Freebase Nicotine or Nicotine Salts: A Vaper’s Guide to Picking the Best Booster

Last fact-checked 15 January 2021 | Report a factual error on this article

If, like us, you didn’t study chemistry in school, you might be confused about the difference between nicotine salts and freebase nicotine in shortfill e-liquid. There’s a lot of technical detail out there explaining the differences between the two chemicals, but most of us just need to know which type of nicotine booster is going to work best for us when we vape it. 

In this handy layman’s guide to nicotine boosters, we’ll give you a very brief overview of how the two chemicals differ, then we’ll walk you through the pros and cons of both salts and freebase nicotine so that you know which booster is best for you. 

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Nicotine Salts or Freebase Nicotine: What’s the Difference?

There are two types of nicotine booster you can add to e-liquid. Both are a ‘modified’ form of nicotine, and either will help you manage your cravings. You can either add freebase nicotine, the oldest and most popular type of nicotine booster, or you can add nicotine salts — a much newer type of nicotine booster...

Freebase Nicotine

Freebase nicotine delivers a good dose of nicotine to the bloodstream and it’s easy to measure, which is great for new vapers. If you were a heavy smoker it might not be right for you, because it can be harsh on your airways if you vape too much of it.

Up until a few short years ago, all nicotine boosters were made with freebase nicotine. Freebase nicotine was invented in the 1960’s, when the makers of Marlboro cigarettes found out that if they added ammonia to their product recipe, smokers would get a much stronger kick of nicotine out of each cigarette footnote 1

Freebase nicotine contains ammonia, and this ammonia can irritate your nose and throat and make you cough when you inhale it footnote 2. This harshness is a problem for heavy smokers trying to quit tobacco. If the nicotine booster in your e-liquid gives you a sore throat, you’re less likely to be able to quit successfully because you won’t be getting the nicotine hit your body craves from your vape device — you’ll have to fight hard to resist the urge of a cigarette. 

Nicotine Salt

Nicotine salts are a recent innovation. This new type of nicotine booster delivers a faster, stronger nicotine kick than freebase nicotine. Basically, by adding something called benzoic acid to nicotine, it becomes much easier for a vaper’s body to absorb that nicotine. This means that vapers who use nicotine salt can relieve their cravings quickly. Nicotine salt  also offers a very smooth vaping experience. There’s no ammonia in nicotine salt, so you don’t get the throat and nose irritation you would expect from a freebase nicotine booster. 

Nicotine salts started to go mainstream in 2015 when Pax Labs, a US-based e-cigarette manufacturer, announced their Juul pod system. Pax Labs tested the Juul (which used nicotine salts) against traditional e-liquids (which used freebase nicotine), and found that the amount of nicotine in a vaper’s bloodstream remained higher, for longer, with nicotine salt. 

The chart below (source: TechCrunch) shows PAX’s original findings in 2015. The orange line shows blood nicotine levels in someone who had just smoked a normal cigarette, and the pink line shows blood nicotine levels in someone who had just vaped the a nicotine salt based Juul e-liquid:


As you can see, nicotine salt offers a ‘closer match’ to a traditional cigarette when it comes to how much nicotine ends up floating around your bloodstream. 

You might think that, based on these stats, nicotine salts would make freebase nicotine obsolete, but it’s not as simple as that. 

What do most vapers buy: nic salt or freebase nicotine?

Freebase nicotine is still the most popular choice of nicotine booster in the UK. We took a look at our sales figures for the first 6 months of this year (2020) and the two years prior (2019 and 2018). Out of the top 5 best-selling nicotine boosters, only one uses nicotine salt — the other four use freebase nicotine footnote 3. Here are the rankings:


The UK’s Top 5 Best Selling Nicotine Boosters

Product Name H1 2020 Ranking H1 2019 Ranking H1 2018 Ranking
Just Nic It High VG Nicotine Booster 1 1 2
Cool Shot Menthol Nicotine Booster 2 3 4
Nic Nic Nicotine Booster 3 2 1
Plusnic Nicotine Booster by Simple Vape Co. 4 5 3
Nic Salt Nicotine Booster by Just Nic It 5 4 N/A

 

As you can see, only one of the top five best-selling boosters uses nicotine salt as its main ingredient. This is surprising, given that nicotine salts are smoother on the throat and deliver a stronger nicotine hit.

We’ve done some research into this, and there are a few reasons why we think nicotine salts don’t have a bigger share of the UK market:

    1. Habit: once a customer finds a nicotine booster that works for them, they’re unlikely to try an alternative unless they have to
    2. Volume: because the human body is better at absorbing nicotine from nicotine salt than it is from freebase nicotine, you need much less of it to satisfy a craving. This means that a nicotine salt bottle just lasts longer
    3. Stability: Nicotine salts don’t oxidise as quickly as freebase nicotine, so you can store them for a long time without needing to replace them
    4. Control: it’s easier to measure your dose with freebase nicotine (see our handy nicotine calculation guide here), and it makes you cough if you try to inhale too much of it. Both handy and practical ways to control your nicotine intake! 

Health warning: Nicotine is a highly addictive substance

We recommend that, unless you’re trying to quit tobacco, ou should avoid adding nicotine to your vape juice. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance — it’s what makes quitting smoking so hard for so many of us — and there’s no good reason to add it to your e-liquid if you’re not already addicted. 

If you are trying to quit cigarettes, your best chance of success lies with Your Local NHS Stop Smoking Service. When you combine nicotine replacement, like vaping or patches, with expert support from a trained professional, you give yourself the very best chance of success (you can find out more about quitting with the support of the NHS here).

Nicotine Booster Strengths in the UK versus the USA

There’s one more thing we need to point out: nicotine boosters sold in the UK are very different to ones sold in the USA or other jurisdictions. 

The UK’s e-cigarette laws (which you can learn more about here) put a limit on how much nicotine your e-liquid can have. In the UK, the limit is 20 mg of nicotine. In the USA, it’s not uncommon to see nicotine strengths of 50 mg or more. 

There’s a massive difference here, and it has a huge impact on your vaping experience. You’ve got to bear this in mind when you’re doing your research on nicotine boosters. Reports from an American vaping website won’t necessarily tie up with the experience you’ll have using nicotine salts here in Britain, because the vape juice here in Britain is fundamentally different.

That’s it! I hope we’ve given you a simple, un-scientific guide to the two types of nicotine booster. If you need more advice on nicotine salts versus freebase nicotine, just get in touch with us. We’ll be happy to help you out.


Stay safe and happy vaping!


 - John Boughey


Links & Citations

Footnote 1:

“By the early 1960s, however, Philip Morris had also begun using ammonia to “freebase” the nicotine in cigarette smoke, creating low-yield (reduced-tar or -nicotine) cigarettes that still had the nicotine kick necessary to keep customers “satisfied” (i.e., addicted). We show that Philip Morris discovered the virtues of freebasing while analyzing the impact of the ammoniated recon used in Marlboro cigarettes.” — quote taken from The SECRET and SOUL of Marlboro / Phillip Morris and the Origins, Spread, and Denial of Nicotine Freebasing by Dr Robert Proctor and Terrel Stevenson, first published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2008. See the article at the link below:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2424107/ 

Footnote 2:

“Inhalation of ammonia causes rapid onset of signs and its toxic effects are mediated through its irritant and corrosive properties. Features include irritation to the nose, throat and respiratory tract. Increased lacrimation, coughing, an increased respiratory rate as well as respiratory distress may occur” — quote taken from Public Health England’s Toxicological Overview of Ammonia, which you can read at the link below:
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/455704/Ammonia_TO_PHE_240815.pdf


Footnote 3:

These stats are based on our UK sales figures between 1 January 2020 and 30 June 2020 inclusive. Products are ordered based on sales quantity, with the most popular nicotine booster at the top. Price has not been considered. Position 5 in H2 2018 was held by a different nicotine salt based booster. Explore our full range of nicotine boosters at https://www.gourmeteliquid.co.uk/collections/nicotine-boosters 

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