chemicals in e-cigarettes

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E-cigarettes are surrounded by a lot of controversy. They’re often billed as the “safer” alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes. But are e-cigarettes really as safe as the companies who sell them would have you believe? The research is ongoing, but here’s what we know so far.

Chemicals, vaping, and what’s really going into your body

Scientists are still uncovering how chemicals in e-cigarette vapor affect your body. “Some studies have found things like heavy metals, formaldehyde (an embalming agent), and acrolein (a weed killer) in vapor emissions,” says Dr. Andrew Hyland, chair of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Researchers know vaping exposes you to toxic chemicals. Granted, you’re already exposed to some of them in your daily life, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe to inhale. Researchers are still learning how the amount that you’re exposed to through vaping might impact your health down the road.

Here’s what we do know about the chemicals commonly found in e-cigarettes:

science icon moleculesFormaldehyde

  • Yep, the stuff that’s used to preserve those specimens you dissected in biology class. Formaldehyde can form if the liquid in an e-cigarette overheats or not enough liquid reaches the heating coil (aka a “dry puff”), according to the American Cancer Society.
  • In 2011, the US government’s National Toxicology Program officially classified formaldehyde as a “known human carcinogen,” which means there’s enough evidence to say that it causes cancer in humans.

Propylene glycolscience icon eye dropper

  • Ever wonder what creates the “fog” used in a fog machine? It’s propylene glycol, which is also found in e-cigarettes (as well as some food and cosmetics).
  • The verdict is still out on the long-term effects of exposure to propylene glycol, but in the short term, concentrated exposure can cause irritation of your lungs and airway, according to the American Cancer Society.

Benzenescience icon molecules

  • Known as a “volatile organic compound” (VOC), benzene is found in car exhaust, according to the surgeon general. It can form at high temperatures from e-cigarette fluids containing ingredients such as propylene glycol, the flavor additive benzaldehyde, and nicotine.
  • It’s also been established as a carcinogen. Benzene exposure is particularly linked to leukemia and other cancers of the blood, according to the American Cancer Society.

Diacetylscience icon beaker

  • Diacetyl is a flavoring agent found in e-cigarette liquids as well as foods like microwave popcorn and candy.
  • It’s considered safe in foods, but when it’s vaporized and inhaled, research suggests it’s dangerous, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It’s specifically been linked with a dangerous lung disease known as “popcorn lung,” or bronchiolitis obliteran, which was first noticed in factory workers who inhaled artificial butter flavoring in popcorn factories.

Heavy metalsscience icon magnifying glass

  • A 2017 study published in Environmental Research found a number of toxic metals in the liquids used in e-cigs—including cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, and nickel—which may come from the metal coil used to heat the liquid.
  • More research on the health effects of exposure to these metals is needed, but they’ve been linked to “breathing problems and disease,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 

What about addiction?

“Anything with nicotine has the potential to become addictive to the user,” Dr. Hyland says. This is especially true for products you inhale, since they deliver nicotine to the brain quickly. The more you vape (as you become addicted), the more you are exposed to the other harmful chemicals found in e-cigs. “Nicotine doesn’t cause most of the health problems directly, but it creates addiction to keep users coming back,” says Dr. Hyland.

The key word there is most—nicotine has been found to have some harmful effects on its own, especially if you’re under 25. “We know that the brain doesn’t fully develop until the early 20s, and while it’s developing it is particularly sensitive to nicotine and other drugs,” says Dr. Hyland. Nicotine use has been linked to incomplete development of the brain, especially in areas that control attention and learning, impulse control, and even mood, according to NIDA.

woman holding vape pen in vape cloud

What it all means

The bottom line: Even though some experts agree that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. “Vaping is almost certainly safer than smoking cigarettes, but vaping is not safe,” Dr. Hyland emphasizes. When you vape, you breathe in chemicals proven to be harmful—and open yourself up to long-term health risks that researchers are still exploring.

If you’re hooked, there are plenty of resources that can help you kick the habit, including free, personalized counseling. Check out the “Get help or find out more” section below.

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Article sources

Indra Cidambi, MD, medical director, Center for Network Therapy, West Orange, New Jersey.

Andrew Hyland, PhD, chair of the Department of Health Behavior, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Buffalo, New York.

American Cancer Society. (2019, June 19). What do we know about e-cigarettes? Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/tobacco-and-cancer/e-cigarettes.html

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, February 4). Current cigarette smoking among adults in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/index.htm

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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (2019, February 1). Common e-cigarette chemical flavorings may impair lung function. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/common-e-cigarette-chemical-flavorings-may-impair-lung-function/

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Kamil, Y. A. (2019, January 4). The negative effects of nicotine vaping on students. SI News. Retrieved from https://www.studyinternational.com/news/the-negative-effects-of-nicotine-vaping-on-students/

Pankow, J. F., Kim, K., McWhirter, K. J., Luo, W., et al. (2017, March 8). Benzene formation in electronic cigarettes. PloS One, 12(3). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173055

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, May). 2018 monitoring the future survey. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/monitoring-future

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