eCig 101: e-Liquid

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I’ve spent most of this series talking about different kinds of e-cigarette hardware.  All of that hardware serves but a single purpose: to heat liquid into vapor that you as the vaper inhale.  That liquid tends to go by a lot of names.  I usually run with e-liquid, but I’ve heard terms like e-juice, juice, smoke juice, niquid and a number of variations that build on the base words of liquid, juice, smoke or nicotine.

Let’s break down this mysterious liquid and delve into what the stuff is actually made from and the different variations of liquid.  We’ll also talk a little about the origin of the liquid and the nicotine itself.  Finally a quick peek into the variety of flavors and a brief look into do-it-yourself (DIY) e-liquid.  Don’t worry I won’t get all science-y about it, promise.

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e-liquid and raw liquids
So… What’s in it?

e-Liquid consists of three basic parts: nicotine, liquid and food-grade flavoring.  Nicotine is extracted from tobacco plants in a pharmaceutical lab and diluted to workable levels with propylene glycol (PG) or vegetable glycerine (VG).  The solution is then combined by the factory or individual making the final product with more PG or VG and the flavorings.


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Nicotine Inside!  

Nicotine content in e-liquid is generally measured in milligrams per milliliter.  Common nicotine levels in commercial generally ranges from 0 – 24 mg/ml with a few vendors selling slightly higher concentrations.  Concentrations may also be expressed in percentages.  An e-liquid with 18mg may be referred to as having 1.8% nicotine.

Choosing the right level of nicotine can be tricky as it will depend on each individual and how dependent they are on nicotine.  It’s fairly common for people to start high using 24 or 18mg and then working down to a more comfortable level.  If you’re just starting out it may be a good idea to get some liquid or pre-filled cartridges in a higher and lower level until you can determine what works for you.

The rest of the e-liquid is made up of… liquid.  The remaining liquid (besides flavoring) will consist of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine or a combination of the two. Occasionally you’ll run into some juices with some amount of pure grain alcohol (PGA) or polyethylene glycol (PEG-200) but those aren’t very common.

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Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine each have their unique characteristics as far as the experience you get when you load them into your e-cigarette and puff away.  PG was sort of the original base for e-liquid and is almost always the base used in e-liquid mass produced in China.  PG is still very popular in domestically created liquid.

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VG/PG mix

e-Juice made from PG tends to be a thin and runny liquid.  PG liquids are know to produce an OK amount of vapor but provide an excellent throat hit.  Throat hit is the sensation you get in your upper chest and throat when inhaling, similar to the experience of smoking an actual cigarette.  Some also feel flavors are transferred better in PG liquids.

Vegetable Glycerine is a relatively new entrant into the e-cigarette world.  VG is a food-safe (and kosher) additive made from, you guessed it, vegetables.  The product is often used in cake decorating and as a skin moisturizer.

VG is a very thick solution and is often thinned out with pure grain alcohol (PGA) or distilled water to make it easier to work with and perform in e-cigarette hardware like cartomizers.  Glycerine’s biggest advantage is a significantly higher volume of vapor than PG based liquids.  VG, however, notably lacks in the throat hit department.

Each type of liquid has its fans, of course.  Which one is better for you is completely personal preference.  Trial and error will likely determine what works best.  Of course, it’s not an all or nothing kind of deal. Many e-liquids aren’t 100% PG or VG, they are a combination of the two such as 80% PG or 50/50 mix.  This mixture helps balance out each of the liquid’s strengths and weaknesses.

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US made e-liquid, available in HUGE!
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There are generally two types of liquids available on the market.  The first is mass-produced e-liquid usually made in factories in China.  Chinese liquid in many cases is less expensive than locally produced liquids. While the Chinese-made e-liquid market is diversifying a bit, there still isn’t as much variety in terms of flavor or liquid composition (PG/VG mixtures) as can be found in locally produced e-liquids.

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Made by a guy named Mike in Tennessee

Locally made e-liquids are from a diverse universe of makers from some guy working into his basement to large operations such as Johnson Creek and Halo.  It is pretty hard to get an accurate count of the number of vendors in the US alone, but it easily numbers well into the hundreds.

While not universally true, locally produced liquids tend to be more expensive than their imported counterparts. With so many players in the field, variety is the name of the game.  Many vendors allow you to select your blend of liquid and offer specialty flavorings unique to that vendor.

With so many vendors in the marketplace, one could spend ages (and a whole lot of money) trying all the different flavors.  Virtually every flavor imaginable exists in the e-liquid world from your basic tobacco flavors to fruit flavors, cake, mixed drinks, coffees, and even food flavors like pizza and bacon!  There are even vendors out there like Gourmet Vapor that let you create your own combinations (shameless plug, try my Authentic Mai Tai, it’s divine!).

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My DIY flavorings

Which brings us to the last part of this little lesson, do-it-yourself.  Vendors like Gourmet Vapor let you experience some of this, but if you are a real roll-up your sleeves kind of person, you could start making this stuff on your own.  Many of the popular juice vendors started out as DIY’ers and decided to take their hobby commercial after friends and family raved about their creation.

One word of caution here.  While DIY is fairly simple once you get the hang of it, there is a pretty steep initial learning curve.  This is especially true because you could be dealing with reasonably high concentrations.  The highest recommended for DIY is 100mg diluted down to your preferred level.  If DIY sounds appealing, I’d suggest heading over to the DIY forum on ECF to learn from some people who, you know, actually know what the heck they’re doing.

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Important word of warning.  There have been cases where people have managed to buy (usually from overseas) 99.9% pure nicotine. That is 999mg/ml and is an absolutely deadly poison, contact with the vapor could kill you.  Skin contact with the liquid could kill you within 5 minutes of exposure. NEVER  ATTEMPT TO USE PURE NICOTINE!

Ok, with that out of the way, I dabble in DIY and what I generally do is use a lower concentration of unflavored nicotine, around 36mg.  It’s safe enough to work with without worrying about skin contact (just wash it off if you get any on you) plus it’s pretty easy to do math to figure out my ratios when I only need to dilute it in half.

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You have more choices besides “cowboy”

Thanks for Staying Tuned
We went from what is the stuff to how can you make your own in just a few minutes!  Don’t worry, there’s no quiz and nobody expects you to make your own stuff.  Most people live perfectly happy lives letting other people do the work for them.  I hope I left you with a little bit of a deeper understanding of what actually goes into the stuff you’re vaping.  Be sure to leave any questions or comments about your e-juice experiences in the comments field below!

This article is part of a series geared towards people new to e-cigarettes.  View the list of other eCig 101 articles for more basic e-cigarette information.

Steve K

Hello and welcome to Steve K


  • How do you determine the VG % after choosing your nic level?

    • It's a matter of personal choice really so it's more of a trial and error. I personally like liquids around 70-80% PG. A lot of the juice vendors default is around there, but often you can adjust it.

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