From making music and movies better to easing pain and inflammation, the health and wellness benefits of cannabis are truly impressive. But alongside the joints, gummies, blunts, and concentrates, countless consumers are also turning to cannabis in the form of salves and creams that can be applied directly to the skin to treat a variety of ailments.
If you’ve ever been a bit confused in the cosmetics aisle, and you’re not sure what a salve is, how it’s different from a lotion or a cream, or if body butter can be spread on toast, you aren’t alone. A salve is simply a combination of oils and melted beeswax and does not contain water. The beeswax provides the thick consistency that people seek out in salves, and helps boost the shelf life. For that reason, they are often applied onto wet skin.
But what exactly are cannabis topicals, and more importantly, do they actually work? That depends on what you want from them.
What are cannabis topicals?
Cannabis topicals are creams, salves, roll-ons, gels, even lubricants that are made with cannabis and are meant to be applied directly to the skin.
When you smoke cannabis, the cannabinoids enter the bloodstream through your lungs and throat, while edibles are metabolized inside the gut. Topicals work very differently.
Topical solutions can activate the cannabinoid receptors in the epidermis, but they do not penetrate deeply into the skin, so they’re most effective for localized treatment. Transdermal cannabis solutions on the other hand, do penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. These solutions typically use some sort of chemical to penetrate the skin, and usually come in the form of a patch.
Do cannabis topicals work — and can they get you high?
Cannabis salves and balms don’t enter the bloodstream and cannot get you high. In fact, that’s one of the reasons some people are more likely to try topicals — they want certain therapeutic benefits of cannabis but don’t want to get high.
Cannabis topicals can provide some relief from skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and even joint pain like arthritis, due to the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids like CBD and THC. The health benefits of CBD are well-known these days, and CBD topical solutions are far more common than those containing THC.
There is little data about the actual efficacy of cannabis topicals, and because cannabinoids are hydrophobic, they have trouble penetrating and being absorbed by the skin.
But while the data may be lacking, anecdotal evidence from cannabis consumers is rife. It should be noted though that because most cannabis salves contain other natural ingredients or essential oils, some of this effect may not be entirely from the cannabis.
Tips and common mistakes with cannabis salves
It probably goes without saying, but you’re not going to want to smoke your cannabis salve. Even if you do actually manage to keep it lit, it won’t accomplish anything other than possibly hazardous throat irritation.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some useful tips: When making cannabis salves — or purchasing them at a store — make sure to pay close attention to what goes into them. Don’t use anything that you may be allergic to, and make sure to only use the salve externally, especially if it contains potential irritants like menthol, lavender, or eucalyptus.
In addition, you’ll want to be patient. Consumers who have found success using cannabis topicals often describe it as part of a long-term, daily regimen. Don’t expect to see or feel results overnight, and try not to give up right away after you’ve come this far.
Do you need to decarboxylate weed to make a cannabis salve?
Even though you aren’t going to be smoking or eating the cannabis in your salve, you still want to decarboxylate it in order to “activate” the THC in the herb.
Decarboxylation simply requires heating up some cannabis in the oven for 30-45 minutes at around 220-245°F (105-120°C), making sure to check every five or 10 minutes to make sure the marijuana isn’t scorched.
Alternately, because many salves call for using coconut oil in the base, if you have some cannabis-infused coconut oil on hand then you can save yourself this step.
How to make a DIY cannabis salve
If you’ve checked out the CBD section at your local health store then you already know that cannabis topical solutions can be quite expensive. Luckily, making your own salve isn’t all that complicated — and can save you a lot of money. This recipe from Homestead and Chill is about as easy as it gets. It makes about 2 cups of salve, but you can halve it or play around with the amounts if you’d like less (or more).
- 7-10 grams of decarboxylated cannabis
- 1 ½ cups of coconut oil
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup beeswax pastilles
- Double boiler
- Mixing bowl and jar for storage
(*If you have already infused coconut oil, you can skip the first section of this recipe)
First things first, infuse some coconut oil.
- Place 1.5 cups of coconut oil in the top section of a double boiler and place water in the bottom.
- Stir the decarboxylated cannabis into the top section and heat on low — 130-150°F (55-65°C) — for about one hour. If using a slow cooker, combine the cannabis and oil and cook at the same low temperature for about an hour. In a saucepan, simply heat the oil and cannabis together at the same low temperature for about an hour.
- Remove the oil from heat and strain through a cheesecloth, making sure to give the cheesecloth a good squeeze at the end to get out the rest of the oil.
Making the salve:
- Melt ⅓ cup of beeswax in a pot or double boiler.
- Keeping it on low heat, stir in the infused coconut oil and the ⅓ cup of olive oil, as well as the optional drops of essential oil. Stir well until combined.
- Remove from heat and pour into the jar or storage container of your choosing.
As the salve cools it will harden.