In the past, the only effective way to enjoy cannabis was by lighting up and smoking. By now, the world at large is aware of the many negative effects that go along with inhaling smoke into the lungs. Thanks to the rise of devices called vaporizers, you can enjoy your favorite cannabis strains without exposing yourself to potential carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals. In fact, vaporizers have become so popular and widespread that you can now purchase concentrates, including waxes and oils, to get the most bang for your buck.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when investigating vaporizers for the first time. Since they’ve skyrocketed in popularity, a dizzying array of options has flooded the market. Newcomers often feel intimidated by the sheer variety of options and sometimes forego vaping altogether. Don’t let that happen to you! The truth is that vaporizers are simple devices. By familiarizing yourself with a few of the basics about them, you can easily zero in on an option that will work perfectly for you. Ready to learn everything you need to know about vaporizers? The following guide will help.

What are vaporizers?

Put simply, a vaporizer is a device that heats up cannabis or concentrates to a high temperature. In doing so, it produces a vapor containing the active ingredients that are found in the herbs. In the case of tobacco, for instance, the resulting vapor contains nicotine, which is what attracts most people to smoking tobacco in the first place.

A properly functioning vaporizer heats oils, waxes or dry cannabis to the point where they release vapor but not to the point where they actually burn. This is an important distinction, as burning produces smoke. Smoke, of course, can be very harmful to the health when it’s inhaled into the lungs. Unlike smoke, vapor is very smooth and easy to inhale. It doesn’t have that sometimes harsh quality that smoke often has, so you can more easily enjoy your favorite herbs, blends or concentrates without all the coughing and discomfort.

Many people don’t realize it, but many of the beneficial ingredients contained in dry cannabis literally go up in smoke when they’re burned. Even if you take long, deep drags, you’re not getting nearly as many benefits from the experience. It’s different when you use vaporizers. The materials aren’t burned, so their beneficial ingredients don’t simply float away into the ether. Indeed, you will enjoy more of the beneficial, active ingredients by vaping as opposed to smoking.

There are two main types of vaporizers: portable models and desktop (or tabletop) models. Before learning the differences between the two, familiarize yourself with how vaporizers work more generally.

Vaporizers: The basics

Most vaporizers consist of a few basic components. They all have heating elements that are used to heat the dry herb or concentrate until the point that it produces a vapor that can be inhaled. They all have extraction chambers, which is where the vapor is actually generated. Finally, they all have mouthpieces, which is where you draw the vapor out by inhaling.

With some vaporizers, you inhale the vapor directly from the extraction chamber. That’s the case with the vast majority of portable models, which must be compact and lightweight. However, most desktop or tabletop vaporizers have holding chambers where the vapor is held until you are ready to draw it out. Holding chambers are most typically made out of tubes or bags.

Portable vaporizers

On-the-go smokers typically prefer portable vaporizers. Odds are you’ve seen the most common style, which is known as a pen vaporizer, while out and about. E-cigarettes are pen vaporizers, and they have soared in popularity over the last few years. Indeed, e-cigarettes have really brought vaping into the mainstream. Portable vaporizers usually run off of batteries, with lithium-ion and alkaline being the most popular. While some models run off of disposable batteries, most of them have rechargeable batteries. Some can be recharged by simply being plugged into a power outlet while others require you to remove the batteries and charge them separately before replacing them. Not surprisingly, the first style is more expensive but also much more popular than the second.

Not all portable vaporizers run off of batteries. Some are powered by butane or flames, but those styles tend to be far less efficient. Also, some portable vapes can be charged with car adapters or chargers, which is convenient for people who spend lots of time in their cars.

Tabletop vaporizers

Among serious smoking enthusiasts, tabletop vaporizers (also commonly referred to as desktop vaporizers) are a very popular alternative to handheld vaporizers. The main attraction here is the fact that they plug right into power outlets, so they have a strong, steady flow of power that results in a more efficient, steady, reliable flow of vapor.

As for how the vapor is produced, however, there are a few different options with desktop models:

  • Whip-Style – By far the most common style, a whip-style vaporizer has a “whip,” or tube, that’s typically made out of vinyl or silicone. With this design, hot air is pulled over blends and concentrates from the heat source through a process known as convection. Convection is the superior way to go because the heating element and materials never touch, so there’s no risk of actually lighting the materials on fire.
  • Forced Air – With this design, an internal fan pushes hot air over the materials to produce a stream of vapor that’s typically collected in a balloon bag until you’re ready to inhale it. Most high-end vaporizers feature this design.
  • Dual – If you want to switch between the two different designs, a dual-style desktop vape is probably your best bet.

Types of materials

Whether you’re looking at portable or desktop vapes, you will notice that some are designed specifically for dry herb blends while others are intended for oils, waxes and other concentrates. In the case of a blend-style vaporizer, you will need to grind your cannabis to a fine consistency before placing them in the chamber. With a concentrate-style vape, you may have to use cartridges that are already filled with the concentrate of your choice. Other styles have dishes or bowls where the concentrate is placed and then turned into vapor. Without a doubt, the most convenient models support both dry herb blends and concentrates.

History of vaporizers

The general public started becoming aware of the serious risks of inhaling tobacco smoke around the 1960s. It should come as no surprise then, that this is roughly when people started looking for alternative ways to get the nicotine they craved. A man named Herbert A. Gilbert is credited with designing the first vaporizer to be used as an alternative to other smoking devices. He designed his first model around 1963, so vapes are hardly newcomers to the scene; they just didn’t really catch on in popularity until much later.

As far as how vapes finally started catching on in popularity, that is largely credited to a Chinese pharmacist named Han Lik. Lik supposedly started investigating alternative options after his father passed away from cancer. In 2003, Lik’s device, the Ruyan, first hit the market in China. Ruyan roughly translates to “like smoke,” and the device quickly took China by storm. From there, it migrated over to Europe. By the mid-to-late 2000s, similar designs started flooding the U.S. market, and the public hasn’t looked back since.

Who would want a vaporizer?

If you can still use a bong, joint or other device to enjoy your favorite dry cannabis, why would you consider switching to a vaporizer? First, if you are a particularly health-conscious person, vaping is probably going to appeal to you. After all, it eliminates the need to inhale actual smoke into your lungs, so you don’t have to worry about tar and other residue building up in them. While many dry cannabis other than tobacco don’t necessarily cause as much lung damage, it’s still something that many folks are conscious of and concerned about. If you fall into that category, switching to a vaporizer is probably the best option.

Another reason people switch to vaporizers is because of social pressure. There’s a strong social stigma associated with traditional smoking. People are more aware of the dangers of secondhand smoke than ever, for instance, and smoking is frowned upon or forbidden in most places. If you are a smoker and are tired of feeling like an outcast because of it, you’ll love the more accepting attitude that people have toward vaping. Sure, vaping is still relatively new, but most people are fine with it after learning that such devices strictly produce odor-free vapors as opposed to stinky, cancer-causing smoke.

Finally, if you want to get as many of the benefits out of your favorite dry cannabis as possible — or if you’d like to see what all the fuss is about with waxes, oils and other concentrates — a vaporizer is the way to go. You see, the process by which vaping occurs produces a far more “medicinal” quality. When smoking cannabis, for instance, about 89 percent of the smoke has no medicinal value whatsoever. With vaping, on the other hand, about 95 percent of the medicine is absorbed within the first few seconds; you will only get around 12 percent of the medicine with traditional smoking.

Pros and Cons of using a vaporizer

Vaporizers have soared in popularity of late. When you consider the many advantages that go along with vaping, it’s easy to see why:

  • Healthier and safer than traditional smoking.
  • Doesn’t produce secondhand smoke.
  • Vaporizers are not affected by no-smoking laws.
  • Can be enjoyed virtually anywhere.
  • No bad odor is left behind on clothes or in the air.
  • Doesn’t affect the breath, so those who vape don’t have “smoker’s breath.”
  • No butts, tips or papers to clean up, so it’s better for the environment.
  • Cheaper than traditional smoking. Especially true regarding tobacco, but vaping dry cannabis is cheaper in that you can derive far more medicinal qualities from a smaller amount of product. In other words, you use fewer materials to achieve the same — or even better — results.

Not everything about using a vaporizer is perfect. Like anything else, there are drawbacks to vaping. A few of the most notable cons include:

  • More research is still needed in terms of the overall safety of vaping.
  • However, most agree that it must be significantly healthier than inhaling actual smoke.
  • The industry is still largely unregulated, so it’s easy for companies to sell inferior products without having to worry about repercussions. In other words, buyer beware.
  • Vapor has a different taste than smoke, and some people can’t get used to it.
  • In very rare instances, vaporizer batteries have been known to explode.

Best practices

The first step to properly using a vaporizer is to thoroughly read the instructions. Sure, you will be excited to get down to business, but different models have variations in terms of how they are best used. For instance, some models allow you to directly set the temperature, allowing you to adjust it to accommodate different cannabis and concentrates. Models with temp controls may have dials, knobs or digital displays, or they may have a range of preset temperature options.

A few best practices to keep in mind when using a vaporizer are as follows, but make sure to read the instructions for the model you buy before firing it up for the first time:

  • If using dry cannabis, grind them until all clumps have been eliminated. Take care not to grind them too finely, or they may slip through the chamber and make a mess.
  • Power up your device by either plugging it or making sure the battery is fully charged.
  • Give your device time to heat up. On many models, an LED light will switch on when it is ready to use.
  • Load the hand piece, chamber or whip with your ground-up cannabis or concentrates. It’s generally best to only fill it up about one-third of the way.
  • Over-filling the chamber can negatively impact the amount of vapor that is produced, which makes for a less enjoyable vaping experience.
  • Start drawing in the vapor through the mouthpiece. Go gently at first, and adjust your drawing style as needed. You may find that you need to do some experimenting before arriving at the perfect style.

When you are finished, turn off and/or unplug the vaporizer. Let it cool down completely before packing it away.

How to clean a vaporizer

When compared with bongs, pipes and other smoking devices, vaporizers don’t tend to get nearly as dirty. However, they still need to be cleaned occasionally. The method in which you clean yours will depend on the kind you have. Again, refer to the instructions for your specific device for in-depth cleaning instructions. In a pinch, though, you can use the following steps to make your device as clean as possible:

Collect everything you’ll need. At the very least, you will need rubbing alcohol, Q-tips, pipe cleaners and paper towels or dry cloths. If you’d like to collect resin from your device, you will also need a small bowl or other container.

Follow these basic steps to clean your vaporizer. Please note that all steps may not apply depending on the device you are using:

  • Remove all attachments and set them aside.
  • Wipe down the base with a cloth or paper towel that’s been moistened with plain water.
  • The herb chamber itself should be clean; if any loose herb is in it, just flip it upside down to dump it out.
  • Use Q-tips soaked in rubbing alcohol to clean out the heat trench beneath the herb chamber. You may also disassemble the herb chamber and soak it in rubbing alcohol if necessary. Dry everything thoroughly with paper towels or dry cloths.
  • Repeat the preceding step for all of the connections that go with your device.
  • If your device has a silicone whip, you can soak it in rubbing alcohol to loosen up residue. Use Q-tips to wipe away the rest, and then thoroughly dry it with towels.
  • If your device uses bags, don’t bother trying to clean them. They get sticky over time and generally must be replaced every six or seven inflations or so.
  • If your device has a HEPA filter, you shouldn’t have to worry about replacing it for a long time. Still, keep an eye on it and swap it out if or when it starts looking fairly dirty.

By regularly cleaning your vaporizer, it will stay in like-new shape and will operate more efficiently and effectively.

Safety tips

Although rare, a few mishaps have been reported about vaporizers. Regardless of the kind you use, keep these safety tips in mind:

Buy the best vaporizer that you can reasonably afford. The truth is that very cheap models are more likely to pose safety hazards.

If your device operates off of a battery, consider using a multimeter to keep an eye on battery voltage and resistance. This will help reduce the risk of overheating and/or explosions.

If your device runs off of batteries, make sure to use the best ones you can afford. Also, make sure that replacements are compatible with your device.

Whatever you do, do not touch the heating element on your vaporizer. Avoid touching it not only while using it but well after you’re done too. It can take a long time for the element to cool off to the point where it’s safe to touch.

Risks of using a vaporizer

Happily enough, there are very few risks associated with using a vaporizer. As mentioned above, the heating element is the main thing you need to worry about. On most models, it is safely shielded, so it’s not like you have to worry about accidentally touching it. Still, it pays to be aware of its location and to keep your hands away from it as a general rule.

The more pressing concern about vaping concerns its overall safety. Because it’s only become popular recently, the possible health risks that are associated with it are largely unknown. That’s especially true about potential long-term health risks. A lot more research must be conducted before anyone can definitively say what the impact of using a vaporizer regularly will be. When compared with smoking, however, it’s fairly clear that vaping is much less harmful to the health. The mere fact that vapor is so smooth and easy to inhale pretty much proves that.

With some vapes, there’s a risk of short-circuiting. This typically happens when the battery becomes overheated. This may result in a fire. The best way to avoid this issue is by investing in a decent vaporizer.

There is also a slight risk of explosions with some low-end vaporizers. This most commonly occurs when vent gases are unable to properly escape. They bottle up inside the unit until they cause an explosion. Luckily, this is exceedingly rare, and the technology has improved to the point where it’s really not something you need to worry about.


Is vaping right for you? The only way to find out for sure is by purchasing a vaporizer and giving it a go. Of course, if you know someone who owns a vaporizer, you can ask to try it. If you’ve already decided to switch to vaping, take your time when buying a vaporizer. Make the most of the wealth of information that’s available online about today’s most popular models. Scour online reviews to zero in on the best options. It shouldn’t take long for you to pinpoint a vaporizer that suits your needs perfectly.


Information and photos courtesy of David Matthews and