With its own set of terms and practices distinct from other forms of cannabis, the intricate world of cannabis concentrates—sometimes called extracts—can be overwhelming. A concentrate is a highly potent concentrated cannabis product made by extracting terpenes and cannabinoids (think THC) from cannabis plant material. While there are multiple ways to consume concentrates, the most popular is a process known as dabbing.
What Is Dabbing?
Dabbing involves inhaling vaporized cannabis concentrate through a dab rig (also known as an oil rig) or similar device. Not all concentrates and distillates are made equal, though. When it comes to dabbing, BHO (butane hash oil) concentrates, or any concentrate made using the solvent butane, are standard due to their potency and long-lasting effects. When made properly and safely, BHO should contain very little residual solvent in parts per million (ppm).
Supercritical CO2 extraction, however, is quickly becoming a frontrunner in the concentrates world for being environmentally friendly, efficient, and the cleanest extraction process method without any chance of residual solvents. Other concentrates, like distillates, often leave out medically useful terpenes, but sometimes they are added back in. It should be noted, though, that it is more common to find these products in vape pens. Live resin is high-quality, flash-frozen cannabis concentrate that preserves terpenes and cannabinoids in the final product and can be dabbed. For a less intense version of the full dabbing experience, concentrates can be consumed using vape pens and dab pens.
So why do some cannabis users like to dab or consume concentrates in general? Many people find smoking cannabis flower to be too smelly or harsh on the lungs. Others have developed a tolerance to THC in flower or have high medical needs and are in need of something stronger. With higher THC content and rich terpene profiles, high-quality concentrates can deliver smoother, tastier, and more potent hits compared to combusted (smoked) flower. Those who are new to cannabis or sensitive to THC should approach dabbing with caution.
Interested in dipping your toes into concentrates but unsure of where to start? In this beginner’s guide, we’ll give you the rundown on all things dabbing, from tools to methods to dosing. Plus, we’ll touch on some alternative concentrate consumption methods for users who aren’t quite ready, able, or comfortable with wielding a dab torch. For more information on concentrate products and the different types available, check out our guide to cannabis concentrates.
Is Dabbing Concentrates Safe?
Many cannabis enthusiasts safely dab concentrates on a regular basis, and regulation has helped improve the quality and consistency of products. Thanks to the legal cannabis market, consumers can rest assured that the cannabis products they purchase from dispensaries have endured intensive safety protocols and lab testing. Some question the safety of solvent concentrates, but proper chemical extraction leaves behind little to no harmful by-product.
The only time consumers should be worried about the safety of their concentrates is if they were bought on the illegal market. In a small sample study in California, unregulated cannabis extracts had over an 80% chance of contamination. There’s no way to ensure these concentrates weren’t extracted using dangerous chemicals or know if they contain substances like vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent that’s been linked to lung injury and death, or phytol, a flavor-boosting terpene that studies have found to be harmful when inhaled. Make sure to only purchase concentrates from reputable companies that include the product’s full cannabinoid profile. This will also verify that the concentrate was extracted from quality cannabis.
We’ve already touched on the fact that dabbing is easier on the lungs than smoking, but is it actually a safer consumption method? Unfortunately, dabbing is still very new, so little controlled research has been conducted to properly compare the effects of these methods on the body. A 2006 study found vaping cannabis flower to be better for the respiratory system than smoking it, but the finding reveals little about vaping or dabbing concentrate.
Still, some experts lean toward dabbing as a better option. Cannabis clinician Laura Lagano told GreenState, “If a patient was in extreme pain and needed the immediate relief those methods provide, I think I would choose dabbing because it doesn’t do as much damage to the lungs as smoking.” Many cannabis users stick to flower purely for its naturality, but no existing research suggests that dabbing concentrates is any less safe if done at similar or lower temperatures than smoking.
A 2017 study raised some concern about toxicant formation after dabbing, but these toxicants were only found at temperatures much higher than dabbing or smoking (>400°C/752°F). Such extreme temperatures are intolerable and impractical for virtually everyone. As long as you’re careful with that sizzling torch and buy regulated products, dabbing shouldn’t cause you problems.
Must-Have Dabbing Tools
Now that you know the basics, let’s dive into what you’ll need to get your first dabbing session started.
When choosing your concentrate, or extract, it’s important to pick a wax rather than an oil. While THC and CBD oils are great for handheld vaporizers, most will not be able to handle the heat needed for dabs like a wax concentrate can. It should be noted that these are not the same oils as sublingual tinctures, which should never be vaped.
Many cannabis consumers are familiar with the instruments used to smoke flower, such as joints and bongs. However, dabs must be consumed using a glass device known as a dab rig that heats cannabis concentrates to the point of vaporization. The rig may be heated manually by a torch, or simply (and safely) electronically. Similar to how bongs have a bowl that holds cannabis flower, rigs have a piece called a nail or banger that holds concentrate.
Nail or Banger
The nail is the detachable component on the body of an oil rig that is heated to vaporize the extract. A banger, which is similar but slightly larger, can also be used for this purpose depending on the rig and personal preference. Typically made of quartz, the nail or banger is heated with a torch either before or after the extract is placed into it depending on the dabbing method. Connoisseurs will say that different materials will give different flavor profiles, temperatures, and thus effects.
To prevent the buildup of carbon and oil, you should clean your nail or banger after every dabbing session. The easiest and most common method is to torch the nail until the buildup burns off or can be easily scraped off—just remember not to scrape the residue off of the nail while it’s still red-hot, as this can damage it. Minor buildup can also be wiped off with an isopropyl alcohol-soaked cotton swab. Lastly, the nail can be soaked in rubbing alcohol for 10 minutes to loosen the buildup.
Dome or Carb Cap
Most users also recommend getting a dome or carb cap for your nail since it will improve airflow and temperature control and help you get the most out of your dab. Usually made of glass or metal, domes and carb caps prevent the loss of vapor when the concentrate is being heated, leading to a stronger, better-tasting dab. They also lower the temperature necessary to create the vapor.
The main functional difference between a dome and a carb cap is the size of the air intake hole: A dome’s is much larger than a carb cap’s. Many dabbers have upgraded from domes to carb caps because of their heat-retaining ability that allows for low-temperature dabbing, a popular form of dabbing that preserves the terpene-fueled flavor profile of the concentrate and makes the vapor easier on the airways.
Next you will need a dab tool, also called a dabber. One of the most common cannabis accessories, a dabber has a pointy or scooped end that you use to place the concentrate onto the nail or banger.
Finally, you’ll need a heating element. The most popular tool to heat nails with is a butane torch or a hot nail (think mini creme brûlée torch) for its high heating point, and propane torches work as well. If using a torch, remember to be careful storing, placing, and aiming it since it is a potential fire hazard.
You can also use an electronic nail, or e-nail, which consists of a nail wrapped in an electronic coil connected to a power source. Some consumers opt for e-nails for their convenient ability to heat dabs to specific temperatures and safely function without a hot nail or blowtorch.
How to Choose the Right Type of Dab Rig
The growing popularity of dabbing means that you can now find a perfect dab rig for just about any lifestyle.
-For first-time dabbers, the best option is the standard glass dab rig. Usually 7-10 inches tall, a glass dab rig resembles a typical bong or water pipe. This rig is perfect for beginners since its water filtration system allows for clean, smooth hits. Glass rigs can also be easily customized with various accessories. However, they can take awhile to heat up and cannot be temperature-controlled as well as other devices.
- Similar to a glass dab rig, a silicone dab rig is one of the cheapest and most convenient options. Silicone rigs are great for dabbers who are accident-prone due to their indestructible material, as opposed to glass rigs that can easily break. They also come in hundreds of colors, are more easily transported, and can be cleaned more easily. However, concentrates dabbed with silicone rigs won’t be quite as flavorful, unless you use a honeycomb design for better diffusion.
- For those looking to dab on the go, a nectar collector, also called a honey or dab straw, is the best option! Nectar collectors are commonly made of glass and are much smaller than dab rigs, making them easy to transport and share. To use one, a user simply heats the tip before placing the concentrate on it and inhaling from the opposite end.
- Not everyone is down to use a butane torch, and that’s okay. One step up from an e-nail, an e-rig is a pocket-sized electronic rig that is heated electronically with a battery rather than a torch. Users simply need to keep the battery charged, and the rest is about as simple as it sounds. An e-rig heats up quickly and allows for highly specific temperature control, unlike traditional rigs. On the downside, e-rigs can’t be customized with accessories and can’t be cleaned as easily.
This list covers a few of the basic dab rig options, but there are tons of variations in size and design. Dab rigs can also be outfitted with various accessories depending on user preference. Always take into consideration how much you are willing to spend, how often you’ll be dabbing, and which features are essential to you before making a final decision.
Properly Dosing Dabs
Figuring out your dab dose can be a nerve-racking task, especially if it’s your first time dabbing. After all, concentrates contain exceptionally high quantities of THC compared to flower and edibles. Unfortunately, there’s no one optimal amount of wax a person should dab. It depends entirely on a user’s tolerance to THC and desired effects. A general rule of thumb is to start with the smallest amount of wax your dab tool will hold—about the size of a pinhead—working up to your ideal dab as you feel comfortable. You should feel effects of dabbing almost immediately, but try to wait up to an hour or two to see how the dab affects you before consuming more.
If you prefer a more measured approach, a good place to start is by looking at the potency percentage on your concentrate’s packaging. Measuring that percentage against the total weight of your concentrate will give you a better idea of how to portion out your dabs. For example, a gram of concentrate with a potency of 80% will contain 800 milligrams of cannabinoids, including budder. From there, you can break the slab into eight pieces for 100 milligrams per dab or 16 pieces for 50 milligrams per dab. These portion sizes are more likely to be used by experienced dabbers.
To learn what you can expect from a high, specifically from dabbing, head to this article: From Smoking to Dabbing to Edibles, How Long Does a Cannabis High Last?
Traditional vs. Cold Start Dabbing Techniques
Believe it or not, there are multiple ways to dab concentrates with a rig. The differences between the methods are relatively minor, and the one you choose is ultimately up to you. Let’s explore the differences between the traditional and cold start dabbing techniques and go over the steps for each.
How to Dab Concentrates Using the Traditional Method
This tried-and-true method is a great place to start if you’re new to dabbing. It essentially involves torching your rig’s nail or banger before putting the concentrate on it and inhaling. Here are the steps to follow for the traditional method:
- Fire up your torch and aim it directly at your nail or banger until it’s red-hot. If you have an e-nail, set it to your desired temperature, keeping in mind that the sweet spot is around 550°F.
- If you are using a regular nail, turn off your torch and let the nail cool for about 45 seconds if it’s quartz and about 10 seconds if it’s titanium.
- Once your nail is sufficiently cooled, put your concentrate onto it using your dab tool and begin to inhale slowly. You will want to rotate the dab tool’s tip as you are doing this to prevent the wax from sticking to it. This step may take some practice.
- Before you finish inhaling, cover the nail with a carb cap.
- Exhale and relax!
How to Dab Concentrates Using the Cold Start Method
The traditional method of dabbing is a good starting point, but it definitely has its downsides. If you’re not well-practiced at heating your nail or banger to the proper temperature, it’s easy to overdo it. This can lead to throat and chest pain and/or intense coughing. To avoid these discomforts, many dabbers have switched to a relatively new method called cold start dabbing, a low-temperature form of dabbing that brings out the terpene profile of the concentrate to create a tastier and smoother dabbing experience. Here’s how it’s done:
- Make sure you have a carb cap; some argue this accessory is crucial for all dabbing, but it’s especially essential for cold start dabbing.
- Place your concentrate like you normally would onto a clean, cold nail or banger.
- Place the carb cap on top of the nail while carefully heating the nail for about 10 seconds. You will begin to see the dab vaporize into an oil on the hot surface.
- Inhale your dab as normal and exhale.
- If there is oil left afterward, repeat the process until it’s gone.
Alternate Methods of Consuming Concentrates
Not ready for dabbing just yet? Luckily, there are other methods of consuming concentrates that don’t involve rigs and torches. Let’s look at a couple of other ways that you can get your concentrate fill.
Vape pens have quickly become the top choice for users looking for a portable, discrete way to consume concentrates. These devices are a common starting point for those new to the world of cannabis as they can be easily operated with the click of a button. The anatomy of a vape pen typically includes a mouthpiece, a battery that can be charged, an atomizer that heats and vaporizes the concentrate, and a cartridge of cannabis oil concentrate that can be replaced or filled once it’s empty. You can also find disposable vape pens.
Vaping concentrate is considerably different from dabbing concentrate. One of the largest disparities is the type of concentrate used: Dab rigs use wax and vape pens use oil. While many waxes used for dabbing have full cannabinoid profiles, vape pens typically use an oil called distillate that contains only or primarily THC. For this reason, vape pens do not produce nearly as potent, medically useful, or flavorful of a high as dabbing devices.
For those looking for a step up from the average vape pen, dab pens (also called wax pens or wax vaporizers) are a great option. Just like vape pens, dab pens are small and discreet—but the similarities end there. Dab pens are slightly larger than vape pens because they use a heated coil to vaporize rather than a slim atomizer. When it comes to the concentrate, dab pens use the same wax used in dab rigs. While dab pens are slightly messier than vape pens—the chamber must be manually refilled with wax—the effects are much stronger (think a less intense version of using a dab rig).
Smoking Concentrates in Bowls and Joints
Believe it or not, you can mix concentrates with cannabis flower in joints, blunts or bowls to amplify the effects of the flower! The easiest concentrate to smoke is kief, a fine powder of trichome material collected at the bottom of a three-chamber grinder as a by-product of grinding flower. Because a cannabis plant’s trichomes contain the majority of the cannabinoids and terpenes, kief is highly potent and flavorful. Unlike concentrates that are dabbed, like wax and shatter, kief is an all-natural, solventless concentrate.
To add kief to the bowl of a bong or pipe, simply sprinkle a small layer of kief on top of the bowl after it’s been packed with ground flower. For joints, a wax concentrate is recommended. To smoke wax in a joint, sometimes called “twaxing,” just roll a small amount of wax into a thin, snake-like line and place it on top of the flower before rolling. You can also wrap a line of wax around the outside of a pre-rolled joint. If you’re looking to keep it natural with a solventless concentrate, consider putting rosin in your joint.
Now that you know the basics of cannabis concentrates, you can decide for yourself if they are right for you. Depending on the consumption method, concentrates can lead to a more discreet, customized, and/or intense cannabis experience for users than cannabis flower. If you’re ready to dive in headfirst, this guide should have everything you need to get started with dabbing. If dab rigs are out of your price range or seem too intimidating, you can ease your way into concentrates with vape pens or kief bowls.
This article was originally published in December 2021 and most recently updated in September 2023.
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