The cylinders are about 6.3 cm (2.5 inches) long and 1.8 cm (0.7 inches) wide, and they are rounded at one end with a narrow tip at the other end. The chargers' walls are about 2 mm (about 1/16 inch) thick to withstand the great pressure of the gas contained within. Their interior volume is 10 cm3 and most brands contain 8 g of N2O under pressure. Used chargers are non-refillable but 100% recyclable, where steel recycling programs exist.
Nitrous oxide is used because it migrates easily into the cream, and because it does not cause the cream to oxidize while it is in the can. Cream must have a minimum fat content of 28% to produce whipped cream with a dispenser. To use a whipped cream dispenser, one starts by following a recipe — typically 1 cup of heavy cream, 2-3 tablespoons of sugar, and any flavourings/colorings as desired. The device is capped and one or two chargers are discharged into the unit, depending on its size. These pressurize the device with nitrous oxide and cause the fat-soluble gas to dissolve into the cream, just like carbon dioxide dissolves into water to create soda water. Shaking the dispenser a few times helps the gas dissolve. The dispenser is then ready for use.
When the cream dispenser's valve is opened, the cream is forced out of the nozzle by the high pressure. However, when the pressure is released, the dissolved gas turns to bubbles (see Charles' law) and comes out of the solution — just like how opening a soda bottle results in the formation of a head of bubbles. These expanding bubbles instantly transform the cream into a frothy, whipped state. Nitrous oxide is bacteriostatic (prevents bacteria from growing) and a charged cream dispenser can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
In Europe, where production and use of whip cream chargers originated, and there are presently 3 factories doing production. Standard size for whip cream chargers is 8 grams of nitrous oxide per cartridge. European name brand chargers are considered to be the best quality N2O whip cream chargers, due to their strictly controlled manufacturing procedures and repeated cleanings during manufacture (to prevent toxic machining oils from remaining in the charger). Recently some production has begun in China however the quality aspect is not proven. The European Community has very strict and enforceable laws for production of consumable goods.
Whipped cream chargers are intended for low-volume or occasional use, such as home kitchens, restaurants, and coffee shop applications. For very high volume commercial use, there does exist regulated tank systems for filling much larger containers and dispensing more whipped cream. These are more desirable if volume is in excess of a production level of 10 liters per hour. Whip cream chargers are designed to be opened with a device that punctures the thin metal seal at the narrow end of the tube; Whipped cream dispensers have this integrated into the device's cap.
To administer the gas as an inhalant drug, recreational users employ a cracker or "breaker", typically machined from brass or constructed from plumbing hardware, to open the valve. The escaping gas expands considerably and cools down, which is not a problem in a cream whipper but can result in freezing burns and frostbite if opened directly into a person's mouth. To avoid this, when used for its recreational drug use, the gas is generally discharged into a thick-walled balloon; as the gas expands, it is warmed up in the balloon enough to inhale.
It is also possible to inhale the gas directly from a whipped cream dispenser, the dispenser effectively acting as a nitrous bong. Due to the small amount of gas present in a single charger, usually not much more than a single breath, the effects generally last for only a few minutes. However, many users choose to inhale a large number of chargers over the course of a night to maintain the effects. This is why it is referred to as 'hippie-crack'. Many users experience a "trip" when utilizing multiple chargers.
Balloons containing nitrous oxide are becoming increasingly available at a variety of gatherings, from rave festivals and clubs to the parking lot scenes at concerts and sporting events. Under current UK legislation the seller, but not the buyer, can be prosecuted, though this is rare.
The use of inhalants may be dangerous, aside from the direct results of the drug. Not only are some chargers of lower quality, some types of inhalant are noxious or fatal in some applications. As an example, auto-grade N2O is often mixed with about 100 ppm sulfur dioxide, making inhalation noxious or even fatal.
There is only a very small chance of overdosing specifically with N2O. A study shows that the ratio between lethal and effective doses with nitrous oxide are approximately 150 to one, higher than both nicotine(50:1) and caffeine(100:1). A user would need to inhale 525 liters of nitrous oxide in a short period of time to overdose. There is also the risk of asphyxiation (suffocation) from lack of oxygen during long periods of use if your breathing is obstructed (E.G. if you have a bag over your head, or you are in an enclosed space).