Have you heard of synthetic nicotine? Many vaping brands are switching to synthetic nicotine to avoid new, more stringent laws surrounding tobacco and nicotine products. But what is synthetic nicotine? And does it taste the same as tobacco-derived nicotine? In this article, we’ll answer all these questions and more.
What is Synthetic Nicotine?
So, what is synthetic nicotine?
Synthetic nicotine is also known as tobacco-free nicotine (TFN). This type of nicotine replicates the desirable qualities of the tobacco plant, but it has never seen sunlight. As the name suggests, synthetic nicotine is created in a lab.
Synthetic nicotine has the same chemical structure as pure nicotine: 10 carbon atoms, 14 hydrogen atoms, and two nitrogen atoms. In short, C10 H14 N2. The only thing that separates pure nicotine and synthetic nicotine is the chiral molecule, which is comprised of two stereoisomers that are mirror images of each other. S nicotine, which is the most popular type of synthetic nicotine, is the psychologically active variant.
Synthetic Nicotine vs. Tobacco-Derived Nicotine
The main difference between synthetic nicotine and tobacco-derived nicotine is how they are created.
Many manufacturers of synthetic nicotine products use ethyl nicotinate, a compound that is derived from niacin (Vitamin B3). They combine this compound with an acidic element and begin a rigorous process of several manufacturing stages. The compound and acidic element become myosmine, nornicotine, and eventually, synthetic nicotine.
In short, manufacturers take a compound that is a precursor for nicotine and combine it with a catalyst. The end result is synthetic nicotine.
Of course, tobacco-derived nicotine comes from the tobacco plant. Many manufacturers use a solvent extraction method to source pure nicotine.
Does Synthetic Nicotine Taste the Same as Nicotine From Tobacco?
You probably won’t be able to tell the difference between synthetic nicotine and nicotine derived from tobacco. Pharmaceutical-grade nicotine (any nicotine that is manufactured under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)) is around 99% pure. Synthetic nicotine has a similar level of purity, it is just created through a different method.
That being said, synthetic nicotine can taste different from authentic tobacco-based nicotine. In this case, there’s a problem with tobacco-derived nicotine. It may not have been filtered properly, which is why you experience the bitter taste of tobacco. Manufacturers attempt to cover these unruly bits of tobacco by pumping lots of flavors into their e-liquids, but the hint of bitterness remains. If this is the case, you might even prefer the taste of synthetic nicotine.
Why Is Synthetic Nicotine Popular Again?
Believe it or not, synthetic nicotine products have been around for centuries. Synthetic nicotine has recently returned to the spotlight because it allowed manufacturers to avoid the FDA’s new laws related to vaping. The FDA regulates the manufacture, import, packaging, and just about everything else around vaping.
In 2016, the Tobacco Control Act’s Deeming Rule was passed. It states that vape products are tobacco products, and more specifically, ‘nicotine made or derived from tobacco’ is considered to be tobacco.
To take advantage of this loophole, manufacturers started investing in synthetic nicotine. Popular brands like Puff Bar started selling tobacco-free nicotine products, and many more followed suit. The change was so rapid and widespread that many vapers have used synthetic nicotine products without even realizing it!
The FDA soon realized what was happening. Congress passed a federal law that granted the FDA the ability to regulate tobacco products that contain nicotine from any source, including synthetic nicotine. The law was passed on the 14th of April, 2022.
Is Synthetic Nicotine Illegal Now?
Thankfully, the amendment didn’t make synthetic nicotine illegal. Instead, it is regulated in the same way that pure nicotine is regulated.
Here are a few of the regulations that vape manufacturers and brands have to follow in regard to tobacco-free nicotine.
- It is illegal to sell synthetic nicotine products to people under the age of 21, whether in-person or online
- It is illegal to advertise tobacco-free nicotine products as ‘less harmful’ without FDA authorization
- Manufacturers must submit their products for review by the FDA before they begin to sell them
As long as they follow these regulations, manufacturers are free to continue creating synthetic nicotine.
Is Tobacco-Free Nicotine Less Harmful?
As we’ve discussed, it’s illegal to advertise synthetic nicotine as ‘less harmful’ without FDA approval, but what is the science telling us?
Unsurprisingly, synthetic nicotine is still addictive. After all, that’s what makes it a good substitute for pure nicotine. It contains all the same molecules as regular nicotine, so as well as being addictive, it also has the exact same health effects.
One often-quoted study from as far back as 2015 found that ‘nicotine poses several health hazards’, including ‘an increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal disorders’ and ‘cell proliferation, oxidative stress, apoptosis, DNA mutation’ which ‘leads to cancer.’ There are many more ill effects of synthetic and pure nicotine including oral and mental health issues.
From the research, we can conclude that the introduction of synthetic nicotine was a response to the FDA’s new regulations, rather than an attempt to tackle public health concerns.
Related article: How Long Does Nicotine Stay in Your System?
Is Synthetic Nicotine Safe?
One of the most common questions that we get is, ‘Is synthetic nicotine safe?’
Very little research has been conducted to analyze whether tobacco-free nicotine is safe. The health impact is unknown, but we do know that synthetic nicotine is an addictive substance that has the same effects as nicotine derived from tobacco.
You should consider synthetic nicotine pouches, liquids, and other related products to be as safe as pure nicotine products.
The Concern Over Synthetic Nicotine Flavors
In 2020, the FDA began reviewing the thousands of Premarket Tobacco Applications (PMTAs) in its backlog. Before tobacco products hit the market, they must be approved by the FDA. After deliberating, the FDA announced that it will not approve flavored vape products without evidence that they are suitable for human consumption. It also banned vape flavors that appeal to children, such as fruit and mint flavors.
Companies that did not cease to manufacture, distribute, or sell the then-illegal products within 30 days were threatened with legal action. Unsurprisingly, this new policy wiped out a lot of the existing vape liquid market.
However, it would still be two years before the FDA would amend the Tobacco Control Act and classify synthetic nicotine as a tobacco product. In the period between 2016 and 2022, when synthetic nicotine and all its variations were entirely legal, consumers enjoyed a wide range of tobacco-free nicotine flavors. Many people worried that this would undo the government’s work to eliminate flavors from the vaping industry.
How Can I Tell If My Vape Juice Contains Synthetic Nicotine?
The easiest way to find out whether your vape juice contains synthetic nicotine is to check the packaging. Even the smallest vape brand is legally required to print a full list of the ingredients on the packaging.
Synthetic nicotine will never be labeled as just nicotine. Instead, it is called synthetic nicotine, TFN, TF nicotine, or NTN. If you can’t find any of these terms on the ingredients list, then it is safe to assume that your e-liquid contains pure nicotine.
Of course, shady sellers often cut corners. If you buy a super cheap vape juice, you won’t get the same guarantees that you will get from a law-abiding manufacturer.
Does Synthetic Nicotine Act Like Nicotine Replacement Therapies?
Nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) were originally created for people who are addicted to tobacco-based nicotine. When synthetic nicotine emerged on the market, vapers wondered whether it would be a good substitute for these kinds of therapies.
The short answer is no. NRTs are things like nicotine pouches, patches, and nasal sprays that contain a much smaller amount of nicotine. In contrast, the synthetic nicotine products on the market match the amount of nicotine that is found in pure nicotine products. They will feed your nicotine addiction rather than dampen it.
Can I Buy Nicotine-Free E-liquid?
0% nicotine liquids are ideal for people who want to reduce their nicotine consumption whilst still having the feeling of using a nicotine product. This is a great psychological hack for people who need to keep their hands busy. Our article on the Best Nicotine-Free Vape highlights some of the most popular devices for a satisfying nicotine-free experience.
Nicotine-free e-liquid comes in the form of shortfills. A shortfill is a 60ml or 120ml bottle that has either 50ml or 100ml of flavored e-liquid. They are typically used in conjunction with nicotine shots, which account for the remaining space in the bottle. Of course, if you want the nicotine-free version, you can just use the shortfill.
Some disposable brands also sell nicotine-free pens. These pens come pre-loaded with 0% nicotine strength liquid, so all you have to do is unpackaged the device and start vaping.
Want to learn more about nicotine strengths? Read our article on Understanding Nicotine Strengths and Percentages.
Is Synthetic Nicotine Becoming Less Popular?
Next Generation Labs (NGL) is a bulk producer of R, R-S, and S tobacco-free nicotine. As far back as 2019, NGL announced that it has doubled its annual production capacity to meet the growing demand for synthetic nicotine. Currently, there are no signs of this trend slowing down.
Synthetic nicotine is not banned altogether, which means that it is still a viable source of income for vape manufacturers. On top of that, the FDA’s Annual National Youth Tobacco Survey for 2022 found that e-cigarettes are the most popular choice for young people who use tobacco products.
Of course, it has only been a short amount of time since the FDA labeled synthetic nicotine as a tobacco product. Only time will tell whether manufacturers will continue to create both pure and synthetic nicotine products.
Where Can I Buy Synthetic Nicotine Products?
You don’t have to go far to buy tobacco-free nicotine salts. One worrying study from Stanford found that synthetic nicotine is available for purchase from Amazon, e-Bay, Google Shopping, Target, and Walmart, all of which are platforms that should have strong protocols in place to prohibit the sale of these items.
To test the age limit associated with these products, Stanford researchers set up an email account as a 14-year-old boy and attempted to buy synthetic products. The purchase was a success, which shows us that synthetic nicotine is widely available on lots of platforms and to a wide range of age groups.
On top of that, of-age vapers can buy synthetic products in brick-and-mortar vaping stores.
Next time someone asks you, ‘What is synthetic nicotine?’ you’ll have an answer.
This type of nicotine is much more than just a knock-off, it has a chemical structure that is almost identical to pure nicotine. That being said, it exists in a legal grey area, which lawmakers are hurriedly trying to fix. Given the similarities between synthetic and pure nicotine, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it become a fixture in the vape community in years to come.