Editor’s Note: Article updated August 2019 – KO
For many people with chronic pain or other conditions treated with CBD, vaping provides convenient and quick relief. However, getting started can be a daunting task for inexperienced vapers. With so many CBD brands to buy from, is that disposable pen vape at the headshop down the street really the best option? Probably not.
Many stores take advantage of new vapers’ lack of knowledge. Newcomers get sold over priced equipment or, worse, a product that will make them sick. It is important to acquire a basic understanding of vaping and the components involved before making your first purchase.
Why Is Vaping CBD Popular?
Edible forms can take more than 30 minutes to digest and enter the user’s bloodstream. For people using CBD to treat seizures, chronic pain, anxiety or other similar ailments, waiting isn’t always an option.
An Introduction To Vaping CBD: Know Your Equipment
Not every vape is the same, but they all have four basic components: a battery, a heating element (also known as an atomizer), a mouthpiece and a chamber to hold the material to be vaped. The heating element vaporizes whatever material it comes in contact with in the chamber and the user inhales the vapor through the mouthpiece.
From here there are two distinct styles of vapes that we are concerned with for vaping CBD. The most common style of vape you’ll see is a “tank style” vape, where a battery heats up a small disposable cartridge or a refillable container. The other kind is a pen-style vape, typically used for concentrates like CBD isolate.
Tank-style vapes and CBD
The tank style of vape is the kind that produces the famous billowing clouds associated with vaping. These are known as “tank style” vapes. Tanks require e-liquid, a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavorings and CBD. The heating coil inside is filled or wrapped with cotton, nylon or silica wick to absorb the e-liquid into the coils.
When it comes to tank style vapes, there are yet another two variations: disposable and refillable. Disposable vapes (also known as “cartomizers” because they use prefilled, disposable cartridges) are convenient and easy to find. However, some are made with cheaper materials and are of questionable quality. If used improperly, the coil and wick can burn up, leaving the entire system useless. With a refillable vape, users add their own e-liquid to and the heating coils are often replaceable.
With disposable vapes, users have little control over the metal used in the coil, flavors used in the e-liquid, the quality of the CBD or the base chemicals used in the e-liquid.
There are also more complex, rebuildable vapes for advanced users who want to control every aspect of the vape hardware. However, these require a higher level of knowledge than the average user possesses or is willing to invest.
Pen style vaping and CBD concentrates
Pen-style vapes are used for concentrates. It consists of a chamber with a metal heating coil in the bottom that vaporizes concentrated CBD isolate placed directly on the coils.
The problem with vape pens is that the coil must be replaced periodically when it burns out and each one costs upwards of $20.
What’s more, as the heating coil slowly breaks down and oxidizes through repeated use, metal nanoparticles can potentially become aerosolized in the vapor being inhaled. Coil life can be extended by only using pure CBD isolates in the pen. Flavor additives and impure CBD leaves residue on the coil and speeds up oxidation.
Pens vs. tanks
For tobacco smokers, a refillable tank is the most common style of vape. Therefore, it may be easy to add CBD to your tank or try a CBD e-juice. Disposable cartridges, though somewhat wasteful, offer an easy and mess-free way to get started.
Meanwhile, a refillable pen style vape that uses CBD concentrates instead of e-liquid is the best option if you want an absolutely pure CBD experience. Pens are typically sold as all-in-one kits and replacement atomizers can be purchased online. Pens allow the user more control over the materials in the vape and what chemicals you consume.
The main drawback to using CBD e-liquid in a tank or cart, over pure concentrates, is the maximum dissolution rate. The most CBD that e-liquid can hold is about 33mg/ml, without the addition of harsh chemicals. This means that to achieve a typical dose, you need to take many more puffs to ingest the same amount of CBD as you’d get from a pen.
Potential Health Concerns In CBD Vapes
A small percentage of users are allergic or later develop allergies to some of the chemicals and materials used in vapes. Some studies found negligible amounts of metal particulate and other dangerous contaminants, such as lead and cadmium, in commercially available vapes. There have also been a handful of reports of serious injuries, and even death from vaping.
This is why it is so important to be informed before pursuing vaping, to avoid any potential allergens or contaminants. As technologies and regulations continue to evolve, these risks will become better understood and easier to mitigate. We’ll go into more about what we know about each of these risks below.
Reports of death and serious lung damage from vaping
Reports of serious lung damage and even deaths of vape users emerged during the summer of 2019. At the time of this update, the cause is still not completely clear, but enough data has emerged to make some educated guesses.
Reports indicate that some vape users suffered serious, lasting effects from lung damage. Vapes apparently containing CBD or cannabis sent 7 people to the hospital in King County, California. Even more tragically, at least one death seems to have resulted from this vaping issue.
While it’s not yet confirmed in every case, some or even most of those showing lung damage may have used black market, counterfeit cannabis vape cartridges. One factor to note here: the lung damage reports seem to have begun relatively recently, even though thousands of people have been vaping for years.
While not every victim is known to have used a counterfeit street cart, nearly all the reports of lung damage seem to come from states where cannabis remains illegal for recreational use. King’s County has banned cannabis dispensaries, despite being in California where recreational cannabis is legal. In places where legal dispensaries are not available, people who turn to street dealers could be buying carts containing harmful additives or even dangerous synthetic drugs.
Leafly’s David Downs compared the situation to alcohol prohibition, when “drinkers had to worry about getting sick and dying from ‘bathtub gin.’”
Could Metals Pose A Health Risk When Vaping CBD?
With pen-style, concentrate vapes, the main material of concern is the heating coil. These are typically made from titanium, stainless steel, Kanthal (an alloy of iron, chromium and aluminum), nickel-chromium alloy or pure nickel wire. Most commercially available vapes use Kanthal, grade 1 titanium or stainless steel.
A study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that “overall exposure to metals from electronic cigarette use is not expected to be of significant health concern for smokers switching to electronic cigarette use, but is an unnecessary source of exposure for never-smokers.”
While the levels of metals measured in the aerosolized vapors were well below recommended exposure levels, vapers are still consuming metal nanoparticles that they wouldn’t otherwise be consuming. Because there are so many different vape manufacturers around the world, it is important to research what materials are in the vape you plan to purchase and buy it from a reputable source. There is a large market for knock-off vape hardware manufactured from inferior materials.
Alternatives coils could still pose a risk
The study states that choosing a vape made from stainless steel and borosilicate glass could eliminate certain contaminants. The materials used in vapes are typically listed online and on the box. Using a vape with cotton or quartz wick and a titanium, stainless steel or Kanthal heating coil is probably safest. With nickel compounds designated as carcinogens and 10%-20% of the population sensitive to nickel, nickel and nickel-chromium coils should be avoided entirely.
As metal wire is heated and cooled repeatedly, an outer layer of metal oxide forms. When liquid comes in contact with the coils, the oxidized layer of metal nanoparticles can contaminate the vapor. These particles then travel into the user’s lungs. If this is a major concern for you as a user and you want to eliminate these contaminants entirely, skip ahead to the section on alternatives to vaping. If you still intend to vape, you should know a little bit more about oxidation and wire.
The main oxide on titanium wire is titanium dioxide. This compound is commonly used in beauty products and shown to cause DNA damage in mice. Kanthal and stainless steel wire both produce chromium oxides and ions, but the carcinogenic chromium ion, chromium VI, wasn’t found in aerosolized vapor.
Nowadays, many vapes are marketed as having quartz or ceramic heating elements. However, many still have exposed wire wrapped around a ceramic or quartz core. Vapes like this are still going to leech metal contaminants into the inhaled vapor.
Potential Allergens In CBD E-Juice
The main two chemicals in CBD e-liquid are propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin. Users with sensitivities to either of these chemicals will notice sinus irritation, nausea or a headache upon use. Individuals with more severe allergies can break out in hives, develop swelling or have difficulty breathing. Luckily, both chemicals are so ubiquitous that many people are already aware of allergies.
Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin are common ingredients in smoke machine vapor, cosmetics, hair products, food, drinks, cigarettes, medicine and many more products. Vegetable glycerin allergy is very rare. Most reactions are likely caused by an allergy to the plant oil the vegetable glycerin was derived from. Propylene glycol allergies on the other hand are much more common, but entirely avoidable.
While pure vegetable glycerin liquids are available, it doesn’t readily absorb into the wicking of most vapes. Pure vegetable glycerin juice requires advanced equipment called a rebuildable atomizer, or RBA, which is outside the scope of this introduction. As well, pure vegetable glycerin is difficult to use with CBD. Cannabidiol tends to precipitate out of the liquid into crystals. Polyethylene glycol can be added to the vegetable glycerin to allow more CBD to dissolve into the liquid; however, it is extremely bitter and harsh.
Alternatives To Vaping CBD
Dabbing Or Smoking Hemp Flower
If quick relief is a concern, high-CBD hemp strains can be smoked or concentrated CBD isolates can be vaporized out of a more traditional water pipe. The disadvantage to this is it is impossible to do in public without looking like a “drug user.”
It’s increasingly easy to buy smokable hemp flower. You can find both pre-rolled hemp cigarettes and joints, or loose hemp buds which can be rolled or smoked in a pipe. While hemp flower won’t make you “feel high,” it can be a quick and effective way to ingest a potent dose of CBD and immediately feel its effects. You can even use hemp flower to make DIY CBD oil.
You can also take CBD through a process known as dabbing. First, a quartz dish is attached to the stem of a glass water pipe. Then, the dish gets heated up, usually with a blowtorch or heating coil. The heat vaporizes CBD isolate in the quartz dish for the user to inhale. This form of consumption is vastly healthier. The only chemical that the CBD vapor can be contaminated with is water. Additionally, quartz is an inert and durable material.
Skip the vape and eat your CBD
If you don’t mind waiting or need of external relief, edibles, capsules and topical creams provide a great alternative. Of course, CBD drops or tinctures are also easy to take and relatively fast acting. What’s so great about CBD is the ease in which it can be added to almost anything that people consume.
Is Vaping CBD Worth The Health Risks?
While there may be some health concerns for non-smokers interested in vaping CBD, exposure to contaminants is less compared than traditional forms of smoking. Short-term and mid-term studies on the health effects of vaping show no significant side effects in smokers.
Whether or not vaping is right for you, CBD is always an option. Now that you know more about vaping, you can make a more informed and safe decision. Still, it’s important to continue doing more research. Read product reviews, watch YouTube videos, read Reddit posts, and search for more information before you buy anything. Chances are someone else already laid out everything you need to know about any given product. And, if you can’t find any information on a product, that is a huge red flag! Don’t buy it!
Scientists continue to study the long-term effects of vaping. While we wait for their research and for regulations to catch up with new technology, vaping poses some health risks. The technology is too new to say definitively that it is completely safe with total certainty. As a result, some non-smokers may choose to avoid vaping in favor of other forms of CBD.
We’ll continue to monitor reports of deaths or serious health issues and new developments in vaping technology, and we’ll keep this article updated accordingly.