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By Luke Sumpter

Acne doesn’t just irritate the skin. This frustrating dermatological condition can also impact self-esteem and the desire to socialise. No cure exists for the affliction, but an array of creams, lotions, and gels help to curtail oily and sensitive skin. Some acne topicals contain synthetic antiseptics and steroids, whereas others contain cannabis constituents. Scores of people are turning to the latter in hopes of symptomatic relief. But does weed really help with acne?

What Is Acne?

Acne is a common skin condition that causes red, oily, and irritated skin. It’s especially common among teenagers, but occurs in approximately 95% of people aged 11–30 at some point in time. Acne primarily affects the face, back, shoulders, and chest, and manifests as the following symptoms:

  • Spots including blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts
  • Nodules under the skin
  • Oily, red, inflamed skin
  • Itching
  • Eventual scarring
  • Subsequent mental health issues such as anxiety and depression

How Acne Forms

Acne forms when the pores of the skin become blocked. These small openings allow substances to leave the body and reach the surface of the skin. There are two main types: sweat pores and oil pores. The latter work alongside sebaceous glands situated under the skin to release an oily substance known as sebum. Under normal conditions, sebum helps to protect the skin against friction and repel moisture[1].

However, this protective substance causes problems in cases of acne. The skin condition starts when sebum begins amassing in pores. In some people, excessive sebum production itself takes the blame. In other cases, obstructions, such as dead skin cells and bacteria, block oil pores and cause a backlog. Regardless of the cause, pimples and spots begin to form when bacteria in clogged oil pores are unable to escape, triggering inflammation and breakouts.

Several factors increase the risk of developing acne, from genetics to grub. The primary reasons include:

  • Hormonal shifts during puberty and pregnancy
  • Medications such as birth control pills
  • Foods high in refined sugars
  • Genetics from parents who experienced acne themselves
How Acne Forms

Cannabis and Acne

Some people experience great relief with conventional topicals, but others suffer from side effects that leave them looking for alternatives. So, does weed help with acne? This might seem like a strange question at first, but it stands to reason. And indeed, scientific studies are looking to find the answer to this very question.

But what makes cannabis a viable candidate for acne research? Among hundreds of constituents of interest, the cannabinoids within the plant are known to interface with a system that governs many aspects of human physiology, including important processes in the skin.

  • The Endocannabinoid System and the Skin

Yes, we’re talking about the endocannabinoid system (ECS). This extensive network of receptors, signalling molecules, and enzymes shows up just about everywhere. Researchers have found it in the skin, bones, brain, and reproductive system, where it works overtime to ensure these systems remain in a state of balance.

The key components of this system include the primary ECS receptors CB1 and CB2, the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG, and enzymes that build up and break down these endocannabinoids. These bits and pieces of the ECS are found in several different types of skin cells. Keratinocytes, the most dominant cell type in the epidermis, possess ECS receptors[2]. Moreover, endocannabinoids underpin the pigmentation of human skin via the CB1 receptor[3].

Overall, the ECS plays a vital role in the normal functioning of the skin. It contributes to the proliferation, growth, differentiation, and apoptosis (controlled self-destruction) of skin cells. In doing so, it maintains a healthy balance in our second-largest organ[4]. Because the ECS regulates the skin, a disruption in its function could theoretically result in disease.

The Endocannabinoid System and the Skin

Researchers such as Dr Ethan Russo have explored the relationship between dysfunctions within the ECS and disease. The hypothesis of clinical endocannabinoid deficiency states that a reduction in endocannabinoid tone, or circulating endocannabinoids, could underpin the symptoms of conditions such as fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome[5].

ECS components are also found in sebocytes, the highly specialised epithelial cells that make up the sebaceous glands. These glands are responsible for releasing sebum to the surface of the skin. Endocannabinoid tone maintains a balance in sebum production, and an increase in endocannabinoids leads to enhanced sebum production[6].

Upon hearing this, some may be quick to assume that the cannabinoids from cannabis might also cause an increase in sebum, and therefore contribute to acne symptoms. However, cannabinoids work in nuanced ways.

For example, the endocannabinoid anandamide appears to work in a dose-dependent manner. While it stimulates sebum production at lower concentrations, it causes apoptosis in sebocytes at higher doses[7]. THC and CBD mimic anandamide and prevent its reuptake, respectively; these unique mechanisms of action could be utilised to determine their efficacy as future acne treatments.

  • THC vs CBD for Acne Treatment

THC and CBD are the two most prominent cannabinoids in most cultivars. The former directly stimulates ECS receptors and underpins the euphoric and intoxicating effects of the herb. In contrast, CBD has a low affinity for the primary ECS receptors and doesn’t produce a high.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at the potential of both cannabinoids in the realm of acne.


This controversial cannabinoid activates CB1 and CB2 receptors, mimicking the action of our endocannabinoids. Researchers have found that higher levels of anandamide might help to reduce sebum production. From here, studies are now looking to determine if THC could achieve the same, or greater, effect by stimulating the same receptors.

Moreover, those experiencing acne often suffer from pain and inflammation. With this in mind, cannabis scientists are currently exploring the potential of THC to counteract these symptoms in animal and human models[8].


CBD manages to influence the ECS in other ways. By inhibiting the enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), CBD has the potential to increase anandamide levels. Whether this means CBD is able to indirectly induce sebocyte apoptosis is yet unclear.

Researchers are also exploring to what degree CBD manages to quell sebum production after cells are exposed to substances that increase it, such as anandamide and testosterone[9].

The skin microbiome also influences the occurrence of acne. Ongoing studies are exploring if the antimicrobial effects of CBD might benefit acne-affected skin in a holistic way.

  • Cannabis and Other Skin Conditions

The presence of the ECS in the skin, and the ability of cannabis to influence the ECS, has led to the herb being investigated for its potential to benefit other skin conditions. Ongoing studies are exploring the effect of cannabis on:

How To Use Cannabis or CBD for Acne

Does smoking weed help acne? It’s unclear. Smoking and vaping introduce cannabinoids into the systemic circulation, but we’re currently lacking human trials into their efficacy. As such, applying topical formulas directly to affected areas will likely offer the best results.

  • Cannabis and CBD Creams

There are a plethora of topical cannabinoid products on the market, including balms, lotions, oils, and creams. Some contain only CBD and a carrier oil, whereas others offer a host of botanicals that further benefit skin health. While individuals in Europe will struggle to find THC-based topicals, those in regions with a legal cannabis market will have a much easier time.

Most topical products work locally. This means, instead of accessing the bloodstream, cannabinoids interface with receptors on skin cells. Simply follow the instructions on a given product for best results.

Will Acne Go Away?

Yes. In most cases, symptoms improve over time. Although people can experience flare-ups for several years, the condition usually clears up when a person enters their mid-20s. If you’re experiencing the condition, remember you don’t have to ride it out defenceless. You might find relief in conventional options; but if not, why not influence your ECS with the help of cannabis topicals?

External Resources:
  1. An update on the role of the sebaceous gland in the pathogenesis of acne - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  2. The endocannabinoid system in human keratinocytes. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  3. Endocannabinoids stimulate human melanogenesis via type-1 cannabinoid receptor - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  4. The endocannabinoid system of the skin in health and disease: novel perspectives and therapeutic opportunities - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  5. Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Reconsidered: Current Research Supports the Theory in Migraine, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel, and Other Treatment-Resistant Syndromes - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  6. Endocannabinoid Tone Regulates Human Sebocyte Biology - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  7. Therapeutic Potential of Cannabidiol (CBD) for Skin Health and Disorders - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  8. Cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pruritus: A review - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  9. Cannabidiol exerts sebostatic and antiinflammatory effects on human sebocytes - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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