thousands, if not tens of thousands of flavours in existence.

This is where the EU wants to get tough, and make the manufacture of e liquid much more regulated and transparent.

Food Flavouring

One of the biggest winners in the e liquid industry are the food flavouring companies. They now find themselves in high demand to create exotic flavours designed purely for vaping. Over the years we’ve seen a huge gamut of flavours ranging from custard, to sticky toffee pudding, to even mojitos and whiskey. The problem for the EU, and for vapers is we don’t know exactly what is going into these flavours and whether they’re safe to vape.


Some e liquid flavours contain Diacetyl, which is a naturally occurring chemical found in apples, artichokes, beans, butter, coffee, dairy, fruits, honey, tobacco and vinegar. The problem with Diacetyl it has been reported to cause ‘popcorn lung’ when inhaled. A man from Colorado named Wayne Watson won a $7 million lawsuit in 2012 after he was diagnosed with respiratory problems through years of inhaling the smell of artificial butter.  So it stands to reason that people are worried about inhaling Diacetyl through their e cigarettes.


Acetoin, also known as 3-hydroxybutanone or acetyl methyl carbinol, is a colourless or pale yellow to green yellow liquid with a pleasant, buttery odour. It’s a similar compound to Diacetyl and can be found in some e liquid flavours. There has been no direct evidence of it causing lung disease like Diacetyl, but as a similar compound the risks are generally considered the same.


Acetylpropionyl, also known as acetyl propionyl or 2,3-pentanedione, is an organic compound, and more specifically a diketone. It is a structural isomer of acetylacetone and has been known to have been used in some e liquid flavours. Like Acetoin there has been no direct evidence of harm to humans, but in a study on animals it was found to cause respiratory tract epithelial damage and fibrosis to lungs.

Diacetyl, Acetoin and Acetylpropionyl are not essential ingredients in e liquid and are only used to produce certain flavours. Having a list of ingredients on the side of each e liquid bottle will help consumers decide for themselves if they really like that flavour enough to risk vaping some of the ingredients that are deemed less safe.

Unethical Practise by Food Flavouring Companies

The problem with the food flavouring industry is, as competition heats up, it’s open to less than ethical practise by chemists. It’s relatively easy to take a chemical like Diacetyl, change a molecule and name it something else. So if a manufacturer really needs Diacetyl to produce a smooth buttery flavour, but is worried it will put consumers off, they can just put pressure on the food flavouring company to create a Diacetyl like compound and call it something else.

This could open a door to a whole new wave of controversy in the future and offer manufacturers a way around having to list chemicals like Diacetyl on their packaging.


Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical found in tobacco. There was a huge media stir in 2015 when Formaldehyde was found to be discovered in e liquid. On closer examination the chemicals found were Formaldehyde Hemiacetals, which are different to the Formaldehyde found in tobacco. It was discovered that when the vaper is turned to a very high voltage and continues until the e liquid is dry and burned, then Formaldehyde Hemiacetals can form. At lower voltages, no Hemiacetals were found. There is no restriction on the number of volts used on an e cigarette, but maybe in the future information on Formaldehyde Hemiacetals will need to be added to the packaging.

Safety Concerns with E Liquid

The fact of the matter is vaping e liquid is not 100% safe. But then neither is eating or drinking. If you get into chemical compounds that are bad for your health, then there are hundreds contained within artificial food and drink flavours. No one has ever claimed that vaping is safe, or good for your health. But the argument among smokers is that switching to vaping is a lot safer than tobacco.

Tobacco is proven to be a killer, but e cigarettes are suspected (in some quarters) to be bad for your health. It’ll probably take 10 years or more to get real conclusive data of how e cigarettes affect your health, but for now most scientists will agree that vaping is considerably better for your health than smoking.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the new rules regarding e liquid really settle on the industry. Retailers and manufacturers have 12 months from May 20th 2016 to sell their remaining stock, and after that date all products will need to comply with the new regulations.

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