What are CBD Topicals
CBD (cannabidiol) is everywhere. It is in products you can vape, eat, drink, bathe in, and apply as topicals to your skin. Although there isn’t a lot scientific research yet on CBD, it has millions of enthusiastic fans, especially among those who use CBD for skin issues. CBD topicals are various creams, salves, and ointments that are infused with CBD oils and integrated with other known absorption properties which are then used as an effective delivery system of CBD when applied to the skin. The specific benefit of CBD ointments is the ability to target distinct points of pain. So if the point of pain is the back, you can put it directly on the skin where the back is sore, swollen, or in pain and get targeted CBD pain relief for that specific area.
CBD is one of a group of over 100 chemicals known as cannabinoids. These chemicals are found primarily in cannabis (hemp or marijuana) plants. There are also cannabinoids in black pepper, black truffles, a South African flowering plant known as helichrysum, a medicinal herb known as the toothache plant, and dark chocolate. Unlike another well-known cannabinoid, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD doesn’t get its users high.
CBD, THC, and the other cannabinoids act in a range of ways on cannabinoid receptors. (A receptor is a site on the outside of a cell that has a very specific molecular configuration, analogous to a lock. Chemicals that activate and deactivate receptors fit in the “lock” like a “key.”) These are sites on certain cells that interact with the cannabinoid compound to change some body function. There are cannabinoid receptors throughout the human body. The CB1 receptors appear mostly in the brain and spinal cord. The CB2 receptors appear in the immune system. There are both CB1 and CB2 receptors in the skin.
THC (the cannabis chemical that gets people high) activates both CB1 and CB2 receptors. CBD modulates both CB1 and CB2 receptors. THC revs up activity that CBD tones down. But that doesn’t mean that if THC get you high, CBD makes you low. CBD has very little effect on the brain, and won’t get you high. When people use cannabis as a whole herb, CBD stops excessive action of THC. But why should the human body respond to cannabinoids at all?
Cannabinoids and Endocannabinoids
It isn’t accurate to say that the human body has receptors for compounds in hemp and a few other plants. It’s more accurate to say that the body has receptors for compounds it makes called endocannbinoids, and cannabinoids from plants interact with those receptors in the same way. Anything that a cannabinoid can stimulate the body to do is something the body can stimulate and regulate for itself with endocannabinoids. But compounds like CBD are sufficiently like the chemicals the body makes that they can interact with the system.
When you use a product that has CBD but little or no THC it will not have significant stimulant effects on the brain. However, CBD can interact with the body’s endocannabinoid receptors to reduce the production of pain and inflammation, especially in the skin. It also activates and modulates certain biochemical pathways important for metabolism, memory, the immune system, and the nervous system outside the brain.
Is CBD Non-Psychoactive?
As mentioned a little earlier, nobody gets high from CBD. The often-repeated claim that CBD in no way impairs mental function is true. That doesn’t mean, however, that CBD has no psychoactive effects. It just has effects on how we think and how we feel that are not the result of activity in the brain.
Serotonin is a well-known antidepressant chemical. Most of the receptors that are activated by serotonin aren’t in the brain. They are in the digestive tract. CBD doesn’t reach serotonin receptors in the brain, but it does reach serotonin receptors in the digestive tract. Activating these receptors outside the brain can relieve anxiety and depression without affecting mental acuity.
CBD also interacts with the body’s adenosine receptors. These are the sites on nerves that are activated by caffeine. CBD calms them.
And CBD interacts with vanilloid receptors. As the name suggests, these nerve endings are activated by compounds in vanilla, although compounds in cloves have a much stronger effect. The vanilloid receptors are stimulated when we eat foods “like mama used to make.” Fast food manufacturers put vanilla in things like ketchup and hamburger buns, so we think of happy meals when we were children. CBD blunts this effect and makes it easier to avoid overeating comfort foods.
Because CBD interacts with so many different kinds of receptors in so many different nerve pathways in the body, researchers refer to it as a “promiscuous” compound. Scientists do not yet know which interactions between the body and CBD are the most important in relieving pain and inflammation. But they do know that CBD relieves pain and inflammation of the skin.
Research about CBD Lotions and Ointments
The best scientific evidence for using CBD lotions to treat skin inflammation and scars comes from a clinical study supervised by the University of Modena and the Second Opinion Clinical Network, both in Modena, Italy. The researchers recruited 20 people who had skin problems, 14 women and six men, aged 20 to 80. Among the volunteers were people who had psoriasis (five volunteers), eczema (five volunteers), and scars from those conditions (10 volunteers). All of them had had skin issues for at least six months and all of them had failed on other treatments.
For ninety days, the volunteers in the study applied a one-percent CBD lotion that also contained traces of essential oils of calendula, chamomile, lavender, mango, and sandalwood in shea butter. The herbal essences have known but small effects on skin pain. They do not usually accelerate skin healing. However, to be exactingly honest, we don’t know that they didn’t have some effect of the skin improvement in the volunteers in this study.
There was remarkable improvement. The dermatologists conducting the study made some very precise measurements of using CBD skin cream every day for 50 and then for 90 days.
Using CBD lotion every day increased skin hydration. Healthy skin doesn’t just respond to moisturizers. It also absorbs water from the humidity of the air. The scientists found that topical CBD increased the natural moisture of the skin everywhere it was applied, but especially on the forehead, on the cheeks, and on the neck. This extra moisture brings out the natural tones of the skin and prevents the formation of tiny cracks that allow bacteria to grow unchecked.
Using CBD lotion every day decreased skin tension. Skin tension causes wrinkles. The Italian researchers noted that CBD erased laugh and frown lines and wrinkles across the forehead.
CBD lotion erased scars in users of all ages. It smoothed out acne scars in younger volunteers for the study and erased scars from infections and eczema in volunteers who were in the seventies. In one 78-year-old volunteer, using CBD lotion every day for 90 days erased a surgical scar.
And CBD lotion calmed acne-prone skin. No single treatment eliminates acne. But CBD reduced blemishes by 22 percent and infected acne by 30 percent.
None of the patients in the Modena study experienced any allergic reactions or itching while using the CBD lotion. The volunteers also noted that they slept better when they were using the product. People who live with acne often develop side effects such as depression, mood swings, high triglycerides, and, paradoxically, new acne blemishes when they use products such as tretinoin (Retin-A). None of these problems appeared during the use of CBD.
What is special about using CBD lotions and creams? CBD creams and lotions applied to the skin aren’t just in treating skin problems. There are also CBD creams and lotions used as supportive therapy by people who have multiple sclerosis, encephalomyelitis, and diabetic neuropathy. These users claim better results from creams than they do from edibles. How could that be?
The biggest problem with hemp and cannabis edibles is their passage through the stomach. Gastric acids break down cannabinoids. Much of their potential for interacting with the nervous and immune systems is lost.
Once cannabinoids pass through the lower digestive tract, they are routed through the hepatic portal vein to the liver. The liver generates dozens of enzymes that activate some compounds, deactivate other compounds, and eliminate the rest. These enzymes may or may not be in use to process other compounds when cannabinoids pass through the liver on their way to be circulated through the rest of the body. As a result, some days orally administered CBD works better than others.
There are none of these problems with CBD is applied to the skin. CBD in a fatty carrier like shea butter is absorbed by the subcutaneous fat under the skin. It is available both to the skin and to the rest of the body. It isn’t broken down by digestion. And no part of the CBD in your lotion goes up in smoke.
A plethora of patients have inspired the development of dozens of formulations of CBD oils, creams, and lotions.
- Capsaicin creams reduce arthritis pain, but sting and burn if they get into the nose and eyes. A CBD cream has been developed to replace them.
- Transdermal CBD patches are in testing for treatment of degenerative arthritis, epilepsy, and fragile-X syndrome.
- A mixture of CBD, olive oil, peppermint oil, and silica gel is being tested as a topical treatment for arthritis pain.
- CBD oil has been found to reduce sebum production. A combination of CBD oil and calendula in a shea butter carrier is being formulated to treat acne
- CBD oil is anti-proliferative. It stops the overproduction of skin cells. Scientists are testing CBD oils and lotions as treatments for psoriasis.
In 2019, there are over 1000 ongoing scientific studies of CBD used as topical treatment. CBD really works. The scientific community just doesn’t understand precisely how. As research unfolds, it’s safe to use to CBD topical oils, lotions, and creams. Choose reliable brands from companies that care about delivering laboratory-verified concentrations of CBD, and don’t forget your medical options.
Further Scientific Reading
Would you like to do a deep dive into the science of CBD topicals?
The Italian study of CBD topicals for skin inflammation, wrinkles, and scars is here:
Palmieri B, Laurino C, Vadalà M. A therapeutic effect of CBD-enriched ointment in inflammatory skin diseases and cutaneous scars. Clin Ter. 2019 Mar-Apr;170(2):e93-e99. doi: 10.7417/CT.2019.2116. PMID: 30993303.
An in-depth review of new CBD topical formulations is here:
Bruni N, Della Pepa C, Oliaro-Bosso S, Pessione E, Gastaldi D, Dosio F. Cannabinoid Delivery Systems for Pain and Inflammation Treatment. Molecules. 2018 Sep 27;23(10). pii: E2478. doi: 10.3390/molecules23102478. Review. PMID: 30262735.