The Science of Vaping: How Does It Work and Is It Safe?



You’re cruising down the strip and pull up behind a tinted Honda stopped at a red light. The driver in the car ahead rolls down their window and poof, out rolls a thick white cloud of smoke-and it smells like candy.

No doubt the driver is smoking a vape pen or an e-cigarette.

Vape pens and e-cigarette product sales worldwide are at a staggering 19.3 billion dollars. Since the first time they hit the consumer market they’ve been greatly touted as the new healthy way to get your nicotine or THC fix, but how do they work exactly?

Read on to find out the science of vaping, and whether nor not it’s all the hype health advocates have been claiming.

The Science of Vaping

Traditional cigarettes use combustion to burn tobacco and other additives for the smoker to inhale. Vape pens and e-cigarettes use a heating coil that vaporizes an oily liquid containing zero tobacco.

Here’s how they work.

When a person draws on the mouth-piece of a vape pen, a sensor detects the airflow and signals a battery charged heating element to heat and evaporate the e-liquid. The solution then turns to vapor and inhaled into the user’s lungs.

The liquid from e-cigarette contains either nicotine or THC, and mixings of flavorings and aromatic additives.

What exactly are these additives and what are the health effects of vaping?

Additives Found In Vape Pen Liquid

Common additives found in e-liquid are vitamin E, diacetyl, formaldehyde, and acrolein. Vitamin E is used as a thickening agent and diacetyl is used as a flavor enhancer.

Metals such as nickel, lead, and chromium is present in the liquid as well. The source of these metals potentially being from the metal heating coil within the pen. E-liquid and THC production might be another way metals get into the vape cartridges.

Health Risks Associated With Vaping

There seems an overall consensus that vaping is healthier in the short term than cigarette smoking, and that vaping can effectively help cigarette smokers quit. It is also wildly believed that vaping is less carcinogenic than traditional smoking. But is there such a thing as healthy vaping?

That depends on who you’re asking.

According to Consumer Advocates For Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, or CASAA, vaping is a low-risk health alternative to traditional smoking. They even claim that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than regular cigarettes. Their sources seem to be a bit outdated.

A growing number of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury (EVALI), gives a better idea of the health risks of vape pen use.

Between March 31, 2019–February 15, 2020, there were 2,807 reported cases of people hospitalized or who have died because of EVALI.

Further Studies on Health Effects of Vaping

In 2019 The Journal of Clinical Investigation published a paper describing the effects of vape smoke on mice. In this study, mice were exposed to the e-cig vapor for 4 months straight with initially no side effects.

Looking deeper into it, Kheradmand’s grad’ student Matthew Madison found the mice had immune cells in the lungs swollen with fat. These fat cells called macrophages protect the body from infections. Mice exposed to the flu virus and with swollen immune cells died.

The reason for the swollen macrophages most likely being the vitamin e additive in e-liquid, and the reason for death the weakened cells.

What Is Popcorn Lung?

Popcorn lung has nothing to do with going to the movies. The scientific name for popcorn lung is, bronchiolitis obliterans (BO), and is the result of small airways in the lungs being damaged.

Workers in a popcorn factory were found to have BO from breathing in diacetyl, a food additive used as an artificial butter in popcorn.

Smoking e-cigs with diacetyl can raise the risk of getting popcorn lung.

Lipoid Pneumonia Dangers

Lipoid Pneumonia is an inflammatory response from the presence of lipids, or fatty acids, in the lungs.

When a person inhales the vapor from an e-cigarette, they’re also inhaling aldehydes and alcohols used in solvents found in e-liquid. Complications can arise as the mixing and aerosolization of these components create new compounds.

Smoking Vape Pens and Cancer

Of course, the big scary ‘c’ word had to be brought up in an article about smoking. So is cancer something vapors need to concern themselves with?

In yet another case study done with mice, the answer points to a strong possibility. According to this study, mice were exposed to e-liquid vapor for 54 weeks. The conclusion was that the mice had an increased risk of lung cancer.

Observation of changes in bladder cells was also made, indicating a higher risk of cancer there as well.

At this time it’s unsure how these health complications found in mice will carry over to humans.

Should You Vaporize or Combust?

There are clear health risks associated with both vaporizing and traditional smoking methods. On top of those health risks, nicotine is toxic and addictive and can lead to chronic smoking, while smoking THC impairs the mind.

Both should be used with caution.

Since traditional smoking has been around longer, more medical studies can be found on the topic. As vaporizing becomes more popular, new studies are being made and more conclusive evidence on health risks found.

Knowing the risks of each one will help you make the healthiest choice for yourself.

If after reading this article you’ve decided that vaping isn’t for you, you might want to try smoking from a bong. The water element in bongs cools the smoke and visibly removes harmful by-products from the smoke.

Using Trusted Companies Products

Purchasing products from unreputable sources may expose you to higher concentrations of harmful chemicals and additives. This is because unregulated producers of e-cigs and liquids don’t always use the best production methods, and don’t always label everything within their products.

Now that you know the science of vaping, minimize your risk from smoking vape pens by only purchasing products from companies that are regulated and trusted. .

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