They say sitting is the new smoking, but there’s a new trend that’s just as concerning: vaping. This smoking alternative is catching on fast. And some say it’s a healthier option. But is vaping safe or healthy?
While the answer is pretty simple (no), this article will cover some of the risks and side effects. Plus we’ll explore whether vaping really is a healthier alternative to tobacco cigarettes.
What Is Vaping?
Vaping is inhaling the aerosol created from e-cigarettes. The inventor of the first successful e-cig is often cited as a Chinese pharmacist and heavy smoker, Hon Lik. But, electronic delivery systems have been around since at least 1963. E-cigs came to the U.S. in 2006 as a smoking cessation aid.
Several things make up an e-cig vaping device. You’ll find a mouthpiece, a battery, a cartridge with liquid, a heating element/atomizer, and a microprocessor. Sometimes the vape pens and devices have an LED light. The e-cig heats up the e-liquid and creates an aerosol to inhale. Some vaping liquid has nicotine and some don’t.
The liquid generally has a mix of propylene glycol to boost flavor and vegetable glycerin for more vapor. Vaping products like the Juul brand are popular with high school students because they offer so many flavors.
Is Vaping Safe?: Risks and Side Effects
When vaping first became well known in the U.S., it seemed like a good tool to help people quit smoking regular cigarettes. But vaping grew in popularity among non-smokers too. Teens and young adults especially.
The wide array of flavors, combined with thinking vaping was completely safe and without side effects spurred its popularity. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. It turns out vaping isn’t only a gateway to smoking, cravings, and other addictions. It’s also full of toxins.
Here are some of the risks and side effects of vaping.
Impaired Wound Healing
We know cigarette smoking causes impaired wound healing. But vaping liquid with nicotine isn’t any better. Like cigarette smokers, e-cigarette users are told to quit vaping a few weeks before and after surgery. This helps avoid infections and complications in healing.
Smoker’s (Vapor’s) Cough
Vaping can cause a cough like a smoker’s cough. The e-liquid vapor can irritate the throat and lungs, leading to a cough.
Though it may seem better than cigarettes, vaping liquid also has some nasty toxins. A study in Pediatrics found that teens who vaped had 3x as many toxins in their bodies as those who didn’t smoke or vape. Teens who both smoked and vaped had 3x more toxins than those who just vaped.
Other research shows e-cig vapor reduces our cell’s glutathione. Glutathione is an important antioxidant that protects cells from damage. Thanks to less glutathione, 85% of human mouth cells in the study were destroyed. Cell damage can lead to long-term health effects, like cancer.
Smoking is a well-known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. And it increases blood pressure and heart rate. Vaping may also cause an increased risk of heart disease. A 2018 report found vaping doubles the risk of a heart attack. Vaping and smoking at the same time increase the risk by 5 times.
Vaping can pose a household hazard, especially when children and pets are involved. E-liquids often have a yummy tasting, flavored nicotine. According to the APA, cases of kids accidentally ingesting vape liquid went up 1,500% in just 3 years. While that number went down some in 2015, it jumped up yet again in 2017.
Vaping Liquid Ingredients
The ingredients in e-cig liquid are concerning, too.
- Formaldehyde: A 2015 study found that e-cigs heated with high-voltage batteries release formaldehyde.
- Diacetyl (an ingredient in e-liquid) is linked with a rare lung disease that permanently harms lung airways.
- Propylene glycol is another concerning ingredient. The authors of a 2015 review voiced their concerns with propylene glycol in vaping liquid. It was only given the “Generally Recognized As Safe” designation by the FDA based on one animal study done in 1947. Propylene Glycol may be safe to eat in small amounts, but we don’t know how safe or unsafe it is when inhaled.
- Nicotine: Many vaping liquids also have nicotine. Nicotine has its own risks. It affects all body systems, including the heart, breathing, kidneys, and reproductive systems. This chemical also raises cancer risk and suppresses the immune system. Nicotine users are also more likely to get eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration.
Is Vaping Safer Than Smoking?
It seems reasonable that vaping is at least less harmful than smoking. Research suggests this could be the case.
A 2017 found smokers who switched to vaping for 16 months had fewer carcinogens and other toxins in their bodies. Another study from the same year found the cancer risk from vaping is about 1% of the risk of smoking.
Can Vaping Help You Quit Smoking?
The UK’s Public Health England has even put out a statement supporting vaping instead of smoking. Many people start vaping in an effort to quit smoking, but that doesn’t always work out. A study with over 1,800 smokers found a link between vaping and unsuccessful smoking cessation. In other words, people tried to quit by using the e-cig but failed.
Smokers who call into state tobacco quitlines aren’t faring much better. Researchers found that smokers who try to use vaping to quit smoking were much less likely to be tobacco-free than those who never tried vaping.
A 2020 Cochrane review of over 50 studies found:
- E-cigarettes probably help people quit smoking for about 6 months.
- Nicotine e-cigarettes seem to work better than nicotine replacement therapy (like the nicotine patch).
- Nicotine e-cigarettes may work better than behavioral support or no support.
- We need more reliable evidence to know for sure what the effects are.
Bottom Line: Vaping is less harmful than smoking but not harmless, by any means. Vaping may help some people quit smoking, but not everyone. Ultimately, there’s no healthy alternative to smoking besides not smoking.
Vaping and Young People
Many health officials and parents worry vaping is a gateway to tobacco use for teens. And lots of research is coming out on the subject. At first glance, these studies seem concerning.
The NIH found that high schoolers who vaped were more than twice as likely to pick up smoking. However, these studies don’t account for how many teens would start smoking anyway. Regardless of whether or not they had access to vaping.
While vaping is growing in popularity, teen smoking is not. A large 2017 on UK teens and vaping found teen smoking rates continue to go down despite vaping use. This suggests vaping doesn’t lead to more smoking.
The latest 2022 update found e-cigs only slightly increase the chance of picking up cigarette smoking. Unlike earlier reports, this one accounted for other factors, like if kids were around other smokers and behavioral risks. By adding these variables they found that the risk was a lot lower than previously thought.
Bottom Line: It’s unlikely that vaping is a huge risk factor for smoking, but it’s still not healthy. Efforts should focus on teaching teens about the health risks of both.
Essential Oil Vaping
Essential oil vaping is like e-cig vaping but uses a mix of vegetable glycerin and essential oils. It’s like an individual essential oil diffuser. Brands like MONQ recommend breathing the vapor into the mouth (but not the lung) and exhaling through the nose.
But there are no long-term studies to show essential oil vaping is safe. MONQ’s disclaimer lists the side effects of vaping essential oils, including:
- Dry mouth
- Sore throat
- Eye irritation
- Burning sensation
- Loose stool
Bottom Line: Without any studies or long-term use showing essential oil vaping is safe, I don’t recommend it. Also, any benefits you can get from essential oil vaping can be gained through regular oil diffusing instead.
Is Vaping Safe and Healthy: Final Thoughts
Inhaling anything but clean air is a potential risk, and that includes vaping. While it may be helpful for those who already smoke, it’s not the best option. Quitting smoking and vaping altogether is still the best choice.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Michelle Sands, ND. She is double board certified in Integrative Medicine and Naturopathic Medicine and is also a Board-Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and competitive endurance athlete. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried vaping? What was your experience? Please share with us below!