Nicotine is an alkaloid found in plants from the nightshade family, including peppers, tomatoes and potatoes. But only in the tobacco plant it is abundant enough to extract and refine. Nicotine can be synthesized in a laboratory too, but the process is very expensive.
Paradoxically, nicotine works as both a stimulant and a relaxant, with users reporting varying effects such as mood elevation, alertness and calmness. It is commonly viewed as physically and psychologically addictive, which is why most vapers who were first smokers use e-juice with some level of nicotine. Commercial e-liquid is available in a range of nicotine strengths—including with no nicotine—but most vapers buy it with nicotine included.
Vape juice is sold with varying levels of nicotine, and picking the right nicotine strength is an important decision for a new vaper. Too much and you might wind up coughing, too little and you may wonder if vaping will even work for you. Or you might spend a pile of cash on a huge bottle of premium juice, only to find out that its nicotine strength is not high enough to satisfy your cravings.
E-liquids come in strengths that start at zero nicotine and go up to over 50 mg/mL. You may have also seen nicotine strengths expressed as percentages instead of concentrations. All this can be confusing at first, but it doesn’t have to be! This guide will help steer you in the right direction when choosing nicotine strength, and show you how to navigate the market.
Note that the information presented in this article pertains to nicotine strength in commercial e-liquid. If you are learning how to mix your own juice—which may involve diluting nicotine base—take a look at our article on how to make DIY e-juice for beginners.
JUUL introduced nicotine salt e-liquid to the vaping market, which has changed the way many users quit smoking and start vaping.
The popularity of nic salts e-liquid is the reason you see nicotine strengths jumping from 3 mg or 6 mg to 25 mg or even 60 mg in online shops these days. Nic salts, or protonated nicotine, uses an acid (usually benzoic acid) that smooths out the throat sensation, making higher nicotine concentrations more tolerable to the vaper. (You can find more info about nic salts in our nicotine salts mini guide.)
Unlike nic salts, regular nicotine (sometimes called freebase nicotine) is harsh at very high levels. There are some exceptions, but typically e-liquid that’s sold at a level of 18 mg/mL or lower uses regular nicotine, and juice over that strength is made with nic salts. Most people say the throat hit of 6 mg regular nic feels more or less like 20-25 mg nic salts.
With such high concentrations, salt nicotine has become synonymous with pod systems and other devices with low power and vapor output. The tiny atomizers on pod vapes like the JUUL really need higher nicotine levels to produce a satisfying experience for the user.
If you’re a new vaper, there are two major factors to consider when picking nicotine strength: your smoking habits, and the type of device you are planning on using. To help you navigate the market, we have categorized our suggestions by vapor output, as this is the factor that ultimately dictates the amount of nicotine consumed per puff.
If you smoke socially, or up to a few cigarettes a day, you’ll probably fall in the lower range of each suggestion. If you smoke 10-20 cigarettes a day, you’ll land somewhere in the middle. Smoking more than a pack a day most likely puts you in the higher area.
Bear in mind that the suggested strengths in this section are exactly that: suggestions. Use them as a starting point, but if you find that you prefer your vape stronger or weaker, don’t be afraid to try other nicotine strengths. Remember that nicotine without smoke is not a health risk for most people. The best nicotine strength is the one that keeps you away from combustible cigarettes!
Discreet clouds, similar to the smoke produced by a cigarette. This grouping includes most pod systems on the market, as well as mouth-to-lung (MTL) tanks with a very tight airflow. High-strength nic salts are the most popular choice for this category. (Many e-liquid manufacturers don’t even make flavors with regular nicotine at strengths over 6 mg/mL anymore.)
Clouds, but not of the massive variety. Devices that fall in this category can come from practically any product range. This includes pod systems that take sub ohm coils, airier MTL tanks, and even sub ohm tanks that have a very restricted draw.
Big clouds. This includes powerful sub ohm tanks and rebuildable atomizers with large airflow channels. Finding nic salts for this category may not be easy, because these devices put out so much vapor that it’s very easy to get too much nic too quickly. Most vapers who use sub ohm devices choose regular nicotine juices at very low strengths. Even 6 mg/mL e-liquid may be too strong considering the vapor volume delivered by some of these devices!
When it comes to quitting smoking, we advise new vapers to try a low vapor device—either a pod system or MTL tank. These will emulate the draw of a cigarette, which may help smokers smoothly transition to vaping.
But many people prefer a restricted direct-lung draw, or even a fully open draw, and in that case a more powerful pod system or a sub ohm tank might be the best choice. You may have to experiment with different kinds of devices. There is no right or wrong!
Let’s assume that you have now tried a couple of nicotine strengths, and settled for the one that satisfies your cravings. Even after you narrow it down, it can still be confusing at times. Sometimes manufacturers list nicotine strength by percentage, like 0.3%, 0.6%, 2.5% and 5%.
What’s the difference between nicotine strengths written as mg/mL and those expressed as percentages? How do you convert from one to the other?
Most of the time, e-liquid nicotine strengths are shown in mg/mL, which stands for milligrams per milliliter. This means that for every milliliter of e-liquid in the bottle, there is the specified amount of nicotine.
For 6 mg/mL e-juice, this means every milliliter contains 6 milligrams of nicotine. If you need to work out the total amount of nicotine in a bottle or in a tank, just multiply the strength in mg/mL by the number of milliliters of it you have.
For example, if you fill up a 5 mL vape tank with 6 mg/mL e-liquid, you have 5 mL × 6 mg/mL = 30 mg of nicotine in your tank. In the same way, a 10 mL bottle of 6 mg/mL e-liquid contains 60 mg of nicotine in total.
Nicotine strengths as percentages are very similar, but a little easier to understand. Instead of combining a mass (in mg) and a volume (in mL), percentages use the volumes of both. In simple terms, figures like 0.3% or 1.8% just tell you how much of the liquid in the bottle is nicotine.
This means that if you have some e-liquid containing 1.2% nicotine, any amount you measure out will be 1.2% nicotine and 98.8% PG, VG and flavorings.
Technically, this measurement is called “nicotine by volume,” in the same way the percentages on a bottle of liquor are “alcohol by volume” or ABV for short. “Nicotine by volume” is sometimes shortened to NBV too.
You could also work out the percentage by mass, if you wanted to, but e-liquid companies usually don’t do this. Vapers deal with e-juice in milliliters, so manufacturers do too.
Converting from a nicotine strength in mg/mL to a percentage is really easy. Just divide the amount in mg/mL by 10. So, if you have a 6 mg/mL e-juice, this is equal to a 0.6% e-juice. A 25 mg/mL e-juice is 2.5%. And if you had a high-strength nicotine base of 72 mg/mL, this would be 7.2%.
The conversion couldn’t be any simpler. To convert back from percentages to mg/mL, just multiply it by 10. That’s all there is to it!
If you aren’t too traumatized by the math lesson, you can now confidently navigate the e-liquid market and buy juice in the strength range that will most likely satisfy your nicotine cravings. You can also explain what mg/mL means, what the percentage values on e-liquids mean, and convert between them easily. No matter where you’re ordering from, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. But if you don’t nail it on the first try, don’t give up! With so many nicotine levels available, you will eventually find the e-liquid strength that works best for you.
Share your thoughts with us! Have you tried e-juice that felt too strong or too weak to you? What was the nicotine strength that helped you quit smoking?