Vapor vs Smoke – What’s the difference anyway?

10 min read

Vapor vs Smoke – What’s the difference?

Smoke and vape – An introduction

Whether you are a vaper, a smoker, neither, or somewhere in between, at some point, you’ve probably wondered what the difference between smoke and vapor actually is. Although the clouds emitted from vaping devices (more commonly known as e-cigarettes) can look similar to the smoke produced by burning tobacco, that is where the similarities begin and end. This article will explore in detail the difference between the vapor produced by e-cigarettes and the smoke that results from traditional combusted tobacco products. So next time someone asks you 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 electronic cigarette devices. In truth, the term “vape smoke” is something of an oxymoron. Something can be either vapor or smoke, but not both. This confusion is particularly problematic, as numerous studies have confirmed that vaping is far less harmful to your health than smoking.

Conflating tobacco smoke with e-cigarette 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.

Knowledge is power!

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.

“What!?” I hear you cry. And I agree. The last thing the world needs is any more ambiguity. But don’t worry, I’m here to clear things up for you. Technically speaking, a vapor is a gas that is at a temperature lower than it’s “critical state”. For the non-scientists, this means that vapor can be liquified by increasing pressure whilst maintaining the same temperature.

In the case of e-cigarettes, the clouds produced by heating eliquid are in fact not vapor at all, but rather an aerosol.

Vapor vs Smoke – What’s the difference anyway?

Ok then, what's an aerosol?

I’m so glad you asked! An aerosol, unlike vapor, isn’t actually a gas, but rather a suspension of incredibly fine liquid particles in a gas. In the case of e-cigarette “vapor” (confused yet?), the aerosol is a suspension of e-liquid micro-droplets in air.

I have never heard anyone using the term “aerosol” to describe what is produced by e-cigarettes. So, despite my pedantic nature, it makes sense to use the ubiquitous term “vapor.”

What about smoke?

Smoke is only produced by combustion (burning). It describes 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 of the products of combustion, but burning a substance also alters the compounds in question, and even creates entirely new, toxic chemicals that you would do best to avoid.

It’s no secret that smoking tobacco is seriously bad news for your health. But you might be surprised by just how many noxious compounds are found in cigarette smoke. In addition to the tar and carbon monoxide that most of us are familiar with, smoke from combusted tobacco contains over 5,000 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, heart disease.

What’s the difference between smoke and vapor?

Despite the fact that, to the human eye, smoke and vapor can appear very similar, the two substances could not be more different. As outlined above, smoke is a suspension of solid microparticles and gases, whereas the “vapor” produced by e-cigarettes is a liquid aerosol suspended in 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.

The chemical differences between smoke and vapor

If one examines the chemical makeup of tobacco smoke and e-cigarette vapor, the only compound that is present in both 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). 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.

Smoke from combusted tobacco comprises over 4000 different chemicals, many of which have been repeatedly shown to be damaging to human health. Although vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, all of the studies conducted so far have demonstrated that it is a far safer alternative to smoking, This is because vapor contains far fewer potentially toxic compounds.

Vapor vs Smoke – What’s the difference anyway?

What gives tobacco smoke its taste?

The main compounds that give tobacco smoke its distinctive flavor are known as plant polyphenols. Fresh tobacco leaves are entirely 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 the fresh green leaves plucked from the tobacco plant into something that more closely resembles what you would expect to found inside a cigarette, the tobacco has to undergo a process known as curing. A variety of methods of curing tobacco exist, but they all serve the same purpose, namely to reduce the amount of chlorophyll (which gives leaves its 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?

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

A few years ago there were some concerns that a particular flavoring used in e-liquids, called diacetyl, could potentially have negative implications for lung health. However, 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 would seem fair to say that the risks from diacetyl have likely been blown out of all reasonable proportion.

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.

As well as the smell, tobacco smoke is notorious for the unhealthy looking 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 this soiling will also occur 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, it can 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 used as the base in 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 tend to linger nearly as long. Besides, the aroma from e-liquid vapor tends to be far more tolerable for most people than the noxious fumes that come with smoking.

Temperature differences between smoke and vapor

The end of a burning cigarette is hot. Really hot. That is probably no surprise for anybody who knows what fire is, but 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 – Usually not exceeding 200 degrees celsius. This profound difference in temperature means that generally speaking, vapor is far less of an irritant than smoke. If you’ve tried smoking a cigarette after a period of abstinence you have probably witnessed this yourself.

It is a common trope that people who try cigarettes for the first time inevitably end up hacking up half a lung, and the high temperature of the smoke produced by combusting tobacco is one of the reasons for this effect.

Smoke vs vapor – Conclusions

As we’ve seen, asides from the visual similarity between smoke and vapor (attributable to the fact that both are suspensions of particles in a gas), the two substances could not 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, as well as a sustained campaign of misinformation in the media, much of the populace remains ignorant on the subject. In this day and age, 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 are inhaling, you will have all the knowledge necessary to correct them. But remember, even though second-hand vapor is nowhere near as bad for you as second-hand smoke, you should be mindful and empathetic to other people’s needs when puffing away. Avoid engulfing strangers in your second-hand clouds, especially indoors, and refrain from vaping anywhere that you wouldn’t expect to see smokers. If in doubt, just ask! It’s always better to be safe than sorry, as the penalty for vaping in forbidden areas can be pretty harsh.