Electronic cigarettes have been around for years now, but a lot of people still don’t seem very sure of exactly what is in a vape. Is there tobacco in there? Lots of people – especially US lawmakers – seem to think so. What about cancer-causing chemicals and toxic heavy metals? The media are always claiming that somebody has found those. Antifreeze? Yes, that’s apparently in vapes too, if you believe some of the junk you read.

If you want to know what’s really in a vape, forget what you’ve seen in the newspapers – most of it’s junk. We have the facts here, so just read on!

What do vapers inhale?

Most of what’s in a vape is the device’s hardware – metal, electronics and glass. It seems obvious that vapers don’t inhale this, but you’d be surprised how wrong some people get it. Last year one “public health expert” in the USA complained that vapers were breathing in dangerous fumes from the battery.

The important bits of the e-cigarette itself are inside the atomiser – everything that’s in contact with the liquid. Most atomiser tanks are made of stainless steel, glass or food-safe plastic, so there’s no danger of any harmful chemicals dissolving into the liquid. Wicks are made of unbleached cotton, which is another safe material.

So everything the liquid is in contact with is perfectly safe; that leaves us with the liquid itself. When you fire up an e-cigarette the liquid gets turned into vapour, and that’s what people actually inhale. So, what’s it made of?

Scary chemical names!

Most of the liquid you put in your tank is made of scary chemical names. That’s right; it’s the names that are scary; the chemicals themselves aren’t.

The two main ingredients in e-juice are vegetable glycerine (VG) and propylene glycol (PG). Glycerine is also a main ingredient in nitroglycerine, which is a notoriously unstable high explosive, and if you know anything about engines you might be wondering if that’s the same kind of glycol that gets used as antifreeze. Is your e-liquid going to poison you and then explode? No, it isn’t.

Glycerine is used in nitroglycerine – and dynamite, gelignite and a few other explosives – but it’s not explosive itself. In fact it’s an extremely safe chemical, and it’s used in many everyday products. The food industry uses it as a sweetener, it’s a common ingredient in soaps and skin care products, and many medicines also contain it. The vegetable glycerine used in e-liquid is a completely natural product. The fact is, chemical names are just scientific descriptions of substances. As most of us have seen in prank videos, you can make water sound alarming by calling it dihydrogen monoxide.

There is one problem with VG, which is that it’s an extremely thick liquid. In fact it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call it gloopy. It’s so thick that it won’t work in some atomisers unless it’s diluted with something thinner, and that’s where PG comes in. This is another very common chemical, and again it’s used as a food additive – it keeps products moist. PG is also used in medicines, toothpaste and skin care products.


This is one of the most controversial things you’ll find in a vape. According to some, nicotine-laced e-liquid is all a plot to turn children into tobacco addicts. In reality nicotine isn’t all that addictive, when you don’t inhale it in tobacco smoke. However, if you’re using an e-cig to quit smoking, it’s important that it gives you enough nicotine to satisfy your cravings.

There’s lots of hysteria about nicotine, but the reality is there isn’t much to worry about. Nobody has ever found any evidence that pure nicotine is addictive. It also has never been linked to any kind of cancer, despite many efforts to find some evidence. Nicotine is toxic in high doses, but there’s no danger at all from the quantities found in e-liquid. Despite what some people have claimed, getting a few drops on your skin won’t kill you. In fact you can pour a whole bottle on your hand and it still won’t kill you; just rinse it off.

The tasty bit

Finally, the last ingredient in a vape is flavourings. On its own, e-liquid doesn’t really taste of much. If it contains nicotine there’s a slight peppery taste, and both VG and PG are slightly sweet, but it isn’t really something most people want to vape. The answer is to use food-safe flavourings to create the huge range of liquids we enjoy.

Not all food flavourings can be used; some ingredients – diacetyl, for example – are safe to eat but not to inhale. A few flavours use an oil base, which isn’t great to inhale either. Luckily there’s a wide range of vape-safe flavours to choose from.

So there you have it – the complete list of things you’ll find in a vape. It’s not as dramatic as some of the news stories you’ll read, but it does have the advantage of being accurate!

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