When nicotine salt e-liquid first hit the market a little over five years ago, it was heralded as one of the most important product developments in the history of vaping to date.
Being much smoother than freebase nicotine, nicotine salt made it possible for the first time to use a small low-wattage vaping device and still have a completely satisfying – even cigarette-like – vaping experience.
It seemed obvious that nicotine salts would one day become just as popular as freebase nicotine, if not more so.
So, what’s the one problem with nicotine salt e-liquid?
If you’ve been following the vaping industry for the past few years, you might already know the answer to that question.
Nicotine salt is no longer the new thing in the vaping industry, and it hasn’t been for quite some time. By now, it should be available in the same large, inexpensive bottles that owners of large mods buy whenever they need vape juice.
By now, it should be available in lower nicotine strengths. That’s especially the case considering the proliferation of more powerful pod mods – devices that are way too powerful even for “low-strength” 20 mg/ml nicotine salt e-liquids.
Why is it that e-liquid makers seem determined to keep nicotine salt stuck in 2018?
Let’s explore how we got to where we are today. After that, we’ll take a moment to consider how the e-liquid industry might evolve from here.
What’s All the Fuss About Nicotine Salt E-Liquid?
To understand how nicotine salt e-liquid might evolve in the future, it’s instructive to know why it has generated such a fuss in the vaping industry to begin with.
Nicotine salt began to pop up in the mid-2010s as a new form of e-liquid developed for small pre-filled pod systems like JUUL and the many clones that followed in its wake.
Very soon after the release of JUUL, devices with refillable pods began to appear.
Naturally, then, the next step was for vape juice companies to begin making bottled nicotine salt e-liquid.
Within a couple of years, it was almost like the entire vaping industry had been divided in half.
You’d walk into a vape shop, and on one side, you’d see the mods and the big bottles of cheap freebase nicotine e-liquid.
On the other side, you’d see the pod systems and the little bottles of expensive nicotine salt vape juice – and that, more or less, is the way things have stayed.
Some of the early marketing language surrounding nicotine salt e-liquid was stretched almost to the point of being factually incorrect.
You’d see companies claiming that nicotine salt is more like the nicotine that occurs naturally in the tobacco leaf.
You’d also see companies claiming that nicotine salt is more satisfying or that it hits the bloodstream more quickly than freebase nicotine.
Those claims helped to keep nicotine salt front and center in the consciousness of the vaping community, but they weren’t really true.
- Nicotine salt e-liquid is just freebase nicotine e-liquid with an added acid that triggers a chemical reaction, changing the nicotine to a salt. It bears almost no resemblance to the nicotine found in tobacco. In fact, most major cigarette brands actually contain ammonia or other pH modifiers to freebase the nicotine.
- Freebase nicotine – not nicotine salt – is actually the form of nicotine that hits the bloodstream more quickly. That’s why the major cigarettes contain pH modifiers; freebase nicotine is more bioavailable and gives you more of a nicotine rush.
What is special about nicotine salt e-liquid is that it has a more neutral pH than freebase e-liquid, enabling companies to make higher-strength e-liquids that are completely smooth even though they contain massive amounts of nicotine.
When you’re vaping an e-liquid with a strength of 59 mg/ml, you’d better believe there’s going to be a nicotine rush. You could never achieve a nicotine strength that high with freebase nicotine e-liquid because the harshness would make it impossible to inhale.
For a very small e-cigarette to compete with the nicotine delivery of a tobacco cigarette on a puff-for-puff basis, the e-liquid needs to have a strength around 50 mg/ml. Nicotine salt made it possible for the first time for small e-cigarettes to deliver that level of satisfaction.
Why Are E-Liquid Makers So Determined to Keep Nicotine Salt Expensive?
Did you ever step into a vape shop around 2018 and see a situation like the one described above – with small, pricy bottles of nicotine salt e-liquid crammed next to the pod systems at one side of the store?
Nicotine salt hasn’t really changed at all since then. E-liquid makers seem determined to lock bottle sizes and prices are their current levels, and the reason for that is probably because the e-liquid industry has already seen the bottom fall out of its prices before.
Those high price tags that you see on bottles of nicotine salt e-liquid today are just about the same as what vapers used to pay for 10 ml bottles of freebase nicotine e-liquid back when vaping was new.
As you can imagine, the profit margins enjoyed by e-liquid companies in those days were enviable. Over time, though, vaping devices became more powerful, and people started using more and more e-liquid each day.
Prices in the neighbourhood of $1.00 per ml simply weren’t sustainable, and market forces eventually compelled the e-liquid companies to release their products in larger, less expensive bottles.
Since the vaping community has already shown the e-liquid companies that it is perfectly willing to accept 30 ml as a standard bottle size for nicotine salt vape juice, no company has wanted to be the first to cut its prices – but that could change any time.
Nicotine Salt Can Evolve in Two Ways
So, how will the nicotine salt segment of the e-liquid industry evolve from here? On one hand, it can evolve by not evolving. E-liquid makers can continue enjoying the higher profit margin of nicotine salt, although they’ll have to do so with the knowledge that the nicotine salt segment will probably never become larger than its current size.
Even as more people are continuing to switch from smoking to vaping, existing vapers are trading in their small pod systems for the new pod mods at the same rate.
A significant percentage of those mods are too powerful to work with nicotine salt e-liquid at the nicotine strengths commonly available, so upgrading to a pod mod usually means switching to lower-strength freebase nicotine e-liquid.
There is, however, another way in which the industry can evolve. All it takes is one company that decides to release nicotine salt e-liquid in a wider variety of different strengths and in larger bottles at a lower price per ml.
That event would force all of the other e-liquid companies to follow suit – and the company that does it first will surely pick up a ton of new customers.