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Friday December 3, 2021

By Paul Barach

Vape Cartridge Education

No good thing lasts forever, as the saying goes, and weed is no exception. Every flower fan knows that once they bring home that dank bud from the dispensary, the clock is already ticking. Even keeping it airtight and out of the light can only slow the march of time. With each passing day, your bud is gradually losing its potency and flavor.

However, this question of time and potency isn’t limited to pot smokers. Plenty of vape cartridge consumers have dug out an iffy-looking cartridge from the back of a drawer and wondered whether to screw it into the battery and give it a shot. Especially if the dispensary is closed for the night or payday seems a little too far away for a resupply. Since the cannabinoids (and sometimes terpenes) suspended in the hash oil are already processed and protected from the open air, aren’t they more shelf-stable than flower? Because of this, do vape cartridges ever go bad? If they do, what’s the worst that can happen if you smoke it anyway?

For anyone ever wondering whether to take a puff off that elderly cartridge or force it into an early retirement, PotGuide has got you covered.

Understanding Vape Cartridges

First off, before talking about whether vape cartridges go bad, let’s talk about what is actually in that vape cartridge. Inside that glass or plastic tube is about a gram of cannabis concentrate extracted from the plant in an oil form. This oil contains a high percentage of THC as well as other cannabinoids and terpenes extracted from the plant. At the bottom of the cartridge is a metal plate that vaporizes the oil, which gets inhaled through the mouthpiece. The plate is heated by a battery on one end of the vape pen.

Vape pen next to a PotGuide hat
Vape carts have increased in popularity due to their ability to bring them on the go and allow people to remain discrete.

Because the oil contains THC concentrate rather than plant matter, you don’t need to worry about certain issues that one encounters with bud over time. It will not lose potency as it dries out, trichomes cannot fall off the leaves, and terpenes will not evaporate. However, this doesn’t mean that vape cartridges are immortal. Vape cartridges can go bad over time.  

How THC in Vape Cartridges Changes over Time

Oil is made of complex chains of lipids and molecules whose bonds are not the strongest. While vape oil will retain its potency for a lot longer than a gram of bud, it’s still going to degrade like any oil or concentrate does over time. Those molecular bonds will break, especially with the oil being heated regularly by the plate in the battery.

Similarly, THC molecules are always going to break down into CBN no matter what form they’re in. The rate of how quickly this THC breaks down in your vape cartridge depends on a couple of factors, but the main one is heat. 

While it may seem counterintuitive that something whose purpose is to be heated can damage it, exposure to higher temperatures over time will speed up the breakdown of both the oil and the THC. Since the tubes used in a vape cartridge are generally made as cheaply as possible, they transfer outside heat into the oil pretty easily. This heat can come from a high-temperature day, the hot interior of a car, or just the body heat transmitted into a pocket. The other main factor that makes a vape cartridge go bad is exposure to light, and especially sunlight. Whether it’s bud, an edible, or a concentrate, light will snap off those delicate hydrogen atoms, turning psychoactive THC into boring (but still beneficial) CBN. 

How to Tell if a Vape Cartridge Has Gone Bad

In general, an old vape cartridge, just like old weed, may not put you at risk for any serious health issues if you smoke it. However, it's still not recommended. If your vape cartridge has gone bad, it won’t be that potent, the taste will be off, and you might cough a lot more, get very sleepy or get a headache. 

With all that in mind, if you come across a vape cartridge of uncertain age, there are a couple of signs to check for to make sure it’s still good before you try smoking it. 

The first thing to check is that the cartridge has the same viscosity and clarity as when you first bought it. The oil should still be some uniform shade of light yellow to amber. You should also be able to see through it without too much trouble. 

A couple of vape cartridges
The appearance of a vape cartridge can be a good indicator when trying to determine if it has gone bad.

If the liquid is discolored in any way or has changed into some shade of brown, your vape cartridge has gone bad and should be tossed out. Similarly, if the oil inside has become sludgy or thickened in any way, the squeeze won’t be worth the juice. If the liquid is cloudy or has crystals growing from the sides, get rid of it.

Even if the oil hasn’t changed visually, you’ll know the moment you pull from it whether it’s past its expiration date. The vapor will have a bitter or sour taste because the oil is breaking down, or you’ll cough a lot more. Plus, the potency will have noticeably dropped. To recap, if the oil cartridge has turned black, stay back.  

Keeping a Vape Cartridge Fresh

If you’ve just bought a new cartridge, especially if you’ve splurged on a quality one, you’ll want to keep it good until the final drop. There are a couple of simple ways to increase your vape cartridge’s longevity.

Just like with flower, how long your vape cartridge stays potent depends on how much care you put into storing it. The good news is because it’s a concentrate your cartridge can remain at nearly the same level of quality for much longer than flower can. With the right preventative measures and quality ingredients, your vape cartridge can last up to a year without much change in potency.

The first step to making sure your vape cartridge doesn’t go bad is to unscrew it from the battery when you’re not using it. As long as the metal plate is in contact with the battery, there’s going to be a little bit of power drain and a very small amount of heating that over time will damage the oil and cannabinoids. This also helps prevent leakage and breakage, as does storing your cartridge upright when it’s unscrewed.

Store your cartridge in a cool, dry place and keep it out of the heat. At temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) the THC molecules begin to degrade into CBN and the oil starts to denature, which causes your vape cartridge to go bad.

Since the human body also runs at over 70 degrees, if you’re carrying your cartridges around in your pocket regularly it’s best to keep them in a small protective case. Keep your cartridges out of direct light, and especially sunlight. Excess light can turn the oil cartridge black or brown and break down the THC molecules, which means losing both potency and flavor.

Sunlight also means extra heat, which as mentioned above will make your vape cartridge go bad even faster. The best way to store your cartridges is in a case, but any cool, dry drawer or storage spot will do as well. The absolute worst spot to leave them in would be on a windowsill. This will make your oil cartridge go bad in a hurry.

Getting the Freshest Vape Experience

If you carry your cartridges in your car or in your pockets a lot and want to preserve them, another idea is to buy a hash oil syringe for filling cartridges. These are sold at many dispensaries and allow you to store the oil itself in a cool, dry place until you need it. Simply fill your cartridge with the amount you want for the next few days and you’ll always have a fresh, potent supply of hash oil. 

To recap, vape cartridges do go bad over time. However, if you keep your cartridges cool and in the dark, they should last about six months to a year with the same potency. After that, they will lose some of their potency. If they’ve been stored correctly, the oil should still be in good shape to vaporize without losing any of the flavor.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do cartridges expire?

Yes, the cannabis oil in cartridges will degrade over time, making for a pretty unpleasant and non-potent smoking experience. 

What is the shelf life of a vape cartridge?

If you keep your vape cartridges cool and in the dark, they should maintain their potency for about six months to a year. 

Are carts good after expiration date?

After their expiration date, carts will begin to lose both potency and flavor. The longer after they’ve expired, the more bitter and weak your cannabis experience.

How do you prefer to keep your vapes fresh? Give your tips in the comments!


Paul Barach Paul Barach

Paul Barach is a Seattle-based freelance writer, editor, and author with experience creating well-researched, edited web articles covering cannabis news, culture, history and science. Paul is a regular contributor to PotGuide and has also contributed to publications such as, SlabMechanix, Litro, and The Trek. He prefers to spend his free time outdoors and most recently hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. So far he has only fallen into the La Brea Tarpits once. You can follow him on Instagram @BarachOutdoors and stay up to date professionally through his LinkedIn page.

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