Vape cartridges have become some of the most popular cannabis products to hit the market in recent years, but a great deal of controversy still surrounds this relatively new way of getting your daily dose of THC. While some praise vaping as a discreet and beneficial alternative to smoking cannabis, others warn of potentially unhealthy impacts from vape cartridge ingredients. We’ll show you what’s in a vape cartridge so you can decide whether it’s right for you.
What’s in a vape cartridge?
Vape cartridges are typically pre-filled and disposable, although refillable cartridges are an option as well. Standard vape cartridges are used in combination with a cannabis e-cigarette or “vape pen” with a 510-thread battery. Manufacturers use a variety of ingredients within their vape formulas, and it’s important to educate yourself on the impacts of each component so you can assess the risks.
The most important ingredient in a vape cartridge is, of course, cannabis. Dried and cured cannabis is extracted using either butane(the resulting product is known as butane hash oil, or BHO) or supercritical CO2. When created using the proper techniques, CO2-extracted cannabis oil is the proper viscosity to be vaporized without the use of additives. The terpenes that naturally occur in the cannabis plant act as a built-in thinning agent and also provide natural flavoring. For the health-conscious consumer, vape cartridges filled with only CO2-extracted cannabis oil may be the best option. CO2 leaves no residual solvent in the product, maintains the flower’s original flavor profile, and contains no questionable additives.
Not all manufacturers use 100% pure cannabis oil. Many use THC distillate as their base ingredient. This type of cannabis concentrate makes use of heat and vacuum pressure to refine away all other components from cannabis resin, resulting in a raw product that is odorless, flavorless, and contains 99% pure THC. Without the presence of natural terpenes, vape cartridges made with THC distillate require added terpenes and other ingredients to add flavor and to achieve the ideal viscosity to properly atomize when vaped.
There are a number of ingredients that may be added to your vape cartridge in order to improve flavor, vape cloud quality and mouthfeel. Terpenes are compounds found in plants that impart distinctive flavors and aromas. These compounds may have developed over time to repel pests, attract pollinators, and even defend against certain types of fungi and bacteria. Each different strain of cannabis has its own unique terpene profile. When creating a THC distillate-based vape cartridge, some manufacturers will add terpenes to mimic the original taste and aroma of the cannabis strain used in the product, or to create an entirely new flavor. For a more authentic flavor profile, full-spectrum vape cartridges make use of cannabis-derived terpenes by retaining the extracted compounds during the distilling process and reintroducing some or all of them back into the vape oil. Other producers may choose to use food-grade terpenes. These terpenes have been extracted from the leaves, stems, and barks of other plants. Limonene, for example, can be extracted from lemons, oranges, and other plants to impart a citrusy flavor. These food-grade terpenes are used to flavor many of the processed foods we enjoy today and can be combined to produce a broad range of flavors and aromas. Artificial flavors may also be added, but they are typically the least-preferred by health-conscious consumers. While terpenes can be found naturally in cannabis or derived from other plant sources, there is growing controversy over the safety of other ingredients that can often be found in vape cartridges. Some of the most common vape cartridge additives include:
- Polyethylene Glycol (PEG): used to keep vape cartridge ingredients well-distributed, increases vapor production.
- Propylene Glycol (PG): binding agent that provides more even draws from your vape pen.
- Vegetable glycerin (VG): used as a preservative, promotes large vape clouds.
The Food and Drug Administration(FDA) has approved these substances for human consumption, but typically they're tested for how they affect humans when added to food, not heated up and inhaled. Some states are adopting more restrictions on these cutting agents. Studies have found that polyethylene glycol(PEG) and propylene glycol(PG) degrade to formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, two known carcinogens, when vaporized at high temperatures. Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division has recently banned the use of PEG in cannabis products due to continued health concerns. Additionally, this agency has banned the use of vitamin E acetate and medium-chain triglyceride(MCT) oil as vape cartridge additives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked vitamin E acetate to the recent emergence of many vaping-related illnesses.
How to Find Quality Vape Cartridges
It’s important to note that the long-term effects of vaping remain unknown, and further research is needed to conclusively rule on the overall safety of vape products. There are, however, a few indicators of higher and lower-quality products that you should look for when shopping for vape cartridges.
- Avoid plastic cartridges when possible. High-quality cartridges may be made of either ceramic, glass, or stainless steel. Plastic is often an indicator of cheap manufacturing and a lower-quality product. Certain types of plastic can even leach potentially harmful substances into your vape oil.
- Use only independently lab-tested vape carts from a reputable source. Lab tests not only verify the cannabinoid and terpene content, but they also test for contaminants such as mold, heavy metals and pesticides. During one Emerald Cup cannabis contest, 34 of the 39 vape cartridge entries were disqualified due to the presence of banned pesticides.
- If you are concerned about questionable ingredients in your vape cartridge, opt for 100% additive-free, CO2-extracted cannabis oil. Never use products known to contain vitamin E acetate.
Vape cartridges offer many convenient benefits such as quick onset time, easy dosing, and odorless discretion—all in a portable package. Remember, the science surrounding vaping and vape cartridges is relatively new, and the long-term effects are still not known. Look for high-quality products and know the risks before you puff.