Growers can use CBD extracted from hemp plants to make a variety of CBD products, including pure CBD oil tinctures, edibles like CBD gummies—and of course, CBD topicals. CBD products, topical or otherwise, do not produce the “high” that medical marijuana products that include THC cause.
CBD and Skin
Much of the difference among CBD topicals such as salves, creams, balms, and lotions lies in consistency, fragrance, other ingredients—and user preference. Since creams are thicker, and especially those with high fat content and emollient qualities might help dry skin sufferers and those with itchy skin conditions. Balms and salves are made with wax and oil, making them absorb more slowly and work well for massing into muscles, for chronic pain. Roll-on tinctures offer yet another possibility for THC-free joint pain relief. Learn more in our roundup of the best CBD creams for pain relief.
How to Use CBD Cream
Reduce signs of aging. Antioxidants like vitamin E or vitamin C treat dryness, free radical damage, and inflammation, so you can expect CBD products to do that, too. That includes signs of aging such as fine lines, dark spots, and wrinkles.
But that’s not quite as exciting for CBD as it sounds: “We don’t know cannabidiol’s effects on its own,” says Cooper, who was part of the National Academies committee that put together this report. “[The conclusions about cannabis and cannabinoids] were based on what we know about THC or THC plus cannabidiol.”
“It actually is a very promiscuous compound,” Kevin Boehnke, Ph.D., research fellow in the department of anesthesiology and the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, tells SELF. “It will bind to receptors in multiple different pathways,” which makes it difficult to know how it might cause noticeable effects.
Another study published in 2016 in the European Journal of Pain also looked at arthritis in rats but did so with a topical formulation of CBD. After the rats received an injection into one knee joint to model arthritis, they received a gel that contained either 10 percent CBD (in four different total amounts) or 1 percent CBD (the control) on four consecutive days. The gel was massaged into the rats’ shaved backs for 30 seconds each time.
Here’s what the research says about using CBD for pain.
All of this points to how hard it is to study the specific effects of CBD on its own—which might be why it’s tempting to claim that it’s the cure for everything without a whole lot of research to actually back up all of those claims.
“There’s really no substitute for doing proper human studies, which are difficult, expensive, and ethically complicated,” Dr. Tishler says. And we simply don’t have them for CBD and pain.
What is CBD?
But if you’re reading this, you are probably not a rat, which means these results aren’t directly applicable to your life. Although we know that rats do share much of our physiology—including CB1 and CB2 receptors—these studies don’t really tell us if humans would have the same results with CBD.
It’s totally possible (and actually pretty likely) that any effect you get from a commercially available topical CBD product is a placebo effect or related to some other aspect of the product. But there are a few things going on here that are more complex than they seem.
By the time you feel any annoying itch or prick of pain, CB1 and CB2 receptors on your skin cells have already fired off signals to help dampen those unpleasant vibes. These receptors — part of the body’s endocannabinoid system — spend their workdays responding to chemical messages that help our skin nurture a healthy balance. CBD cream bypasses the CB1 and CB2 receptors and heads straight for a neurotransmitter middleman that blocks signals for pain and itch by working through agents called anandamide and 2-AG.
CBD is one of the hundreds of biologically active ingredients produced in Cannabis sativa plants. Unlike THC, its psychoactive cousin that makes people feel high, CBD can ease pain without the euphoria or fear of addiction. The cannabinoid has similar effects whether absorbed through the skin or ingested by mouth.
Consumers aren’t waiting for clinical trials. But they need to remember, says Hurd, that slathering on creams can be risky, considering how the skin absorbs everything. Even topical CBD can react with oral medications.
Pain is a big driver behind opioid addiction. Many people who began treating chronic pain with prescription opioids have switched to heroin when other drugs became difficult to get. A lot of people have died as a result, says Yasmin Hurd , an addiction specialist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “We have so many people in our society now experimenting with CBD to manage pain,” she says. “They are going to their clinicians and asking them for CBD.”
Hurd suggests telling your doctor if you are using CBD creams because what’s absorbed into your skin will get into your bloodstream. “These are sometimes things people don’t appreciate when they are putting cream ‘only on my knee,’” says Hurd. “We also have a lot of seniors using CBD creams for arthritic pain and we need to know sooner rather than later whether this chemical cream used by so many people can indeed be effective.”
Topical CBD creams can treat pain, discomfort and inflammation. Here’s what science knows about how they work.
So far, though, most larger scientific studies on CBD have been limited to animals. A handful of small human trials are now underway to evaluate the extent of cannabidiol's pain relief potential. Even without clinical trials, many people already use legal CBD to counteract the intense discomfort brought on by chemotherapy, and to ease pain in arthritic joints. Texas-based dermatologist Jennifer Clay Cather, who cares for people with complicated skin problems, says most of her patients come from oncology. She also owns a research company that develops CBD skin products. “We need large, evidence-based trials testing different conditions, and also testing the reproducibility of the molecule,” Cather says.
Consumers need to be educated, as well, says Cather. She works to develop a trusting relationship with her patients, so that they’ll feel comfortable talking about using CBD. She also urges her patients to find companies that document what’s actually in the bottle or jar. Asking the company about their quality control, such as how often they document ingredients, can help also vet the product.