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What’s the difference between vapour and aerosol?

“When you vape why do people now call it an aerosol and not vapour? What’s the difference?

You’d think that because electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) are often called vapes that’s what they would produce when they are used – a vapour. In fact, they don’t – these devices produce an ‘aerosol’. There’s quite a big difference between the two, particularly in terms of what you’re inhaling when you vape.

Put simply, a vapour is a gaseous state of something that is normally a liquid (e.g., steam is a vapour, it’s the gaseous state of water). When a vapour is released it will continue to spread until completely mixed with air. Most importantly, it contains nothing else but the gas itself.

Aerosol is quite different as it’s a mixture of tiny liquid particles suspended in a gas. Instead of just mixing with the air, like a vapour would, the aerosols produced by vaping can leave tiny droplets behind. These droplets or residue contain a range of chemicals and substances. Some of these will be listed on the packaging, such as propylene glycol and glycerin (both used as food additives and solvents in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics) and whatever flavouring has been added to the liquid.

Others won’t be found there as these are not added during the manufacturing process. These are produced and then found in the aerosol due to chemical reactions caused by heating the device or the flavourings. The heating of e-liquid flavourings has not been well researched but it appears that this poses the greatest potential risk to lung health.

We’re learning more about the chemicals found in aerosols produced by e-cigarettes all the time and there is great debate about their potential risks. It is clear, however, that those who use these devices are not just vaping ‘harmless’ water vapour.

Published: July 2023

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