Formation of flavorant-propylene Glycol Adducts With Novel Toxicological Properties in Chemically Unstable E-Cigarette Liquids

Nicotine Tob Res. 2019 Aug 19;21(9):1248-1258. doi: 10.1093/ntr/nty192.


Introduction: "Vaping" electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) is increasingly popular with youth, driven by the wide range of available flavors, often created using flavor aldehydes. The objective of this study was to examine whether flavor aldehydes remain stable in e-cigarette liquids or whether they undergo chemical reactions, forming novel chemical species that may cause harm to the user.

Methods: Gas chromatography was used to determine concentrations of flavor aldehydes and reaction products in e-liquids and vapor generated from a commercial e-cigarette. Stability of the detected reaction products in aqueous media was monitored by ultraviolet spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and their effects on irritant receptors determined by fluorescent calcium imaging in HEK-293T cells.

Results: Flavor aldehydes including benzaldehyde, cinnamaldehyde, citral, ethylvanillin, and vanillin rapidly reacted with the e-liquid solvent propylene glycol (PG) after mixing, and upward of 40% of flavor aldehyde content was converted to flavor aldehyde PG acetals, which were also detected in commercial e-liquids. Vaping experiments showed carryover rates of 50%-80% of acetals to e-cigarette vapor. Acetals remained stable in physiological aqueous solution, with half-lives above 36 hours, suggesting they persist when inhaled by the user. Acetals activated aldehyde-sensitive TRPA1 irritant receptors and aldehyde-insensitive TRPV1 irritant receptors.

Conclusions: E-liquids are potentially reactive chemical systems in which new compounds can form after mixing of constituents and during storage, as demonstrated here for flavor aldehyde PG acetals, with unexpected toxicological effects. For regulatory purposes, a rigorous process is advised to monitor the potentially changing composition of e-liquids and e-vapors over time, to identify possible health hazards.

Implications: This study demonstrates that e-cigarette liquids can be chemically unstable, with reactions occurring between flavorant and solvent components immediately after mixing at room temperature. The resulting compounds have toxicological properties that differ from either the flavorants or solvent components. These findings suggest that the reporting of manufacturing ingredients of e-liquids is insufficient for a safety assessment. The establishment of an analytical workflow to detect newly formed compounds in e-liquids and their potential toxicological effects is imperative for regulatory risk analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Chromatography, Gas / methods
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems*
  • Flavoring Agents / analysis*
  • Flavoring Agents / toxicity*
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Propylene Glycol / analysis*
  • Propylene Glycol / toxicity*
  • TRPA1 Cation Channel / agonists
  • TRPA1 Cation Channel / metabolism
  • TRPV Cation Channels / agonists
  • TRPV Cation Channels / metabolism
  • Tobacco Products / analysis
  • Tobacco Products / toxicity
  • Vaping / adverse effects


  • Flavoring Agents
  • TRPA1 Cation Channel
  • TRPA1 protein, human
  • TRPV Cation Channels
  • TRPV1 protein, human
  • Propylene Glycol