What exactly is in my eLiquid?

The vaping community needs a bit of intellectual honesty.Isoamyl_acetate

As a group, we take a pretty serious approach to what we are doing, but tend to be less… well we tend to over simplify what vaping is when we talk to other people about vaping. This is leading to lies by omission, and the spreading of bad information.

My big beef with the vaping community as a whole right now is the answer I see virtually 99% of the time to the question this article poses. Ask any vaper you know, go into a B&M, hell call a eLiquid vendor and ask that. If that person has educated themselves at all about vaping you’re going ot hear some variant of this:

  • Propylene Glycol
  • Vegetable Glycerine
  • Nicotine (if it has nicotine in it)
  • GRAS Food Flavorings

Technically that is true, but it’s not the whole truth (I have been guilty of making that statement). It starts to fall apart when you start hearing things like this:

Vaping is better than cigarettes because there are only four things in the eLiquid, not over 4000 chemicals like with smoking.

I pulled that comment from a thread on a popular vaping board. I see and hear this statement, or slight variations of it all the time, and it’s just not true, exactly. There may well be thousands of chemicals in your eLiquid. Maybe even more than are in cigarettes. It would be virtually impossible to determine an exact count (well at least without some extreme assistance from the actual flavor manufacturers and the vendor you bought it from), but we can pretty well guarantee that the real honest answer isn’t four.

Chemical count has nothing to do with how good or bad something is for you. It comes down to what specifically you are putting in your body, and how that will effect you both now, and in the years and decades to come.

So the first three things are good to go. There is a ton of research about them, and a lot of it even covers inhalation. The “food flavorings” is the part that leads to issues.

GRAS Food Flavorings

“GRAS” is an acronym for the phrase Generally Recognized As Safe. Under sections 201(s) and 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, any substance that is intentionally added to food is a food additive, that is subject to premarket review and approval by FDA, unless the substance is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use, or unless the use of the substance is otherwise excluded from the definition of a food additive.

Nearly all of the “food flavorings” used in eLiquids are GRAS designated by the FDA. I only say ‘nearly all’ because I do not know that absolutely every single one is GRAS designated. There is nothing preventing a vendor from putting things that are not GRAS in their eLiquid (the vast majority will not do that though as I’m pretty sure that is the single fastest way to get shunned by the entire vaping community).

The problem is this tricky bit right here:

…generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use

Emphasis mine. So while these things have been designated as GRAS by the FDA, that is only in relation to their use in food and beverages. No research has really been done on their safety when aerosolized and inhaled at concentration. To be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean that these things are bad for you. Or that they are good or benign. We simply do not know. We can make some assumptions, and we can deduce things, and there is even some preliminary research that shows that at worst, vaping is still better for you than smoking. But there are a few things that are designated as GRAS that we know are very bad to heat and inhale.

While good information to have, this still doesn’t really cover the question; what is in the GRAS Food Flavorings that we are vaping?

Pass the ether! Wait, what’s an ester?Ester-general

At the heart of flavorings used in vaping is the problematic fact that we cannot just use fruit extracts because they contain too much sugar. Sugar burns at the temperatures we vape at, and this can be pretty bad for your health. Ever have an eLiquid that instantly gunks up your coils and dry hits then feel like you just inhaled sulfuric acid (not that any dry hit is any kind of pleasant)? That’s what sugar does. Luckily, the food industry has already solved this tricky little problem using esters.

If you really want to know all about esters, read this. For the rest of us that don’t really care about the science behind the thing, esters are essentially (usually) alcohol based molecules that have a scent or taste that we humans associate with some fruit or flavor.

The ester called isoamyl acetate tastes something approximately like banana, so a human may say “gee that kinda tastes like banana.” To get closer to that banana taste, other esters are added in the correct proportions. This can be done through trial and error or by chemical analysis of the actual banana (isoamyl acetate does naturally occur in bananas). Some flavors require hundreds of esters to get to the point where a human would taste it and say “hey that is banana!”

The nice thing about this is that someone actually knows exactly what went into that flavor cocktail; there is a formula for it somewhere. Unfortunately, getting that list of ingredients will be just about impossible, as there is big money to be made in the flavoring world and formulae are closely guarded trade secrets.

So when an eLiquid vendor (or a DIYer) sits down to mix up a bottle of strawberry banana flavored eLiquid, they aren’t just mixing a couple of chemicals, they are actually combining several hundred and possibly several thousand chemicals to produce something that approximates the taste that we know as strawberry banana. now consider something really complex like Five Pawns’ Grandmaster, or The Vapor Chef’s Hobbes Blood, where each individual flavor may be a conglomerate of several manufacturer’s individual flavorings (for instance, when I use peanut butter flavor, I like to combine the peanut better flavor of several vendors into an UBER Peanut Butter), the chemical count can quickly skyrocket.


Diacetyl is the primary thing we know we want to avoid. Some diketones have been shown to contain trace amounts of, or catalyze into trace amounts of diacetyl. The most notable of these are acetoin and acetyl propionyl. These ingredients have been used in, and are currently used in many eLiquids. Diacetyl is a pretty well known hazard among vapers, but is used in some surprising flavors (traditionally diacetyl is associated with buttery or custardy notes, but one flavor vendor was using it in raspberry flavoring).

In the last couple of years many of the food flavoring vendors have reduced or eliminated their use of diacetyl, but many are likely unaware that some diketones can contain trace amounts of diacetyl (or don’t care because at those concentrations diacetyl is fine in food).

Diketones are suspect because they can contain trace amounts of diacetyl (it’s not a certain thing that they will). Vaping is relatively new, and as such there are risks involved. Each person must determine what risks they are willing to take. Some people are fine with diacetyl being an actual ingredient in their eLiquid, some want nothing to do with anything that might contain the tiniest amount of diacetyl. This is an individual choice.

The real issue for us vapers is that no one is making flavorings specifically for use in vaping, yet. That I am aware of, there are only two flavor manufacturers that are actually testing their product for trace amounts of diacetyl. Even worse, there are other flavor vendors who are actively claiming that their flavors do not contain diacetyl or diketones, but independent testing has shown that some of those flavors do in fact contain these potentially harmful ingredients.

There have been statements from a couple of flavor manufacturers that they are working on flavoring lines specifically for use in vaping. As of today, only FlavorArt out of Italy is producing test results showing that some of their flavorings are actually proven to be diacetyl free.

The Flavor Apprentice (TFA/TPA) was one of the first flavor vendors to do some research about diacetyl and diketones, and has made a good effort to note which of their flavors may contain any diketones (they don’t use diacetyl).

This is the kind of intellectual honesty that we need to have as vapers, if we want to be able to counter all of the bullshit that is put out about vaping by the ANTZ.

The truth is that we don’t know that vaping is 100% safe. We don’t know precisely what is in the eLiquid that we are vaping.

We do know that we aren’t smoking, that there is preliminary research that shows that vaping is incredibly less harmful than smoking, and that there are ingredients that can be used in eLiquid that we must watch out for.

The quickest way to lose credibility is to be caught in a lie. Only slightly less of an offense is to be caught telling half truths, or basing your arguments on inaccurate data. I see vapers do this all the time, and thankfully no one arguing against them has had the intelligence or knowledge to exploit it. Yet. We should stop while we are ahead.

There is actually an incredible amount of information about vaping out there for the finding, we just need to learn it and pass it around the community.

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5 thoughts on “What exactly is in my eLiquid?

  1. Appreciate this was written 2 years ago and I’m late to the party but this is by far the best and most detailed article I’ve read on eliquid contents. I hope you don’t mind if I reference your page in a blog post I’m writing for my own site soon.

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