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Not All Heroin Is the Same: Types of Heroin

Heroin is a dangerous drug that comes in many shapes and sizes or, more specifically, forms and colors. Just like there are different ways of doing heroin, there are different types of heroin currently available “on the street” in just about every city and town in America. It is therefore important to be aware of any signs that could arouse suspicion that your loved one may be using heroin or even struggling with addiction to the drug, so you can help him or her take steps toward addiction treatment.

For anyone who suspects that their loved one is abusing heroin, and wants to do everything they can to help that individual, the following heroin guide will help you learn more about the substance behind this powerful addiction and health hazard, including finding answers to questions such as “How does heroin look?” and “How is heroin made?”.

What Are the Different Types of Heroin?

There is a wide variation in physical properties among different types of heroin making the rounds throughout the United States, namely:1

  • White heroin: white powder heroin is either heroin in its purest form or, in the black market, heroin laced with white filler substances to obtain a larger quantity of the product. Ingredients and processing methods can change the color of the powder to off-white or beige, even pink. It is bitter in taste and may have a vinegar-like smell.
  • Brown heroin: brown or brownish powder heroin is available in various shades of brown depending on additives used. It is less refined than white powder heroin and can even be created from black tar heroin.
  • Black tar heroin: a sticky substance which typically comes in chunks which range in color from dark red or brown to black. It can be gooey or rock-hard. It is poorly refined and has an extremely low level of purity due to various contaminants. It has a pungent, vinegar-like odor.
  • China white is either a street name for heroin in its purest form or a name for a synthetic combination of heroin and fentanyl, which is extremely lethal.2 

different types of heroin - white powder, brown powder, black tar & synthetic heroin

What Are the Different Ways These Types of Heroin Can Be Used?

There are three primary ways to use heroin: smoking, injecting and snorting.1 Each of these methods carries with it different effects for the user, as well as different risks and health complications. Specific consequences are associated with different ways of administration.3 

Different heroin morphologies affect method of use.4 This means that drug use patterns are highly suggested by heroin type.5 For instance, “black tar” heroin can be smoked or injected, brown powder heroin is often smoked or snorted due to its low solubility, whereas the highly soluble white powder heroin is typically injected or snorted.4

  • Smoking heroin:Mixing heroin with water or other liquids allows it to be smoked through a pipe. Heroin is mixed with cocaine in the practice of “freebasing” – a form of smoking both drugs. Freebasing is an incredibly dangerous activity that has claimed the lives of many. “Chasing the dragon” is another form of smoking in which heroin is inhaled as it is vaporized off a sheet of creased metal foil.5 
  • Injecting heroin: Injecting heroin into the bloodstream is perhaps the most dangerous way of using heroin. Shooting heroin delivers the strongest high, but can also lead to the transmission of potentially deadly diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and certain strains of Hepatitis.4
  • Sniffing/snorting heroin (nasal inhalation or insufflation):3 When in powder form, heroin can be snorted through the nose. Snorting heroin delivers an impactful high, although not quite as fast-acting as shooting or smoking heroin, and people people have died of a heroin overdose when they mistakenly snort heroin, thinking it is cocaine.6 While powdered heroin can be snorted dry, it can also be misted as a solution, just like solid heroin.5
  • Swallowing heroin (ingestion/oral administration): Heroin can also be taken in liquid form and ingested, although this route of administration is rare. Liquid heroin is most common among young users. Namely, instead of turning solid heroin into powder, the substance is mixed with water over heat. The resulting liquid can also be squirted into the nose with a syringe barrel or an eye drop bottle, poured into the nose with a teaspoon or medicine dropper or inhaled with a straw.7

What Are the Most Common Cutting Agents for Heroin?

Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste, but impure heroin which is present in the black market comes in white and other colors.8 Namely, heroin color changes depending on the mixing agent used in the process. For instance, dark color associated with black tar heroin is caused by the crude processing methods which leave behind impurities.8

Various agents can be used to “cut” street heroin and so increase its volume or mimic its effect and obtain larger quantities of the finished illicit product:9

  • Baking Soda.
  • Sugar.
  • Starch.
  • Talcum powder.
  • Caffeine.
  • Powdered milk.
  • Quinine.
  • Crushed over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol.
  • Laundry detergent.
  • Rat poison.

Mixing any of these agents with heroin increases the risk of intentional or unintentional overdose.11 However, it is fentanyl that may be the most dangerous mixing agent of all.10 

What Do Different Types of Heroin Smell Like?

Although heroin in its pure form is odorless, different heroin types can acquire a strong odor. An acidic, vinegar-like smell can change and become more intense the more the drug is manipulated, i.e. mixed with adulterants, impurities and diluents for the purpose of obtaining a larger quantity of the finished product.10 

What Is Synthetic Heroin?

Heroin is a semi-synthetic drug synthesized from naturally occurring opium products. It is a morphine derivative derived from the opium poppy plant.10 Synthetic processing of heroin further raises the risks to the individual using the illicit drug widely available in the black market, regardless of heroin type or route of administration. Synthetic opioids are made entirely in a laboratory.10

Fentanyl-contaminated or fentanyl-laced heroin is a form of synthetic heroin.1 Fentanyl itself is a synthetic or man-made opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine and approximately 50 times stronger than heroin. It is added to heroin to increase the drug’s potency.10 

Individuals may unknowingly use fentanyl or acetyl fentanyl, a fentanyl analogue, thinking they were using heroin, as there is little difference in appearance. These are exceptionally dangerous drugs which come with a high risk of overdose with a fatal outcome.10

Frequently Asked Questions

What Does Heroin Look Like?

The characteristics of heroin have an effect on how it is used and distributed:5

  • Colour
  • Physical state
  • Water solubility
  • pH balance
  • Heat stability
  • Weight/volume
  • Purity

When it comes to its physical form, heroin most commonly used across the globe and in the U.S. is in powdered form.5 However, there is also solid form of heroin coming mainly from Mexico called “black tar” heroin which is sold in U.S. areas west of the Mississippi River.8

What is heroin? 

Heroin, which can take on different forms depending on type, is classified as a schedule 1 (class 1) drug which means the following:9

  • High abuse potential
  • Severe health and safety concerns
  • High risks of complications
  • No medical application, Illegal to distribute, purchase, or use outside of medical research.10

How to Cut Heroin?

Cut heroin contains an estimated 7%-10% to a maximum of 20% pure heroin. The remainder consists of filler substances with which heroin is cut or mixed. One such substance commonly present in laced heroin is fentanyl, a potent and deadly synthetic opioid.10

Where Does Black Tar Heroin Come From?

“Black tar” heroin is a name for a sticky like-roofing tar or hard-like coal which has the following characteristics:8 

  • It is predominantly produced in Mexico and then distributed in the U.S. 
  • The highly adulterated drug gets its dark color from various impurities and crude processing.
  • This type of heroin is possible to dissolve, dilute, or inject.

Which Heroin Gets You High Quick?

It is difficult to estimate the type of heroin or diacetylmorphine which is most efficient at producing a surge of pleasure, partly due to the presence of adulterants and impurities in the illicit drug as the contaminants dilute the percentage of the actual drug consumed.10 

Still, it is possible to draw certain conclusions based on certain considerations:6

  • The effect of heroin depends on its route of administration and IV injection is thought to deliver the strongest high.
  • The effect of heroin for pain relief doubles when administered intramuscularly. 
  • Heroin has a short half life, which is how long it takes for the total amount of heroin in the body to be reduced by 50%.
  • The half life of heroin is three minutes after intravenous administration.
  • Although heroin peak blood level occurs after 5 minutes of usage when administered intranasally or intravenously, the potency after intranasal usage is about half of intravenous usage.
  • Tolerance to heroin and its euphoric effect in particular develops over time, requiring users to take higher and stronger doses to get the same effect. If they attempt to resist the urge, they may go through withdrawal which has extremely unpleasant symptoms.
  • The effect of heroin may also depend on the mixing agent used to cut the drug.9

It is worth noting that different global sources of heroin produce substantially different products and different risks, namely:5

  • Cold water-soluble powdered heroin usually comes from Asia or Columbia and is thought to be connected with higher HIV prevalence.
  • Low-solubility “black tar” heroin coming from Mexico is associated with soft tissue infections.

What Are the Different Colors of Heroin that Exist in the Market?

The drug comes with a high degree of spectral variability: heroin can be white, off-white, beige, pink, dark red, brownish, light brown, brown or black, depending on its morphology and source.5


  1. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020). Drug Fact Sheet: Heroin.
  2. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drug Slang Code Words
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). What are the medical complications of chronic heroin use?
  4. Scott P. Novak, Alex H. Kral. (2011). Comparing Injection and Non-Injection Routes of Administration for Heroin, Methamphetamine, and Cocaine Uses in the United States.
  5. Daniel Ciccarone. (2009). Heroin in brown, black and white: Structural factors and medical consequences in the US heroin market.
  6. Robert C. Oelhaf, Mohammadreza Azadfard.(2020). Heroin Toxicity.
  7. Jane Carlisle Maxwell, Richard T. Spence. (2006). An Exploratory Study of Inhalers and Injectors Who Used Black Tar Heroin.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). What is heroin and how is it used?
  9. Jessica Houck and Latha Ganti. (2019). A Local Epidemic of Laced Heroin Causing Skin Necrosis.
  10. Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of Abuse.
  11. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Intentional vs. Unintentional Overdose Deaths.

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