Buying Guide – How to Shop for CBD Topicals
Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) have become hugely popular in recent years. When formulated into an oil and consumed, CBD has relaxing and pain-relieving properties that ease symptoms of injuries, medical conditions, and mental health disorders.
CBD topicals are lotions, salves, and other products applied directly to the skin; most are not designed for oral consumption. CBD topicals are particularly effective at alleviating aches and pains associated with muscle and joint soreness and inflammation. They may also be used to alleviate burns, insect stings and bites, and other sensitive injury sites. Most CBD topicals are fairly inexpensive, and the products come in a wide range of concentrations to suit consumers with different preferences.
Read on to learn more about CBD topicals. This buyer’s guide will cover common characteristics of these topicals that set them apart from other CBD products, as well as safety information and application tips.
What Is CBD Oil?
CBD is a cannabinoid, a naturally occurring chemical compound found in cannabis plants. Cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system found in humans and other mammals. When CBD enters the body, these interactions trigger receptors that affect appetite, sleep, pain, mood, and other functions.
CBD products work with the endocannabinoid system to alleviate aches and pains, discomfort, and other symptoms associated with the following conditions:
Because CBD products are fairly new to the mainstream market, many consumers have misconceptions about them. The most common myth is that products with CBD oil ‘get people high’ because they contain cannabinoids from cannabis.
This is technically incorrect. Although CBD is a cannabinoid, it does not produce the same psychoactive high as other cannabinoids – namely tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is found in marijuana. CBD produces a relaxing feeling and can alleviate pain and discomfort from conditions listed above, but it will not make people high on its own.
That being said, some CBD products are considered ‘full-spectrum,’ meaning that a wide range of chemicals and nutrients in addition to CBD are extracted from the cannabis plant during the formulation process. In some cases, full-spectrum products contain trace amounts of THC – typically no more than 0.3% to meet legal requirements in most states.
Full-spectrum CBD products do not get people high the same way marijuana does; comparatively, some strains of marijuana contain 30% or more THC. However, CBD products with traces of THC may not meet legal requirements in some states; additionally, consuming full-spectrum CBD products with THC can result in failed drug tests. Those seeking CBD products with no THC should opt for CBD isolate products, which only contain CBD.
Most CBD products are derived from hemp; a small number are synthetically produced. Until recently, the production, sale, and use of hemp-based products was a legal grey area for manufacturers and consumers. However, with passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp products are now legal to make, sell, and consume in all 50 states – provided they do not contain any THC.
For CBD products with traces of THC, consumers should carefully review their state laws to ensure the products are legal to buy, own, and use. They should also carefully consider using CBD products with THC if there is a chance they’ll face a drug test in the near future.
What Are CBD Topicals and How Do They Work?
As the name implies, CBD topicals are applied directly to the skin. They are not ingested like edibles, inhaled like vapes, or administered sublingually under the tongue like tinctures.
The outermost layer of skin, known as the epidermis, acts as a barrier for the other skin layers (dermis and hypodermis) against pathogens, UV rays, and harmful chemicals. For these reasons, the epidermis is fairly tough and not very permeable. Topicals applied to the epidermis will not reach the dermis or hypodermis layers or enter the bloodstream. For this reason, topicals represent a ‘safer’ option for first-time CBD users who do not want CBD directly entering their body like edibles, vape oils, or tinctures.
CBD topicals generally fall into one of three categories – though there is notable crossover in terms of ingredients and functions:
- Lotions and creams that moisturize and restore the skin
- Salves that soothe the skin and alleviate pain associated with burns, stings, and other sensitive spots
- Oils and serums with a thinner texture with moisturizing and restorative qualities
In addition to CBD, these topicals often contain a wide range of natural ingredients and substances, many of which are also found in conventional lotions and creams, salves, and therapeutic oils. These may include:
- Aloe vera
- Shea and cocoa butter
- Avocado or almond butter
- Coconut oil
- Lavender oil, eucalyptus oil, and other essential oils
Specific ingredients vary by product. Most brands feature a complete ingredient list on the topical’s product page, along with third-party testing results and information about THC content.
The topical’s properties also differ from product to product. However, CBD topicals may alleviate pain and discomfort associated with the following conditions and injuries:
- Muscle and joint inflammation
- Sore and/or cramped muscles
- Areas that are bruised or in pain due to minor injuries
- Insect bites and stings
- Eczema and other types of skin rashes and ailments
Please note that CBD topicals should never be applied to open cuts or wounds. This causes a risk of infection. It also introduces the topical to the dermis and possibly the hypodermis layers, which can cause an adverse reaction to the CBD.
How Are Topicals Similar or Different from Other CBD Products?
CBD topicals are distinct from other CBD products in the following ways:
- Application: As we’ve discussed above, CBD topicals are applied directly to the skin. The lotion, salve, or oil never comes into contact with blood vessels beneath the epidermis.
- Effects: CBD topicals never enter the bloodstream or directly interact with the endocannabinoid system. However, topicals communicate with the body via endocannabinoid receptors in the epidermis. As a result, the effects of CBD topicals are more subtle and typically isolated to the application area. Depending on the type of topical, it may moisturize and restore the skin, alleviate pain from burns or stings, or assist with skin conditions like eczema or acne. However, topicals do not produce the same relaxing sensation throughout the body as other CBD products.
- Approximate dosage: Some CBD products carry exact dosages. Edibles, for instance, typically list the CBD content in mg-per-serving, with one edible representing a single serving. Topical dosages are less exact, since they depend on the amount of topical used.
- Concentration range: Like other CBD products, topicals are available in different concentration strengths. These generally range from low-concentration options in the 250mg to 300mg range to high-concentration topicals with up to 1500mg of CBD. Other CBD products – namely tinctures and edibles – have recommended doses for consumers based on their body weight, tolerance, and discomfort level, among other factors. Topical dosage is less reliant on body weight or tolerance, and primarily depends more on pain level in the affected area.
- Pricing: Average price-points for CBD topical lotions, creams, and salves are comparable to other CBD products. Most fall between $0.05 and $0.15 per mg. Oils and serums tend to be somewhat pricier. Expect to spend roughly $0.25 to $0.40 per mg on these products.
Are CBD Topicals Safe?
CBD topicals, like other CBD products, are considered generally safe – although long-term health risks associated with CBD have not been extensively studied. Additionally, CBD products are often sold as diet supplements, which are not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration the same way that medications are.
Side effects associated with general use of CBD include the following:
- Lower blood pressure: People who consume CBD may experience a temporary drop in blood pressure as the product takes effect. For most, this is not a major issue. However, people with low blood pressure or those taking certain medications (such as blood thinners) should consult with a physician before using CBD products.
- Diarrhea: CBD products – particularly those with high concentrations – can upset the stomach and cause digestive problems like diarrhea.
- Fatigue: CBD has soothing and calming properties that make it an ideal sleep aid. However, those who consume high doses may experience excessive sleepiness. If this occurs, consumers should avoid driving, working with machinery, or performing other activities that depend on wakefulness and full motor function.
Additionally, there are health concerns specifically associated with CBD topicals to consider. One is allergic reactions. Although allergies to CBD are considered rare, many topicals contain ingredients that could trigger reactions in consumers. Be sure to check the product label carefully if you have allergies, especially if your allergies include moisturizing agents, essential oils, and other ingredients commonly found in non-CBD topicals.
Lastly, it’s important to remember to never apply a CBD topical to an open cut or wound. This can cause infection and potentially lead to adverse CBD reactions. If you have never tried CBD, please consult with your physician to discuss possible side effects and interactions with other medications.
Do CBD Topicals Make People Feel 'High'?
CBD does not have any psychoactive effects and will not make consumers feel ‘high’ like THC will. Some full-spectrum CBD products contain trace amounts of THC, but no more than 0.3%; by comparison, some strains of marijuana contain more than 30% THC.
Full-spectrum CBD products with THC may produce stronger, more intense sensations than isolate and full-spectrum CBD products with no THC, but even then there is no psychoactive high – just more pronounced feelings of relaxation and sleepiness.
Additionally, topicals are unique because they never come into contact with the consumer’s bloodstream. Topicals isolate their effects to the epidermis where the lotion, salve, or oil is applied, along with underlying muscles and joints; they do not produce the same body high as topicals, edibles, and other CBD products that directly interact with the endocannabinoid system. As a result, CBD topicals with trace amounts of THC will provide higher levels of ache and pain relief without the psychoactive high.
Please note: at this time, CBD topicals have not been extensively studied in terms of their effect on drug tests. Because topicals do not enter the bloodstream, many experts agree they are unlikely to yield positive results on tests for marijuana/THC. However, we encourage readers to exercise caution when using CBD topicals with traces of THC – especially if they think a drug test might be in their future. A good rule-of-thumb for these individuals may be to solely use isolate or full-spectrum CBD topicals that do not contain any THC whatsoever.
How to Apply CBD Topicals
As a general rule, CBD topical users should use as much or as little of their lotion/cream, salve, or oil/serum as they wish. Larger amounts are likelier to trigger the endocannabinoid receptors in the skin and take a noticeable effect, but smaller quantities may also be effective. The general procedure for applying CBD topicals is as follows:
- Prepare the application area: Remove all clothing from the skin, as many CBD topicals can stain garment fabrics. Wash the area with soap and water, then dry thoroughly; traces of moisture may impact how quickly the topical takes effect.
- Apply the topical: Using your fingers, apply a small amount of the topical to the area where the most pain or discomfort is concentrated. Massage the skin in a circular direction and make sure the topical is completely rubbed in before applying more.
- Enjoy the effects: The topical should take effect fairly quickly, though this largely depends on the CBD concentration. If necessary, also apply the topical to areas surrounding the initial spot; this may be particularly beneficial for people with burns, bites, or stings, as well as those with joint or muscle pains. Also feel free to apply more if the skin is dry or damaged.
Many consumers find that applying a CBD topical to sore or painful areas at least once per day produces the best effects. If you are unsure about how much CBD topical to use, consult with your physician.