In the market for a new vape pen or desktop vaporizer? Good thinking. Vaping cannabis is generally better for your health than smoking it is. And that’s because of one thing: combustion.
When you smoke cannabis, you’re applying heat in the form of a direct flame to flower or concentrate. This heat turns the tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) in raw cannabis into tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This process, known as decarboxylation, is needed for cannabis flower or concentrate to produce the psychoactive effects cannabis is known for. However, the high heat of combustion may also release compounds that pose a risk to your health.
Because of this, health-conscious cannabis consumers have turned to vaporization, which uses a lower heat to decarboxylate cannabis, creating a vapor—instead of smoke—that you then inhale.
In today’s cannabis world, there are more vaping options than ever. How do you know what to choose? Don’t worry. We’re here to help. We’ll go over conduction and convection; two different heating methods that you should consider. And we’ll brief you on different heating elements, so you’ll be off to a good start in your search for the perfect vaporizer.
Vaporizers heat cannabis in two different ways: conduction and convection. In conduction vaporizers, cannabis is heated via direct contact with a hot surface, but the surface never gets hot enough to combust the cannabis—hopefully.
Most portable vape pens are conduction vaporizers. This is because they don’t take long to heat up, have a simple design that makes them easy to maintain and can be made at an affordable price point.
The downside to conduction vaporizers is that many of them don’t heat cannabis evenly. Typically, the heating element only touches one part of the cannabis, meaning you sometimes have to shake or stir the material, so it can come into contact with the heat source.
Additionally, these devices usually lack temperature controls. Without these controls, you run the risk of the vaporizer getting too hot, leading to some combustion and a harsher vapor that can be harder on your lungs.
Vape pens often contain additives like propylene glycol and polyethylene glycol. These thinning agents are safe for consumption at lower temperatures, but at higher heat (around 446 degrees F), they can transform into carcinogenic chemicals like formaldehyde. While there’s still debate on how applicable these studies are to real life, you may want to play it safe and have a vaporizer that lets you keep temperatures at lower levels.
There are conduction vaporizers with temperature controls like the PAX Era and PAX 3. These vape pens boast temperature control settings that you can operate via your smartphone, and they have a lock feature that prevents them from being operated by any unwanted consumers.
While conduction vaporizers decarboxylate cannabis via contact with a direct heat source, convection vaporizers heat up the air around your cannabis. Convection vaporizers were developed in response to many of the challenges brought up by conduction vaporizers.
Convection vaporizers require a lot of energy to heat up, so you’ll usually find them in a pricey desktop vaporizer, though there are some portable options. However, you’ll get the benefits of advanced temperature settings, allowing you to consume your cannabis more safely, efficiently and effectively.
Beyond the heating mechanism, you may also want to consider what material the heating element is made out of. In a conduction or convection vaporizer, the heating element is what causes either the heating surface or air to get hot. Heating elements are typically made out of:
There are pros and cons to each type of material.
Aluminum and titanium are popular choices for metal heating elements. Both metals conduct heat well and respond easily to temperature changes, making vaporizers with these devices able to control temperatures to a T.
Some folks are wary of metal heating elements, because it’s thought that at high temperature metals can give off substances that can be harmful to your health. However, these claims have no solid scientific basis. In fact, for aluminum to be hot enough to emit any substances, it needs to reach 1220 degrees F—most vaporizers tend to heat around the 400 degree F range.
Ceramic is another popular choice for heating elements due to its low cost and ability to withstand higher temperatures than metal. However, ceramic isn’t as good of a conductor as metal is, making temperature harder to control.
Since ceramic vaporizers can be made at a low cost, you should do a bit of research before buying one to make sure you don’t end up with a low-quality product. There are many high-quality ceramic vaporizers on the market like the VapeXhale.
Glass is pricier than metal and ceramic are, but it’s not necessarily better, so it’s the least popular of the three. However, it’s increasingly popular among dabbers. Glass has many of the same qualities as ceramic does, but it’s more fragile.
All in all, choosing the right vaporizer is a matter of personal preference. Typically, you get what you pay for, and the priciest vaporizers have the best heating elements. It all comes down to how much you’re willing to spend, and what you value in your consumption experience.
Photo credit: Finn Gross Maurer
If you’re new to cannabis and want to learn more, take a look at our Cannabis 101 index of articles. HelloMD can help you get your medical marijuana recommendation; it's easy, private and 100% online.