By Luke Sumpter

As the CBD market expands, the molecule continues to appear in a long list of different products. You’ll find it in drinks, foods, supplements, pet treats, even lube. Cannabidiol has also started to dominate the cosmetics industry.

Thousands of products aimed at nourishing and soothing the skin now list CBD as an ingredient. But what exactly are CBD topicals? And how do they work? Let’s find out.

What Are CBD Topicals?

Topicals are cosmetic and skincare products meant to be applied directly to the skin. CBD topicals harness the power of this non-psychotropic molecule to soothe the skin, nourish our largest organ, and possibly improve its appearance.

Many CBD skincare products are marketed to reduce redness, relieve dryness, and improve the overall appearance of the skin. Ongoing research on CBD topicals are studying their relationship with certain dermatological conditions[1], and some companies have managed to gain medical device status for their products.

  • Different CBD Skincare Products

There are many different types of CBD skincare products available. Some preparations use cannabidiol as the core ingredient, whereas others combine the molecule with a host of other beneficial botanicals. Examples of CBD topicals include:

  • Oils: CBD oils suspend the cannabinoid in carriers such as olive oil and hemp seed oil. Oils offer flexible application as both oral and topical products. Some oils contain an isolated form of CBD, whereas others feature a full-spectrum extract that contains terpenes and other cannabis phytochemicals.
  • Creams: CBD creams contain thicker and heavier ingredients designed to moisturise the skin by forming a firm barrier.
  • Lotions: Lotions feature a higher water content than creams. They are lighter, non-greasy, and help to keep the skin hydrated throughout the day.
  • Balms: Unlike creams and lotions, balms don’t contain water. They arrive as a solidified oil that melts into the skin.

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How Does CBD Skincare Work?

So, how exactly do all of these products work? Vaping CBD flowers or consuming a drop of oil helps to deliver the cannabinoid into the bloodstream. But how does topical CBD affect the body? And does it even enter the circulatory system?

It turns out topical CBD creates some interesting changes in the skin itself, and very small quantities can penetrate our protective barrier and enter the bloodstream.

  • The Endocannabinoid System in the Skin

If you’ve taken CBD for a while, chances are you know something about the endocannabinoid system (ECS). If you’ve never heard of this fascinating network, you’re about to learn about one of the most interesting systems in the human body.

The ECS consists of a series of receptors, signalling molecules, and enzymes. These components are found all throughout the body, from the nervous system and immune system to the digestive system and the skin.

If the ECS appears all over the body, it must have an important role, right? Yes! Researchers have called the ECS our universal regulator[2], as it helps to keep many other systems in balance. It prevents them from going into overdrive or becoming too sluggish.

The ECS also plays a governing role in the skin. A team of international researchers published a paper where they state that the system keeps the skin in a state of balance[3] and maintains control over the following processes:

  • Proliferation: The rapid reproduction of certain cells. When proliferation gets out of control, it can lead to skin conditions such as psoriasis.
  • Differentiation: The process by which cells transform from one type to another to fulfil a specific function.
  • Immune competence: The ECS plays an important role in the inflammatory response of the skin.
The Endocannabinoid System in the Skin

The research team discussed the crucial role of the ECS in overall skin health, stating, “The disruption of this delicate balance might facilitate the development of multiple pathological conditions and diseases of the skin”. They mention that conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and allergic dermatitis might arise from ECS dysfunction.

The endocannabinoid system can sometimes falter, and numerous causes can underlie the resulting departure from homeostasis (biological balance). Ongoing research continues to explore the effects of introducing external cannabinoids, such as CBD, to influence this system and bring it back to equilibrium.

To highlight the importance of the ECS in the skin, check out the different cell types in our largest organ that possess cannabinoid receptors:

  • Mast cells: Help to maintain balance in the immune system and serve as the first line of defence against pathogens.
  • Keratinocytes: Protect against microbial, viral, and parasitic invasion, as well as UV radiation.
  • Melanocytes: Produce the protective skin-darkening pigment melanin.
  • Sebocytes: Highly specialised cells that produce sebum—an oily substance that protects and moisturises the skin.
The Endocannabinoid System in the Skin
  • How CBD Interacts With the Skin

After applying a topical product, cannabinoids permeate into the skin via the law of diffusion—the movement of a substance from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration.

However, CBD doesn’t just cruise past the skin and into the bloodstream. The cannabinoid has several layers to contend with first, including:

  • Epidermis: Consists of five layers and serves as the primary barrier between the body and the outside world.
  • Dermis: This connective tissue layer sits just below the epidermis. Formed of collagen and elastic tissue, it contains capillaries, nerve endings, hair follicles, and glands. If CBD makes it here, it will enter the bloodstream.

CBD comes into contact with cells such as keratinocytes when applied to the outer layer of the skin. Although CBD doesn’t readily bind to endocannabinoid receptors, it does influence the ECS in an indirect fashion. For example, it manages to preserve endocannabinoids such as anandamide by reducing the enzymes that break it down.

Ongoing research continues to explore the role of CBD in skin health, particularly when it comes to wound healing, itch, acne, and even the modulation of hair growth.

How CBD Interacts With the Skin
  • Does Topical CBD Enter the Bloodstream?

When taken orally or inhaled, CBD enters the bloodstream. Though CBD may soothe the skin when applied topically, can the cannabinoid pass through our protective barriers and into the blood as well?

Topical substances pass through the skin and into the blood in different ways depending on their unique characteristics. Hydrophilic (water-loving) drugs can pass through the spaces between cells in the epidermis before making their way to the capillaries in the dermis below.

Lipophilic (fat-loving) substances, including CBD, are drawn to the cells themselves. Many CBD molecules applied to the skin are metabolised by cells before they make their way deeper into the skin.

However, some CBD molecules pass from cell to cell[4] and into the dermis, and others may find their way through via hair follicles or sweat glands. Once in the dermis, CBD has access to capillaries and can enter systemic circulation.

Topical drugs are selected partly based on their molecular mass. The best candidates are typically between 100–500 daltons (Da). CBD features a mass of 314.5 Da, meaning it can indeed pass into the bloodstream.

But don’t expect to feel an effect anywhere close to actually inhaling CBD or taking oral drops. As the cannabinoid passes through the skin, much of it ends up binding to receptors in the upper layers, where it gets metabolised.

Choosing where you apply CBD on your skin can also increase the amount of the cannabinoid that reaches the bloodstream. Whereas the palms of the hands and soles of the feet offer low levels of absorption, the following locations let through higher amounts of the molecule:

  • Forearm
  • Trunk
  • Head
  • Neck
  • Inflamed or exfoliated areas

What Are the Benefits of CBD Skincare Products?

Most of the benefits of CBD as a skincare product are anecdotal at this point. However, ongoing research hopes to fully reveal how these products work and what advantages they bring.

A study completed in 2020 tested the short and long-term effects of a CBD face cream on human participants[5]. The results of this research, although not yet published, will shine a light on the effects of CBD on skin hydration.

Preclinical evidence[6] points toward CBD topicals as a potential modality against eczema, psoriasis, and inflammatory skin disorders. Future human trials are needed to determine how these findings withstand the scrutiny of tightly designed studies.

So far, scores of anecdotal accounts report that topical CBD offers the following benefits:

  • Soothing
  • Aids red and sensitive skin
  • Relieves rough and chapped skin
  • Helps with blemishes
  • Anti-ageing—keeps skin supple and youthful

What Are the Benefits of CBD Skincare Products?

  • What Are the Side Effects of Topical CBD?

CBD topicals rarely produce side effects. The American Academy of Dermatology states that CBD creams may cause contact dermatitis[7] in some people, but this reaction can happen following the application of any topical.

Because small amounts of topically applied CBD can reach the bloodstream, it may also cause side effects associated with oral application[8]. Although unlikely, these include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Diarrhoea
  • Changes in weight and appetite
  • Does Topical CBD Cream Interact With Medication?

If it reaches the bloodstream, CBD is likely to interfere with prescription medications. Around 60% of medications on the market are metabolised by a group of liver enzymes known as CYP450. Research suggests that CBD inhibits the function[9] of these catabolic molecules, meaning high levels of a particular drug can build up in the body, possibly leading to toxicity.

Because topical CBD only leads to very small quantities of the cannabinoid entering the blood, the chances of drug interactions are low. However, you should always consult your doctor before taking any form of CBD if you’re currently taking medication.

How To Use CBD for Skin Care?

Check out the simple steps below to get the most out of your CBD topicals.

  • Figure out Where To Apply Your CBD Topicals

First things first; decide where you want to put it. Most products are marketed for a certain part of the body, such as hand creams, lip balms, and anti-ageing face lotions. If you want to maximise absorption, take another look at the most permeable areas of the skin mentioned above.

How To Use CBD for Skin Care?
  • Clean the Area

Before you apply your topical, clean the area well. Use a washcloth to remove any dirt and microbes. You’ll make the most of your product by applying it to clean skin.

How To Use CBD for Skin Care?
  • Apply Generously

Apply a thin layer of cream or lotion and massage it into your skin. Add one or two more layers for a more pronounced effect. Products with low water content, such as lip balms, will only require one thin application.

How To Use CBD for Skin Care?
  • Wash Your Hands Well

Wash your hands thoroughly after applying your product. Some preparations contain substances such as capsaicin and other botanicals that can irritate the eyes if placed there by mistake.

How To Use CBD for Skin Care?

Can Topical CBD Cause a Failed Drug Test?

No. If you purchase CBD topicals from a trusted supplier that uses third-party testing, your product will only contain trace amounts of THC, if any at all. Because almost none of this molecule will permeate through the skin and into the blood, you don’t need to worry about drug testing.

Which Is More Effective: CBD Cream or CBD Oil?

It all depends on your situation and preferences. Creams are specifically designed for topical application. They are high in water, additional botanicals, and substances selected to increase hydration and nourish the skin.

Oils are primarily designed for oral administration, but they’re a flexible product that can be just as effective applied to the skin.

Is CBD Skincare Worth It?

We think so! Although human trials are needed to really understand the benefits of topical CBD, anecdotal reports give high praise to these formulas. Try them out for yourself and see what you think. Does your skin feel softer and more hydrated? If so, then they work for you!

External Resources:
  1. Cannabidiol Modifies the Formation of NETs in Neutrophils of Psoriatic Patients
  2. The Endocannabinoid System, Our Universal Regulator
  3. The endocannabinoid system of the skin in health and disease
  4. Drugs and the skin | Clinical Gate
  5. Effect of a Facial Cream Containing Cannabidiol and Hemp Oil on Skin Hydration and Acne-prone Skin
  6. Therapeutic Potential of Cannabidiol (CBD) for Skin Health and Disorders
  7. Public, researchers demonstrate growing interest in cannabis treatment
  8. An Update on Safety and Side Effects of Cannabidiol
  9. An interaction between warfarin and cannabidiol, a case report
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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