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What Is E-Liquid Anyways?

One of the first questions I get asked about using electronic cigarettes is what,exactly, is e-liquid. That’s a tough question to answer, not because the list of ingredients is very long, but because each juice is different in its composition of those ingredients, and the instant most people hear the word “chemical” they automatically correlate it with “toxic.” In this guide, I’ll tell you just what’s in the e-liquid we vaporize and inhale, along with a brief synopsis of their historical uses.

The first thing to note with e-liquid is that the vast majority of them use just 4 ingredients: Propylene Glycol (PG), Vegetable Glycerin (VG), Nicotine, and various flavor concentrates. All of these ingredients have been used for decades in other ingestible products, and at least one of them, PG, has been approved for use in vaporized form for airborne hospital disinfectants since 1950. Why many e-liquid producers are reluctant to give out specific information on which ingredients they’re using, and why there seems to be so much confusion as to what makes e-liquid, is simple: they don’t want other e-liquid makers or at-home do-it-yourself types to copy their flavors. This is understandable from a business point-of-view, but the lack of clear information puts many consumers on edge. In fact, most of the questions of commercial e-liquid mixologists come from people who simply want to know what we’re putting in our bodies. Here’s the list:

Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol (PG) is a chemical that’s been used in various forms for many decades, many of which are in solutions designed to be directly ingested by humans. It’s also been used in vaporized form not unlike the ways we ingest it via electronic cigarettes since (at least) 1950 as a disinfectant in hospitals and restaurants, and in theatrical fog machines. In fact, PG is something that most of us have been consuming our entire lives. Ice cream, popsicles, soda, and virtually everything else that contains artificial flavors has PG in it. It is classified by the FDA as a GRAS product which simply means that it is Generally Recognized as Safe. In over 60 years of studying PG, it has only been found to be toxic to humans when ingested at very high levels (intravenously in most cases) over very short periods of time. In e-liquid PG is used as a “base” liquid which carries the nicotine and flavor concentrates in solution. PG is associated with “throat hit” and, since it’s virtually flavorless in its raw form, is generally considered ideal for flavor junkies because it carries flavor so well.

Vegetable Glycerin

Vegetable Glycerin (or glycerin) is also a chemical that has been used widely in both the food and pharmaceutical industries for many decades dating back to at least the 1930s. Like PG, VG generally acts as a base chemical that “carries” active ingredients like flavors or medications. Also like PG, VG is something that virtually all of us have been consuming our entire lives. Besides being used in food and medications, it’s common in soaps, cough syrups, toothpaste, lotions, and various other health care products. Though VG is a close cousin of the extremely toxic diethylene glycol, it is not considered toxic unless ingested in extremely high quantities in very short periods of time. VG is also used in e-liquid as a “base” that carries flavor concentrates and nicotine in solution. It has a slightly sweet taste in its raw form, and is often used by e-liquid mixologists, rather than (or in addition to) PG, because they can avoid using artificial sweeteners. It’s also highly sought after by “cloud chasers” because VG is more viscous than PG and helps creates much thicker, more dense clouds of vapor. Most cloud chasers seek e-liquids that use “max VG.”


Nicotine is the most self explanatory ingredient in e-liquid. By virtue of being ex-smokers, it’s what we’re most familiar with, and what we crave. It’s the reason why using electronic cigarettes is so effective in helping smokers quit smoking. Though nicotine is considered toxic, one would have to drink e-liquid in high amounts in its pure form in order to experience any adverse effects beyond nausea. Contrary to what we might have heard in the media of late, nicotine is NOT toxic at the levels we vape. Many consider it healthy when taken in small doses, as it stimulates brain function. It is also believed to be effective in alleviating some of the symptoms of alzheimer’s disease, treating depression, and various other maladies. When taken in small doses, it’s not considered any more harmful than caffeine.

Concentrated Flavoring

Concentrated flavoring is exactly what is sounds like. The flavors used in e-liquid are exactly the same as those used in the things that we eat and drink every day. Any reputable e-liquid mixologist will be using 100% FDA approved flavors, whether they be natural or artificial flavors, and most make that known to their customers. Because they are so concentrated, however, they are generally in a solution of PG (which is one of the main reasons why very few e-liquids can be considered 100% VG), and is generally anywhere between 5% and 20% of the final e-liquid solution.

Other Stuff

A very few boutique e-liquid companies use other chemicals in their liquid, but these are niche and few and far between. Virgin Vapor, for instance, uses “certified organic” VG and “organic ethyl alcohol” as a base for their flavoring and nicotine in order to market their e-liquid to those who would rather buy organic or PG-free e-liquid. These chemicals are also considered safe and are in use in a variety of organic foods.

The next time you look at an e-liquid label, now you’ll know what you’re looking at, and you can feel good that you know exactly what’s in it and that none of it is anything like the “bottles of poison” that so many in the media are labeling e-liquid . This particular bottle contains 80% PG, 20% VG and contains 24mg of nicotine per milliliter. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.