Last week, the e-cigarette company Juul announced that it was shutting down its Instagram and Facebook accounts and changing the way the brand engaged with its audience on YouTube and Twitter. Juul also said it would pull most flavors of its e-cigarette juice, known as Juul “pods,” from store shelves. The company justified this decision as an attempt to curtail the rampant underage use of its products, which had brought intense scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration.
Following the announcement, the robust online Juul community began mourning the loss of flavored pods with memes and many users began hoarding flavored Juul pods, especially the Mango flavor, which is the company’s second most popular. Vape stores also responded by raising the price of flavored pods. One store I visited this week had more than doubled the price of the Mango pods to meet the surge in demand.
The Juul panic appears to have been overblown, however. On Thursday morning, the New York Times reported that the FDA was not going to ban flavored Juul e-cigarette juice, but will require vendors to sell them in an area that is inaccessible to minors. At the same time, the FDA announced it would be seeking to outlaw menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
For the time being, flavored Juul pods will still be available to whoever wants them. However, the Juul pod ban scare made me realize that the government could take away mango vape juice at any time, so I began looking into how to make my own mango-flavored e-juice. As it turns out, it’s quite easy—and far cheaper—to make something similar yourself.
Making your own vape juice is nothing new. In fact, the DIY spirit runs deep in the vaping community. Prior to the rise of Juul, vaping culture was dominated by tinkerers who enjoyed building their own e-cigs, modifying commercial rigs, and creating their own vape juice at home. This led to the creation of pretty much every flavor imaginable and hundreds of small vape companies, many of which were destroyed by aggressive lobbying from the tobacco industry.
Juul is, in many ways, another nail in the coffin of DIY vape ethos. The design of Juul’s products discourage tinkering, and the company explicitly states that its pods are not meant to be refilled with homemade e-juice. At the same time, its proprietary blend of e-juice contains almost twice as much nicotine as other e-juice blends and an additive that increases the delivery speed of nicotine in the body, which has raised concerns about the addictive potential of the devices.
Of course, you shouldn’t experiment with making your own vape juice without understanding that there are risks: I was very careful with measuring each ingredient while mixing the juice and wore disposable latex gloves during the process to avoid nicotine coming in contact with my skin.
Making e-juice that’s compatible with a Juul (or any other vape mod) is a way to save money and also take control of what you’re putting into your body. If you’re trying to wean yourself off of nicotine, it’s possible to steadily lower the amount of nicotine you add to your homemade juices over time. Or, perhaps, you just want to experiment with flavoring or blow larger clouds. Whatever the case, it’s possible to make your own e-juice—here’s how I did it.
WHAT IS E-JUICE?
There are a variety of different ways to make juice for e-cigarettes, but most consist of a handful of core ingredients. First off, there needs to be a “humectant,” which is commonly used in cigarettes to keep the tobacco moist. In e-cigarettes, humectants act as a base liquid for the other ingredients and is usually a blend of vegetable glycerin (VG) and propylene glycol (PG).
Vegetable glycerin, also known as glycerol, is a fatty liquid that occurs naturally in many vegetables and is usually extracted from soy or palm oil. VG is a colorless and odorless viscous liquid that is recognizable by its sweet taste. In addition to its use in e-juice, it is also found in many cosmetics and foods. Propylene glycol is a type of alcohol that is also used widely in the food industry. Like VG, it is viscous, colorless, and has a slightly sweet taste. Generally speaking, increasing the amount of VG in vape juice will produce thicker clouds of vapor and feel less harsh on your throat.
Most e-juices available in stores come infused with nicotine. While this is an optional ingredient when you’re making your own e-juice, for many people vaping is mostly a way to consume nicotine without also sucking down the deadly chemicals found in cigarettes. (It is worth noting that the health effects of vaping are still hotly debated by researchers and that although vaping is almost certainly better than smoking cigarettes, this does not mean it is totally harmless.) It is possible to buy liquid nicotine for DIY e-juice online and in some smoke shops in potencies ranging from a few milligrams per liter to over 100 milligrams per liter. The liquid nicotine will almost always come suspended in some ratio of PG and/or VG.
It’s important to reiterate here that nicotine is toxic. Although fatal levels of nicotine consumption is rare in adult humans, a few dozen milligrams is enough to do the job. The lethal threshold is far lower for infants and pets, so make sure to keep the stuff in a safe place. It’s also advisable to wear gloves when handling the nicotine, as it can cause serious skin irritation if it gets on you. In some extreme cases, direct exposure to nicotine can cause symptoms of poisoning, such as dizziness and nausea. I was very careful to make sure I was diluting the nicotine to a level that was less than the ratio that Juul normally uses.
The final ingredient found in almost all commercial e-juices is flavoring. For a DIY e-juice, this can be pretty much any flavor, so long as the flavoring concentrate is water-soluble. Essential oils, for instance, are not a good option for flavoring e-juice both because the oil doesn’t mix well with the PG and VG, and also because some oils have lipids in them that can lead to lipid pneumonia, a type of inflammation caused when lipids enter the lungs.
HOW I MADE DIY VAPE JUICE AND PUT IT IN A JUUL
Propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, freebase (pure) nicotine, and mango concentrate are the four ingredients I used for my homemade mango e-juice because they are the same ingredients listed on Juul’s website. VG is available at most grocery stores (I bought a 16 oz bottle at Whole Foods for $10) and PG can be found at Walmart or online for about the same price. I ordered the liquid nicotine suspended in 100 percent PG from an online vendor for $18 and ordered the mango concentrate online as well for $10. All together, it cost me about $65 for materials with shipping.
A major difference between the e-juice mixture I am making and Juul’s official e-juice is that Juul uses nicotine salts instead of freebase nicotine. Juul also adds benzoic acid to its pods, which is extracted from a tobacco plant and when combined with freebase nicotine and heat in a Juul produces nicotine salts. The salts aid with the rapid delivery of nicotine to the nervous system without the harsh smoking experience of freebase nicotine. In this respect, Juuls are strikingly like a normal cigarette in terms of how they can get users hooked on nicotine.
I opted not to add benzoic acid into my e-juice because I didn’t feel like I needed the supercharged nicotine delivery mechanism. When I smoked Juul’s official pods, the nicotine rush was so strong it would often give me a headache, which I would prefer to avoid. However, both benzoic acid or pre-made nicotine salts are readily available online, if I had developed a higher nicotine tolerance.
The first, and arguably hardest step in creating e-juice is figuring out the right proportions for each ingredient. Companies that make e-juice don’t release their formulas, so it’s pretty much up to the user to experiment and find the ratios that work best for them. I had no idea where to start, so when I bought my Juul I asked the smoke shop clerk what the usual VG/PG ratios are in e-juice. He told me a common ratio is about 70 percent VG and 30 percent PG, so I used that as a baseline metric. (A number of online guides also list a 70/30 VG/PG mix as an ideal ratio for taste, throat hit, and vapor thickness.)
Since the freebase nicotine I ordered online came suspended in a 100 percent PG solution, I had to account for this in the mixture ratio. The nicotine itself was concentrated at 100 milligrams per milliliter, which is really strong. A high dose of nicotine is usually considered to be around 24 mg/mL, so I had to substantially dilute the nicotine with VG. (It is possible to buy freebase liquid nicotine at ratios as low as 1 mg/ML.) To measure the various substances I tried using a syringe I bought at Walgreens, but found that the ratios were way easier to mix when using a scale instead.
To calculate my mixture ratios, I used an online calculator at Steam Engine. There are dozens of other calculators available online for correctly mixing DIY e-juice.
I entered the parameters so that I’d be making about 7 milliliters of e-juice—approximately enough to fill 10 Juul pods. Juul advertises its pods as 5 percent nicotine by weight, which works out to about 59 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter. This is incredibly potent and is almost double the nicotine of most other e-juices on the market. I spent the weekend giving my Juul a test run with the official pods and found myself getting a nicotine rush whenever I’d take a hit. Based on this, I decided to put about half the amount of nicotine found in official Juul pods in my DIY mixture. The last thing to add is flavoring. Flavor concentrates are usually suspended in some ratio of PG and VG, which needs to be factored into the ratios of PG and VG of the overall vape juice mixture. The mango juice I ordered was suspended in 100 percent PG, so I reduced the amount of pure PG I added to the e-juice to accommodate the flavoring.
Juul expressly states on its website that its pods are not made for reuse: “Juul pods are closed systems and are not intended to be refilled,” it says. But I was willing to ignore this warning, and they are quite easy to refill. I took a used Juul pod, popped off the plastic cap with a knife, removed the rubber infill and then poured the e-juice mixture into the Juul pod and put everything back in place. It’s also possible to buy empty Juul pods online. In fact, there’s an entire subreddit dedicated to selling empty pods.
In the center of the pod there is a small metal cylinder that allows air to flow through the pod. It is important that when you are filling the pod you don’t allow any of the juice to get into the cylinder or else you will suck juice into your mouth when you inhale. I picked up a 3 milliliter eyedropper at a local pharmacy and used that to add my DIY e-juice to a used Juul pod.
HOW’D IT TASTE?
Going into this experiment in making DIY Juul pods I expected my mixture to be far inferior to the e-juice found in official pods in terms of both flavor and smoking experience. Yet when I took my first hit of my homemade e-juice, I could hardly tell the difference from an official Juul pod. The flavor was a little sweeter and the throat hit was a bit more harsh. That said, these differences were very minor and I think with a bit of tweaking it would be possible to replicate the taste and feel of an official Juul pod with even more precision.
I am, admittedly, not a regular Juul user so my inability to distinguish between my homemade e-juice and the official stuff could possibly be attributed to my unrefined palate. To make sure it wasn’t all in my head, I recruited a longtime Juul user from within the VICE offices to partake in a blind taste test. Although he was able to distinguish my bootleg mango e-juice from the official Juul e-juice, he told me “it can definitely pass as a near-perfect Juul mango pod.” Another VICE staffer who Juuls regularly told me the same.
In New York, a pack of four Juul pods costs around $20. By contrast, all the materials to make my own e-juice cost about $50. The difference, however, is that this is enough material to refill a Juul pod about 60 times, which amounts to about 80 cents per pod. This is over four times cheaper than the official pods.
Given that homemade e-juice is basically indistinguishable from the official Juul e-juice, those who are willing to put in a small amount of effort to make their own stand to save a lot of money on their vaping habit, in addition to customizing their flavor and smoking experience.
Disclaimer: If you are under 18, it is illegal to buy nicotine. Even if you are 18, nicotine is toxic and can be a poison risk if consumed. There is only limited scientific research on the safety of vaping, and almost no research on the possible safety hazards of making and vaping your own vape juice. This article details how I made DIY vape juice, and is for informational and entertainment purposes only. We don't recommend you do this yourself.