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Is Dabbing Dangerous? Temperature is the Key

According to a new study from Portland State University, a number of cancer-causing toxins are created when terpenes are heated to extreme temperatures like those of a “hot dab”. Many cannabis users are familiar with the agony that follows a dab taken off of a red-hot nail (and some, strangely, prefer it.) Well, it turns out that this is not only unpleasant for the dabber, but could be downright dangerous to their health. In this article, we’ll be examining this controversial new study and its implications for the cannabis industry going forward.  Is dabbing dangerous? Temperature is the key.

Toxic Terps

By now, everyone reading this probably knows what “dabbing” is, but for those who don’t: dabbing consists of placing a small amount of cannabis extract, a “dab”, on a heated glass waterpipe and inhaling the vapors that are produced. Cannabis consumers love dabs because they are a great way to get cannabinoids into their system efficiently. Instead of smoke, dabs produce a vapor which is easier on the lungs, and tastes fantastic. However, it is very important to take the dab at the proper temperature. According to the PSU researchers, if a dab is heated to temperatures above 600°F, the terpenes inside are transformed into chemicals like Benzene and other carcinogens. Their study, published in the American Chemical Society journal, ACS Omega, is making waves in the cannabis community. After all, it points out that temperatures above 600°F turn terps into carcinogens, and many dabbers report preferred temperatures of 710°F or hotter. Some would even argue that the dab isn’t fully vaporized at lower temperatures, and that some of the medicine is being wasted. In addition, some business owners are concerned that the findings might threaten the burgeoning terpene industry. Recent years have seen a rapid increase in sales of terpene-rich products like concentrates and vape pens, and some companies could face losses if terpenes turn out to be more dangerous than we were aware of.

Well, I’ve read the study, and in a minute I’ll explain why I think it may not be as big a deal as some make it out to be. Then, I’ll describe the proper way to use concentrates, so that you can get the health benefits and avoid the risks. But first, let me share with you the wrong way to do things.

Red Means Stop

Cannabis Cactus Stop Sign

I was sitting on my friend’s patio in 2008 after his trip to Denver. He promised I would love what he brought back with him, which turned out to be about a half-ounce of peanut-buttery hash oil. “What’s this? I thought you said you had hash.” I asked. “Dude, it’s dabs, everybody does this in Colorado now. Trust me, you’ll love it.” I was eager to try my first dab, but my excitement turned to confusion when I noticed that he was holding a blowtorch and a bong with a titanium nail attached to it. Thinking he was an expert, he heated the nail to nuclear-hot and plopped a fat glob of the oil on it! As I inhaled, my throat and lungs burned and I immediately knew I was in trouble. After an intense coughing fit, I recovered just enough to curse my friend, but by then it was too late… I was too high and extremely uncomfortable, so I left my car there and called for a ride home.

Sound familiar to anyone? Unfortunately, this story is all too common and it’s one of the reasons that dabs of all kinds sometimes get a bad rap. But over the last decade, cannabis extracts have become much cleaner and the practice of dabbing has been further refined. Since then, I’ve learned how to dab properly, the difference is like night and day. Remember that the quality of your cannabis extract and that of your dabbing tools makes a big difference in your experience. Keep reading to the end of this article and I will give you a run down of the safest and most enjoyable ways to dab. It takes some practice to get it just right, but anyone can achieve an optimally healthy and enjoyable dab. A simple rule of thumb is never to take the dab when the nail is red hot. In other words, just like a traffic light: Red means STOP!

Are Hot Dabs the New Cigarettes?

Crystal 1

The PSU study is being discussed all over the internet and some are saying that it proves that dabbing is dangerous. From what I understand, though, it’s only “hot dabs” that are potentially unhealthy. So what’s so bad about them? Well, not only is the experience uncomfortable, but the once-healthy terpenes in the dab are transformed into harmful chemicals like benzene and methacrolein (MC), and a dozen or so others. The researchers chose to focus on three terpenes: myrcene, limonene, and linalool, since these are the three most prevalent in cannabis, as well as a prepared mixture of Fire OG terpenes from Blue River Terpenes. The degradation products of these terpenes were analyzed and the results showed that the hotter the temperature, the more toxins were formed, some of them known carcinogens. Benzene in particular is a very concerning air pollutant according to some health authorities. It’s found in car exhaust and cigarette smoke and inhaling it can increase your risk of getting cancer. OSHA and the EPA have placed exposure limits for benzene in the air at around 1 part per million, depending on the length of the exposure. The other most prevalent toxin, Methacrolein, began to show up in their tests above about 750°F. Not much information is available on the exposure

limits for MC, but it is listed as a potent irritant and “toxic if inhaled,” placing it with benzene in the realm of things that you generally shouldn’t be breathing. But how much benzene is produced from one dab compared to one cigarette? Not much. In fact, an average dab (40mg) was determined to deliver only 17 nanograms of benzene, whereas one study concluded that a single cigarette delivers up to 270 micrograms. To put this in perspective, one microgram is equal to 1000 nanograms, meaning that one cigarette produces 16,000 times more benzene than one dab. Not only that, but the EPA says in their benzene hazard summary that: “if an individual were to continuously breathe the air containing benzene at an average of 0.13 to 0.45 micrograms/m³ over his or her entire lifetime, that person would theoretically have no more than a one-in-a-million increased chance of developing cancer as a direct result of continuously breathing air containing this chemical.” I’d say a one-in-a-million chance is pretty good as it is, and remember, a dab produces over 100 times less benzene than this anyway. Unless I’m reading this wrong, I think it’s safe to say that at least the benzene from dabbing is not really a health concern. That is, of course, as long as the measurements that the PSU scientists made were correct. In their own words, however, they say that ”The main limitation of this study is the fact that the concentrations of MC and benzene determined are likely underestimated.” Also, keep in mind that this data only applies to the chemicals identified in the study, and further research may reveal problems that we just don’t know about yet.


Aloha Jack THCa

Besides the potential health concerns about hot dabs, there is one more reason to keep your temperature under control: When terpenes are transformed by high temps, they are no longer beneficial to your treatment, or even your high, because they are not contributing to the “entourage effect”. That is, they are no longer able to team up with THC and provide the same health benefits that terp lovers appreciate. All that being said, dabbing remains a healthy and rewarding practice as long as you keep your temps low and keep your nail clean. If done right, you’ll totally love it! We at The Cannabis Cactus recommend the following steps to ensure a safe and enjoyable dabbing experience:

  1. Start with clean, quality cannabis extracts. Any residual solvents used in the extraction process factor into the final flavor and health of the dab.

  2. Use high quality quartz or ceramic nails. Titanium can contain filler metals depending on its grade and is a riskier choice.

  3. Heat the nail up to somewhere around 400-500°F. You can use an electronic nail (“e-nail”) that costs as little as $100, or go the old-fashioned route and heat the nail up with a simple blowtorch.

  4. It helps to use a laser temperature gun to verify the actual temperature of the dabbing surface, and they only cost around $20 online. In a pinch, you can just hold your hand above the nail to gauge its temperature, but this takes a little practice to get just right. Dab.

  5. We recommend using a “carb cap” on top of the nail as you inhale, which will make more vapor and help you get the most out of your medicine. Your dab should bubble, not burn.

  6. Clean the nail with a cotton swab. This ensures that the remaining oil won’t burn after you take your hit, and the next dab will taste as clean as the first. If you want to be next-level, you should use organic cotton swabs. Cotton is one of the heaviest-sprayed crops and these chemicals could make their way into your dab, in theory.

So, there you have it. Did I miss anything? What do you think about the PSU dabbing study? Send your comments and ideas to, and as always, be well!

For more articles by Victor Ananda, click here.

Dabs 16-9

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