WARNING: This product contains nicotine.
Nicotine is an addictive chemical.

WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.

Vapor vs Smoke – What’s the difference anyway?

The interesting difference between cigarette smoke and vape vapor.

Smoke and vape – An introduction

Whether you’re a vaper, a smoker, neither, or somewhere in between, at some point, you’ve probably wondered what the difference is between cigarette smoke and e-cigarette vapor. Although the clouds emitted from vaping devices (more commonly known as e-cigarettes) can look similar to the smoke produced by traditional cigarettes, that’s where the similarities end.

In the next five minutes, we’ll highlight the difference between the vapor produced by e-cigarettes and the smoke that comes from traditional combusted tobacco products. So next time someone asks about the clouds you are exhaling, you can be confident that you are giving them the right information.

Does ‘vape smoke’ exist?

The term “vape smoke” or “vaporized smoke” is often used by those not in the know to describe the wispy clouds produced by vaping products. In truth, the term “vape smoke” is something of an oxymoron. Something can be either vapor or smoke, but not both. This confusion is problematic because numerous studies have confirmed that vape products contain fewer toxic chemicals than traditional cigarettes. Daily e-cigarette use is far less harmful to your cardiovascular system, pulmonary system, and your general health.

Conflating tobacco smoke with vape vapor perpetuates the myth that vaping is dangerous, and can lead people to mistakenly think that second-hand vapor is harmful. Once you have finished reading this article you will be able to educate anyone who might be confused about the two terms.

What is vapor?

To make things even more confusing (I know, I know….sorry!), the substance that is produced by vapes isn’t actually vapor at all.

Technically speaking, a vapor is a gas that is at a temperature lower than its “critical state”. For non-scientists, this means that vapor can be liquified by increasing pressure whilst maintaining the same temperature.

In the case of e-cigarettes, the vapor that’s produced by heating e-liquid is not vapor at all. It’s an aerosol.

What's an aerosol?

Ok then, what’s an aerosol?

I’m so glad you asked! An aerosol is a suspension of incredibly fine liquid particles in a gas. In the case of e-cigarette “vapor”, the aerosol is a suspension of e-liquid micro-droplets in the air.

I have never heard anyone using the term “aerosol” to describe what is produced by e-cigarettes. For the sake of clarity, I’ll keep using the term “vapor.”

What about smoke?

Smoke is only produced by combustion, better known as burning. It is an amalgamation of solid and liquid particulate matter as well as gases that are produced when a material undergoes combustion after being exposed to a sufficiently high temperature.

Combusting a material can have a dramatic effect on the physical compounds that are present. Carbon is the most well-known product of combustion. Burning a substance alters the compounds in question, and even creates entirely new, toxic chemicals that you would do best to avoid.

Cigarette smoking is a good example of combustion. It’s no secret that smoking tobacco and developing a nicotine addiction is bad news for your health. But you might be surprised by just how many noxious compounds are found in cigarette smoke. In addition to tar and carbon monoxide, smoke from combusted tobacco contains over 7,000 different chemicals! Over sixty of these are known carcinogens, and smoking is heavily associated with numerous health conditions of the pulmonary, circulatory, and respiratory systems.

Asides from lung cancer, tobacco smoke has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, hypertension, and heart disease. There are lots of reasons why people quit smoking and switch to vaping, with health and expense being the top two. Electronic cigarettes readily available and affordable, so it’s no wonder that millions choose to stop smoking completely.

What's the difference between smoke and vapor?

What’s the difference between smoke and vapor?

To the human eye, smoke and vapor can appear very similar. In fact, the two substances couldn’t be more different. As outlined above, smoke is a suspension of solid microparticles and gases, whereas the “vapor” produced by e-cigarettes is liquid aerosol suspended in the air. As well as being a liquid, vapor is different from smoke in a number of important ways, including chemical makeup, persistence in the environment, taste, and temperature.

Burning tobacco is nowhere near the same as burning e-liquid.

The chemical differences between smoke and vapor

The only compound that is present in the chemical makeup of both tobacco and e-cigarette vapor is nicotine. Asides from nicotine, e-cigarette vapor also contains vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, and any number of flavoring additives.

As long as you buy your e-liquid from a reputable source, you can be confident that it will not contain anything harmful to your health (except for nicotine itself, which some studies have suggested might be carcinogenic).

Even better, all flavorings used in e-liquid have to be approved for human consumption, and most have a long history of use in adding flavor to various food products. It has never been easier to quit smoking tobacco! E-liquids are far more understood, studied, and researched than cigs. Cigarette smoking is fast fading into the background, along with all the unnecessary volatile organic compounds.

Smoking cigarettes releases 7,000 different chemicals into the air and into your body. Tobacco smokers are under constant assault from carbon monoxide and other chemicals, whereas e-cigarette users can puff without worrying. Although vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, all the studies conducted so far have demonstrated that it is a far safer alternative to smoking. Vapor contains far fewer potentially toxic compounds, which means that quitting smoking and switching to vaping is one of the best things you can do for your health.

What gives tobacco smoke its taste?

What gives tobacco smoke its taste?

Plant polyphenols are the main compounds that give tobacco smoke its distinctive flavor.

Fresh tobacco leaves are unsuitable for smoking as they produce harsh, putrid smoke that tastes bad and is deleterious to human health (even more so than regular old cigarettes). Consuming smoke from uncured tobacco leaves is not recommended, as aside from the overwhelmingly unpleasant taste, the high levels of both ammonia and nicotine are very harmful to health and could even be fatal!

To turn fresh green tobacco leaves into something that resembles the inside of a cigarette, the tobacco undergoes a process called curing. A variety of methods exist, but they all serve the same purpose, namely to reduce the amount of chlorophyll (which gives leaves their green color) and allow for the oxidation and degradation of carotenoids in tobacco. The result of proper curing is tobacco that is sweet, smooth, and aromatic.

What about e-liquid flavor?

What about e-liquid flavor?

By contrast, e-cigarette vapor derives its flavor from both natural and artificial additives that are included for the express purpose of adding flavor. E-juice manufacturers can only include flavorings that are approved for human consumption.

A few years ago there were some concerns about diacetyl (a popular e-liquid flavoring) could have negative implications for lung health. Despite the media storm that erupted around this particular compound and its potential for harm, it should be noted that cigarettes contain between 10-100 times more diacetyl than is found in any e-liquid, and no negative health reports from this particular substance have been reported in cigarette smokers or vapers. It might be fair to say that the risks from diacetyl have likely been blown out of all reasonable proportion.

The lingering effects of smoke vs vapor

The lingering effects of smoke vs vapor

If you’ve ever walked into a room where people have been smoking, you’ll certainly be familiar with the sour, stale smell that can linger for days. Indeed, the aroma left in houses by regular smokers can oftentimes require professional cleaning to remove entirely. It is a well-known fact that smoke lingers.

As well as the smell, tobacco smoke is notorious for the yellow stains that it leaves on surfaces and fabrics. Most people will be familiar with the staining effect that smoking can have on teeth, but tobacco smoking also has an impact on curtains, furniture, walls, and anything else that makes repeated contact with the cocktail of compounds emitted in cigarette smoke.

The tar found in tobacco smoke accumulates and gives surfaces a distinctive yellow or brownish tint. Not only is this residue unpleasant to look at, but it can also be nigh on impossible to remove.

Those of us who use e-cigarettes aren’t completely safe from the risk of residue build-up. Vegetable glycerin, one of the two main substances that form the base of all e-liquids, has the potential to leave a thin film coating that is most visible on glass surfaces such as windows. “Vaping residue” is particularly noticeable on car windshields, but fortunately for us, cleaning it up tends to be a far less labor-intensive task than cleaning off cigarette smoke. Also, the smell doesn’t linger for nearly as long. Besides, the aroma from e-liquid vapor tends to be far more tolerable for most people.

Temperature differences between smoke and vapor

Temperature differences between smoke and vapor

The end of a burning cigarette is hot. Really hot. You might be surprised at how hot; the end of a cigarette can reach temperatures in excess of 900 degrees celsius!

By contrast, e-cigarettes produce vapor at a much lower temperature. They usually don’t exceed 200°C. This profound difference in temperature means that generally speaking, e-cig vapor is far less of an irritant than cigarette smoke. If you’ve tried smoking a cigarette after a period of abstinence you’ve probably witnessed this yourself.

It’s a common picture: people who try cigarettes for the first time inevitably end up hacking up half a lung. When tobacco combusts, the smoke burns at a high temperature. This is just one of the reasons for this effect.

Smoke vs vapor – Conclusions

Aside from the visual similarity between smoke and vapor (mainly the fact that both are suspensions of particles in a gas), the two substances couldn’t be more different. Smoke is hotter, more harmful, and hangs around for a lot longer than even the fattest sub-ohm clouds.

Unfortunately, due to the visual similarities between e-cigarette vapor and cigarette smoke, e-cigarette smoking is misunderstood. Those of us who enjoy using our e-cigarettes need to be able to combat the waves of misinformation that are out there. Public perception can be hugely influential when it comes to regulation and legislation, and the last thing we need is more restrictions.

So next time someone asks you about the “vape smoke” you’re inhaling, you will have all the knowledge that you need to correct them. But remember, even though second-hand vapor is nowhere near as bad for you as secondhand smoke, you should be mindful and empathetic to other people’s needs when puffing away. Avoid engulfing strangers in your second-hand smoke, even if it’s not actual cigarette smoke. If in doubt, just ask! It’s always better to be safe than sorry. The penalty for vaping indoors can be pretty harsh, but the weight of public opinion is even harsher.

Jules Martinez
Jules Martinez
Jules Martinez, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of our vaping site, brings a decade of expertise in vaping, CBD, and cannabis. His comprehensive knowledge and editorial rigor ensure high-quality, accurate content, positioning us as a trusted resource in the community.
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