E-liquid strength: How much nicotine is in a cigarette?
Have you ditched tobacco for an electronic alternative? Not sure what nicotine level you need in e-liquid?
If the answer is yes to both of these questions then this guide is for you.
Choosing e-liquid is confusing, especially if it is your first juice.
Not only do you have to worry about the hundreds of flavors on offer and the PG/VG ratio, but you also have to choose your nicotine strength.
Expressed as milligrams per milliliter (mg/ml), getting the right nicotine strength is very important for new vapers.
One of the main reasons people stop vaping and go back to tobacco cigarettes is because they get nicotine strength wrong.
If the nicotine strength is too low, vaping can feel hollow and unsatisfying.
And if the nicotine strength is more than you are used to, then vaping can feel harsh and intense and might actually make you more addicted to nicotine, which is counterproductive if you are trying to wean yourself off.
You can get a rough idea of what your nicotine strength should be by looking at how much nicotine you are taking in from cigarettes. But as we will see, ‘smoking equivalency’ comparisons are not straightforward.
Finding a nicotine strength that suits your vaping style will probably take some time and involve some trial and error.
This guide aims to give you all of the background information that you need to make an informed choice about your e-liquid selection.
What is nicotine?
Nicotine is a drug that’s found in tobacco. It is a stimulant that can improve concentration and motor skills, but once you become dependent on nicotine, it can cause nasty withdrawal symptoms when the amount of nicotine in your blood dips.
Everybody knows that nicotine is in tobacco cigarettes. It is probably the most notorious cigarette ingredient. By itself, however, it is not the most harmful.
Cigarettes contain more than 4,000 other chemicals and toxins, many of which are very harmful to our bodies including tar and carbon monoxide.
In quantities that it is found in cigarettes and e-cigarettes, nicotine is not as physically harmful as some of these other component chemicals and toxins.
But nicotine’s addictive qualities make it dangerous when it is used without an appropriate replacement therapy.
How much nicotine is in a cigarette?
It’s easy to find information about how much nicotine is in a cigarette, but what’s important is how much nicotine gets into your body and how much is absorbed.
The amount of nicotine that enters your body depends on how fast you smoke, whether you use a filter and whether you smoke a cigarette down to the butt.
This post on our sister site, e-cigarette forum, contains accurate information about how much nicotine and tar enters your body from more than 1200 cigarette brands and types.
Calculated by the Federal Trade Commission, the data relates to cigarettes made between 1994 and 1997, so it may be a little out of date, but researchers used a very specific methodology to ensure that the readings are accurate.
Speaking more broadly, researchers from UCLA calculated that you get around 0.6-1.0 mg of nicotine from ‘light’ cigarettes and between 1.2 and 1.4 mg of nicotine from ‘regular’ cigarettes.
If we are comparing tobacco cigarettes and e-liquid, it’s also important to compare how the nicotine is absorbed into your body. This is because the absorption process is a big factor in determining how dependent you are on nicotine.
There are many subtle differences between how nicotine is absorbed with smoking compared with how it is absorbed with vaping.
Tobacco cigarettes give your body a powerful blast of nicotine that is very different to e-cigarettes.
With tobacco, nicotine passes through your lung’s membranes, into your bloodstream, to your heart and up to your brain very quickly – within about 10 or 20 seconds.
Cigarette makers also add other substances to cigarettes to enhance nicotine delivery and speed up the absorption process.
In the UK, the Royal College of Physicians found that most nicotine from vaping is absorbed by the mouth and throat rather than the lungs, a different process that does not give a powerful nicotine hit.
They suggest that differences in the speed of nicotine absorption make e-cigarettes less addictive compared with tobacco cigarettes.
They also concluded that e-cigarettes were a good replacement for tobacco, particularly because they reinforced some of the co-stimuli of smoking, such as taste, the sensation of tobacco in the throat and the smells and behaviors of smoking.
What strength e-liquid should you choose?
If you are trying to find your ‘smoking equivalency’ in an e-liquid – the e-liquid nicotine level that will deliver a comparable smoking experience - you have to be prepared to experiment.
Although vaping is a good alternative to smoking in many ways, the addictiveness of cigarettes is usually influenced by a variety of factors, not just nicotine level.
Cigarette manufacturers add other products to cigarettes which enhance nicotine delivery and absorption, these extra products can affect how addicted you are.
Modern e-cigarettes are more than capable of matching your cigarette nicotine experience, but you may have to trial a few liquids and devices before you get the right sensation.
For vapers using advanced box mod devices, we recommend the following strength categories:
- 0mg/ml – good for people who never smoked tobacco cigarettes and anyone trying to cut out their nicotine dependency altogether.
- 3mg/ml – good for light smokers and anyone looking to cut down their nicotine dependency.
- 6mg/ml – good for light to moderate smokers, particularly those who used ‘light’ cigarettes.
- 12mg/ml+ - good for heavy cigarette smokers and smokers of unfiltered cigarettes.
If you have a smaller vape device like a cigalike or pod mod, then you may want to boost the nicotine strength for reasons outlined below.
Devices and nicotine strength
It’s not all about the e-liquid. Your ideal nicotine experience also depends on how effectively your e-cigarette device will deliver the nicotine into your body.
Large sub-ohm tanks and box mods burn up a lot more e-liquid than less powerful devices, meaning that more nicotine is delivered to the user.
These users can take much bigger hits, inhaling more nicotine in each puff.
A 2014 study comparing nicotine absorption in ‘first’ and ‘new’ generation devices, Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos found that mod users got far more nicotine than users of smaller devices like cigalikes.
Nicotine, flavor and ‘throat hit’
Nicotine can affect other elements of your vape experience. It has its own flavor and can make e-liquid taste more peppery, but this taste will only really overpower an e-liquid in high strength bottles.
Nicotine also gives a more intense throat hit. This is the satisfying sensation that you get when vapor hits the back of your throat.
It is very similar to the effect that cigarettes have when you inhale them, so e-liquid with a high nicotine level may deliver a more authentic experience for smokers that are looking to ditch tobacco.
Because nicotine strength affects flavor and throat hit, vapers often have to balance one against the other when choosing their nicotine strength.
Many new vapers choose higher strength nicotine because they want a strong throat hit. Veteran vapers, however, are more likely to choose lower strengths because they want great flavor production.