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Cannabis topicals — what are they and do they really work?

Cannabis topicals — what are they and do they really work?

As cannabis consumers have become more diverse, especially in age, topicals are being used for a wider range of conditions: general aches, pains, muscle tension, stiffness, inflammation, arthritis, pruritus, muscle recovery, sexual health, eczema, psoriasis, itchy skin, acne, rosacea, dermatitis, burns, tension headaches, muscle spasms, and more.

The methods of administration are also diverse and discreet: lotions, salves, oils, roll-ons, gels, lubricants, sprays, balms, transdermal patches, and ointments. But how do they work? And do they live up to the hype?  

How Cannabis Topicals Work: Do Topicals Get You High?

We all have cannabinoid receptorsCB1 and CB2 — on the outer layer of our skin, the epidermis. Applying topicals to the skin activates the receptors, which can reduce skin issues such as pain, inflammation, itchiness, and temperature can be reduced.

There are two distinct methods for administering marijuana through the skin. Topical use involves rubbing the formulation into the skin for localized treatment. Because the components of the cannabis plant are fat-soluble, topicals generally only penetrate a few layers of skin and won’t get you high or show up on a drug test. A good quality topical formula will start to work within 10 to 30 minutes and for 2-3 hours

CBD hand cream

On the other hand, transdermal products, usually patches, have chemical agents that help marijuana penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. According to Paula Vetter, RN, MSN, FNP, Holistic Nurse Practitioner & Certified Herbalist and Director, hempSMART Medical Advisory Board, chronic pain that is deep and constant— spinal stenosis, sciatica, and neuropathy for example— will benefit from this systemic treatment. If a patch contains THC, and most do, it may get you high, depending on the dosage and your individual tolerance. Transdermal patches are usually effective within 20-30 minutes and last for 8-24 hours. 

According to Wendy Pagaduan, a registered nurse, and producer of Clean Coconut skin products, the results of topicals and transdermals can be cumulative. “If a patient is consistent with applying…2-3 times per day to the affected area, they will not only get relief from pain and redness but likely their healing time will be shorter than prescribed options and over-the-counter commercial creams recommended by a dermatologist.”  


There are few large, double-blind clinical studies in the United States because of marijuana’s Schedule I status. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any information available. In PubMed there are more than 20,000 papers published on marijuana. Still, it’s the general consensus that more definitive clinical research is needed. Studies that have been carried out often use lab mice as subjects. While this gives insight, it’s not ideal because mouse skin is far more absorbent than human skin. 

Private and government entities in Israel have been researching medical cannabis for decades and have made interesting discoveries about how cannabis can fight skin cancers and psoriasis. In Canada more investigators have joined the field since recreational legalization in 2018 and the government has increased funds, but the new studies are not focused on topicals.

Some producers hope that research extends to the other ingredients often found in cannabis topicals. Unlike smoking pure flower, topicals usually contain ingredients like Arnica, Lavender, Mango Butter, Turmeric, Ginger, White Willow Bark, Aloe, Wintergreen, and others. The healing properties and interactions of these ingredients with marijuana are not always well understood.

Indeed, there is a general misconception that natural ingredients in a topical will work well together. Charlene Freedom, a certified natural health practitioner in Toronto, Canada, who holds workshops on making homemade cannabis topicals, says that’s not the case. For example, she’s found that beeswax blocks cannabinoids from penetrating the skin. “We find it’s good in a balm, not a cream.” Nevertheless, you still find beeswax in some cannabis creams.

Cannabis Oil or Snake Oil?

Because hemp-derived CBD is not strictly regulated like marijuana, consumers often have no idea what they are actually buying— or if there is even CBD in the products.

According to Aliza Sherman of Ellementa, a global women’s wellness company educating women about marijuana, “There are a lot of deceptive practices out there. Companies can charge more for the CBD topical than a traditional pain relief cream but consumers may not be getting what they paid for.”

Companies often claim they’re using “cannabis Sativa” in their products to lead consumers to believe they are getting CBD when it may actually be hemp seed oil—which is rich in omegas but has no CBD. According to Sherman, CBD topicals purchased on Amazon or at drugstores don’t realize they might be getting an “isolate”— an isolated form of CBD oil that strips out all other parts of the plant, such as terpenes and other cannabinoids. This may be what the consumer wants, of course, but it can be misleading if one isn’t aware of the distinction.

Pagaduan says that it takes a lot of research on behalf of the consumer. “In the age of instant-ness, consumers aren’t always ready for this kind of research. Which, unfortunately, means they can purchase sub-par products.”

Jessica Tonani, CEO of Verda Bio, an agricultural biosciences company specializing in cannabis, and co-founder of topicals brand Basic Jane, says it’s best to source hemp and marijuana from trusted growers to be sure the marijuana is free of contaminants and toxins. 

Cannabis leaves

She warns consumers (especially in North America) that, in this new “wild west” market where regulations are still in flux, there is great variability in available hemp and marijuana plants. This variability results in inconsistency in product batches. Because of this, Verda Bio breeds its own marijuana and hemp plants and breaks them down into its individual parts—cannabinoids, terpenes, polyphenols, proteins, esters, etc—and then rebuilds them in the lab to create consistent topical products. 

“Each plant produces a different combination of molecules. One plant might produce high myrcene while another might produce low myrcene. That’s why we rebuild the molecular profiles we believe are important.” 

Shopping Tips

It’s an exciting time to be discovering cannabis and its healing properties, but it also takes research to know what to buy. Here are four tips to make sure you purchase the highest quality products:

  1. Consider looking for full-spectrum products rather than those with isolated CBD or THC. Full-spectrum products contain all active cannabinoids and terpenes—the whole plant. You risk some variability, but this inclusive approach, called the “Entourage Effect,” is considered more effective by many.  
  2. Know how the marijuana in your topical is grown and processed. Many people seek hemp-derived CBD because it has negligible THC content. However, unlike CBD from legal marijuana, hemp-derived CBD isn’t highly regulated and could contain many contaminants such as herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, bacteria, mold, and fungus. Make sure the products are 3rd party lab tested. Check for QR codes that link back to the Certificates of Analysis on every batch. 
  3. If your product contains other ingredients besides marijuana, determine if they are organically grown and present in significant amounts. Many companies will add a tiny amount of an ingredient to a product, just so they can list it on the label.  
  4. Don’t be afraid to make your own topicals. You’ll be able to save money, know what you’re actually consuming, and customize the topical to your needs. Cheri Sicard, a professional cannabis cook, teaches cannabis topical preparation. “Price is a concern for many. And like everything else with cannabis, it’s highly individualized…both in dosing and for the conditions, you’re treating.” 

To make it easier for neophytes, Jessie Gill, RN, a nurse specializing in marijuana, recommends “straight-up hemp-derived CBD oil,” which she adds to her non-cannabis lotion. You can find workshops and many online videos that teach topical preparation.

If you’ve been interested in trying cannabis topicals, now is a good time. Even with the research required, the producers of topicals in this heyday tend to be passionate about the healing powers of cannabis and the products they’re making. Many brands will fall by the wayside as big business encroaches and regulations raise the costs of doing business. Spread the word about the brands you love to help other consumers and to keep these products on the shelves.

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