Is Dabbing Bad for Your Health?
Everyone knows the drawbacks of smoking, that carcinogens are created whenever something combusts. But do the same principles apply when you’re vaporizing concentrate instead of combusting it?
In truth, the health risks of dabbing have to do with two things: what you’re dabbing (the concentrate you’re using) and at what temperature you’re hitting the dab.
The cheapest and therefore most popular kind of concentrates are made with butane, which is infused and removed to create butane hash oil (BHO). And while you might want butane on the outside of your dab nail when it gets heated up by a torch, you might not want any of the toxic chemical inside of it—and therefore you. At worst, a high butane content can even set off a fire or cause a burn, which is why you certainly want to avoid homemade waxes and oils.
Not all concentrates are made with butane anymore. Increasingly, concentrate producers are now using carbon dioxide and other neutral chemicals in lieu of lighter fluid. If you’re a stickler about making sure you’re using non-butane concentrates, you can seriously lower the risk you’re exposing your body to. Being a smart consumer just takes some research and maybe a little bit of talking at the dispensary; if dabbing healthier isn’t worth putting in the effort to know what you’re purchasing, what is? With concentrates now being made via all sorts of extraction methods, there’s absolutely no reason to be turning to products that might have remnants of butane.
It’s not just what’s in the concentrate that can create problems, it’s how it’s dabbed, too. There are two different schools of thought when it comes to dabbing: low temperature dabbers, who prefer to let a nail cool down after it’s heated to about 300-450 degrees Fahrenheit, and high-temperature dabbers, who hit a nail relatively soon after it’s torched to a red-hot point, roughly around or even above 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are practical downsides to high-temp dabbing, things like an increased need to clean a nail between dabs (and more frequent deep-cleans) because of the likelihood of burnt concentrate sticking to the piece. High-temperature dabs are more likely to cause a quartz nail to discolor and even break in a process called devitrification, which is a buildup of extra crystal layers due to overheating. And, crucially, while the aim of dabbing is to create a vapor cloud, high-temperature dabbing can instead result in combustion, or the burning of the concentrate rather than its vaporization. The smoke created by combustion, like any smoke by its nature, contains carcinogens, toxins and irritants. And some researchers have suggested that high-temperature vapor (not just smoke) may contain such compounds too, which makes quite the case for just lowering the heat on your nail or using a carb cap like the Puddle Pusher Carb Cap. Check out other carb caps here.
While it’s clear that butane-based concentrates are bad for your health, the effects of dabbing other compounds in waxes and oils like terpenes are still largely undetermined. They’ve been deemed safe by the FDA but a recent report by Portland State University’s Dr. Robert Strongin suggests that at high temperatures, terpenes can emit cancer-causing agents and irritants. This is related to studies of e-cigarettes, which are increasingly using terpenes for flavoring but are understandably maligned and perhaps not as self- or externally regulated as the concentrate industry is becoming.
Part of the results from Dr. Strongin and his team’s research explains that “the difficulty users find in controlling the nail temperature put[s] users at risk.” Though this is certainly a complaint that some dabbers find themselves having, there are certainly a number of ways to regulate nail temperature for people who care enough to do so.
Dabbers can always use a laser temperature gun, which will give an accurate reporting of the nail’s surface temperature so that it’s not hit at too high a heat. There’s the old trick of putting your hand over (definitely not on) a nail and hitting it once the heat doesn’t burn your hand. This won’t give you a number to work with, of course, but it’s a tried and true method that plenty of low-tech dabbers swear by. And, of course, you can always just use an e-nail (like this one from LavaTech) to just avoid the issue of an unclear temperature, since most e-nail batteries have at least a low-hi temp indicator if not a degree-specific temperature control.
Naturally, as with anything about which the science is still emerging, the debate on whether dabbing is bad for your health is still a mess of back-and-forth. By being a smart and curious consumer, asking questions when you buy your concentrate and dabbing at a lower temperature, you are definitely likely to lower the health risks of dabbing, whatever they’re found to be. So, at least for the time being, there’s no reason to not get CO2-extracted concentrate, lean back with a low-temp e-nail and a carb cap and dab on.