Last fact-checked 15 January 2021 | Report a factual error on this article
There’s nothing worse than a burnt hit. Just when you’re expecting a delicious draw of your favourite vape juice, you’re treated to a repulsive burnt taste that fills your mouth and renders your coil unusable.
Burnt hits are horrible ...they’re also completely avoidable. In this week’s article, we’ll explain what’s going on inside your vape when you get a burnt hit, and explain the steps you can take to avoid burnt hits from happening in the first place.
Put simply, a burnt hit is where you take a draw on your e-cigarette and get a cloud of burnt-tasting vapour. Burnt hits happen inside the atomiser part of your vape device, specifically when the heating coil singes the wick. A burnt hit can only happen when there is no e-liquid on your wick for your coil to evaporate. Dry wicks are either caused by an empty e-liquid tank or a blockage in your atomiser (a build-up of gunk, for instance). It's a common problem for new vapers who are still learning how to vape, and it's completely avoidable.
Inside the atomiser part of every vape device, there’s a heating coil and a wick. The wick is made of absorbent material (usually cotton), which draws up a small amount of the vape’s e-liquid and puts it into contact with a heating coil.
When your vape device is activated (in other words, when you push the button or draw on the e-cig), any e-liquid that’s touching that hot coil is vapourised. This evaporated e-liquid is the vapour you’re drawing on when you vape.
If you activate your vape device and your wick is dry, then the heating coil in your atomiser will have nothing to evaporate. Your super-heated dry wicking material will then start to crisp up and eventually burn.
Can e-liquid catch fire or burn?
E-liquid doesn’t burn. Vape juice is literally engineered to evaporate when heated - it’s not flammable, and it won’t catch fire in an e-cigarette. Your choice of vape juice will affect your odds of getting a burnt hit.
If you chain-vape high VG e-liquids, especially some of the sweeter flavours, two things will happen:
- First, high VG e-liquids are less runny than high PG e-liquids (see our VG/PG guide for more info). This means that wicks take longer to absorb high-VG e-liquids, which can increase the likelihood of a wick running dry, especially if you chain-vape.
- Sweet flavoured e-liquids can caramelise on your coil. When your coil gets a thick coating of caramelised e-juice (also known as ‘gunk build-up’), your vape device can’t evaporate the e-liquid properly. You’ll end up firing your e-cigarette more frequently just to get a good draw of vapour, and this in turn increases the risk of dry patches developing on your wick.
You could probably save yourself a few replacement coils if you stick to high PG juices, but for me personally, I love the sweet flavours. A few extra replacement coils per year is worth the sacrifice as far as I’m concerned!
Burnt hits are foul — they completely spoil a vaping session — but they usually only happen after you’ve had a few dry hits.
With a dry hit, you’ll notice that you get a much smaller cloud of vapour than normal. You’ll also struggle to taste the flavour of your e-liquid. This is because the wicking material in your coil isn’t holding enough moisture, so your heating coil can’t evaporate enough e-liquid.
As soon as you get a dry hit, the best thing you can do is stop vaping for a few minutes. You’ll either need to refill your tank or give your wick more time to soak up more e-liquid. If you keep vaping dry hits, the surface of your wick will run out of e-liquid completely, and that’s when you get a burnt hit.
The best way to avoid burnt hits is to avoid dry hits. The three tips we’ve listed below all stop dry hits from happening because they keep your wick well-soaked in e-liquid:
Prime your coils correctly
If you’ve only just added your e-liquid to the vape device, the e-liquid probably won't’ have soaked through the wicking material yet. You can give your atomiser a head-start by dripping a few drops of vape juice directly onto your coil. This won’t work for every device (some pod systems make it impossible to get anywhere near the coil), but it can get the ball rolling for most of us.
Wait a few minutes
You would be amazed at the difference just waiting a few minutes between puffs can make. Try to put your vape down for a few minutes and give the e-liquid a fair chance to fully soak through to the heating coil. Your patience will be rewarded with a full, rounded mouthful of delicious vapour.
Adjust the power and temperature settings
If your box mod has adjustable wattage and temperature settings, try dialling back both settings slightly. Your coil will vapourise less juice at the lower settings, which will help your coil to stay moist. You’ll get smaller vapour clouds at the lower wattage ranges, but you’ll increase the lifespan of your coils and you’ll cut your chances of getting a burnt hit.
The occasional dry hit won’t do any lasting damage to your coil, but a burnt hit will render your coil unusable.
Technically speaking, the coil itself isn’t ‘broken’ by a burnt hit (the metal circuit is still intact). The problem is that the wicking material that touches the coil has burnt, and that’s something that can’t be undone.
You might have seen that some box mods (specifically RTA and RDA devices) allow you to replace just the wicking material and keep your coil. That sounds good in theory, but it’s not a popular choice for most vapers - most people just replace the whole coil. For instance, over the past 3 months, we’ve sold 26 times more replacement coils than wicks. footnote 1
Inhaling smoke, whether that’s tobacco smoke or fumes from a singed cotton wick, is unhealthy. There’s no getting around it. But based on my own personal experience, when you taste a burnt hit on your tongue the last thing you’re going to want to do is inhale those vapours.
If you do accidentally inhale a little of your burnt hit, don’t let it worry you too much. We’ve done some research into the dangers of burnt hits, and we can confirm the following:
Some online articles have suggested that, if you inhale a burnt hit on a cotton wick, you’ll risk getting a rare lung disease called byssinosis. This isn’t true. Byssinosis is an occupational lung disease that affects people who inhale cotton dust all day (cotton mill workers, for example).There are very few cases of byssinosis in the UK - it claims the lives of about 2 people per year on average footnote 2. To put that into perspective, 78,000 people in the UK die from smoking every year footnote 3 … that’s more than the entire population of Harrogate footnote 4.
We’ve also heard the rumour that coil wicks made from silica will expose the vaper to dangerous levels of a chemical called aldehyde. The PHE (Public Health England) tested this and reported on it in their 2018 evidence review of e-cigarettes.
What the PHE report found was that, if a vaper were to dry-hit a high-power vape device on its highest setting, they could expose themselves to aldehyde levels much higher than those in a traditional cigarette. The report goes on to note that, in reality, this situation is unlikely to ever occur, because “...users do not vape under these conditions. The phenomenon has been compared to toasters that can burn toasts so severely that the resulting char contains a range of carcinogens, but the taste would be so aversive that people would be very unlikely to eat it.” footnote 5
Benzene is a carcinogenic compound footnote 6 found in petrol exhaust fumes. It’s sometimes used in the plastics manufacturing industry, too.
In a recent study, benzene formation was reported in a high-power electronic cigarette experiment footnote 7. Public Health England investigated this study and found that you can produce benzene with an adjustable vape, but to do it you’ll have to vape at an unusually high temperature, and you’ll need to use an e-liquid that contains benzoic acid. Even if you succeed in producing Benzene with your e-cigarette, the cancer risk of that vapour will be 0.4% of the cancer risk of cigarette smoke footnote 8.
Hopefully this article has explained what’s going on when your vape tastes burnt and has shown you how to avoid burnt hits and dry hits in future.
If you have any questions, Gareth, myself and the rest of the Gourmet eLiquid team are here to help.
Stay safe and happy vaping!
- John Boughey
Links & Citations
The sales figures mentioned here are based on Gourmet E-Liquid’s coil and wick unit sales in the 90 day period preceding 17th July 2020. For every wick order placed in the time period, 26.12 coil orders were placed.
Full information on historic mortality rates can be found on the HSE website at the link below:
“Every year around 78,000 people in the UK die from smoking, with many more living with debilitating smoking-related illnesses.”
Learn more about the health risks of smoking on the NHS website at the link below:
ONS (Office for National Statistics) data on the population of Harrogate can be found on the Nomis local area report for Harrogate, visible at the link below:
“A study published at the end of 2015 (260) which used these conditions reported that, at a maximum power setting of a variable voltage EC, the EC emitted up to 15 times more formaldehyde than tobacco cigarettes. EC users however do not vape under these conditions. The phenomenon has been compared to toasters that can burn toasts so severely that the resulting char contains a range of carcinogens, but the taste would be so aversive that people would be very unlikely to eat it. In a recent replication of the above study, using the same apparatus and conditions, experienced EC users reported dry puffs well below the power setting at which high aldehyde levels were detected (248).”
The quote above was taken from page 157 of the PHE report visible at the link below:
“Benzene is known to cause acute myeloid leukaemia/acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia and potentially other cancers in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified benzene as carcinogenic to humans (group 1).”
Please see the “Benzene and cancer” section of the UK government’s Benzene fact sheet at the link below:
The full report quoted by the PHS is “Pankow JF, Kim K, McWhirter KJ, Luo W, Escobedo JO, Strongin RM, et al. Benzene formation in electronic cigarettes”, visible at the link below:
“A recent study (247) was accompanied by a press release claiming that ‘cancer causing benzene was found in EC vapours operated at high power’. The authors did not find any benzene in vapour from cartridge-based EC that used benzoic acid (this can be transformed to benzene, but this does not seem to happen at normal vaping temperatures). They then created their own benzoic acid-containing e-liquid and submitted it to high ‘dry puff’ temperatures and this did generate benzene - albeit in levels lower than those in ambient air (248). In a separate study (249), published data on emissions from cigarettes and EC and their cancer potencies were used to calculate lifetime cancer risk using daily consumption estimates. EC cancer potencies were largely found to be only a small fraction of those of smoking (0.4%). Where findings exceeded 1% of the risks of smoking, the relationship between formaldehyde levels and user aversion (248) suggests that they were associated with dry puffs.”
See the “Composition of EC and EC aerosol” section of the same 2018 PHE review at the link below: