If you’ve used topical CBD for pain relief, you’ve likely seen other topical products like roll-ons, balms, and creams. These products are usually created for people seeking pain relief, but as the CBD market continues to grow, products focusing on skin care, wound healing, and other concerns are starting to emerge. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that using CBD as an ingredient for skin health is effective, but using CBD for skin may not be that straightforward.
Many of these topical products include additional ingredients that support the effects of CBD and even amplify the desired effects. This makes for more diverse choices and greater customizability for CBD users (and we’re here for that), but it also makes navigating the field of available products more difficult. How can you know which topical product to choose?
We at Key to Cannabis seek to help our readers make informed purchasing decisions that support both their immediate and long-term wellbeing. To us, part of this mission includes providing information about the current science of topical ingredients and their potential impact, both on symptoms and on overall health. The role of skin in wellness is often-overlooked, and we feel that consumer education can help support healthier lifestyles for our readers and the CBD community as a whole. CBD for skin can be a valuable part of a treatment plan for a variety of conditions, and we seek to support that.
- CBD topicals offer strong therapeutic potential for a broad range of symptoms, including your skin health
- Learning to utilize supporting ingredients can help you maximize the benefit of your dose of CBD while avoiding problematic ingredients and allergens
- By noting which botanicals, carriers, and other supporting ingredients work best for you, you can find a product (or even a full regimen) that is effective for you
Your Skin & You: Promoting Homeostasis
If you’ve ever researched the ways that CBD affects different systems within the body, you may have noticed the term homeostasis popping up repeatedly. Homeostasis is the term for your body’s natural equilibrium. Sweating when you’re hot to bring your temperature down, signaling hunger when your blood sugar is low, and even your inflammatory response to stress or an injury are all examples of your body attempting to maintain homeostasis. CBD has a regulating effecton many of the body’s systems, including the skin—and that’s important, because your skin works hard to support your health.
Our skin really doesn’t get enough consideration. We tend to forget that it’s responsible for much more than just containing our insides and defending our bodies from damage, pathogens, and debris. The skin is the largest organ of the body—and its duties are vast and diverse. Skin helps regulate your body temperature, synthesizes important hormones and vitamins, relays sensations/information to your brain, and absorbs beneficial nutrients and hydration from the things it comes into contact with.
Skin shields us from UV rays, pollution, and environmental contaminants. It’s constantly changing throughout our lives, and it helps keep our bodies in balance as you go about your day. It plays an obvious role in things like temperature regulation and sensation, but it’s also the site of synthesis of a couple of important compounds that have widespread effects on the body.
The first compound the skin helps produce is the hormone called Vitamin D, which is crucial for bone strength and may play an important role in gut health. The second compound, melatonin(involved heavily in sleep and wakefulness regulation), plays an important role in protecting your cells from damage due to oxidative stress, the kind of stress environmental factors like pollution and solar radiation inflict on your body. If your skin is stressed, inflamed, or damaged, your body’s ability to synthesize and process these two critical hormones may be compromised.
Because of its total connection to other systems of the body, the skin can also provide early warnings of underlying problems. The skin can serve as a sort of “canary in the coalmine” of systemic inflammation, showing signs of underlying illness before other symptoms become apparent. If you’re having skin issues, there may be other forces at play under the proverbial surface — and if you’re having trouble controlling pain and inflammation, don’t neglect your skin! Topical CBD for skin can help to support your integumentary system as well as what’s underneath it.
Why Do Topical Ingredients Matter?
We tend to assume that, as long as our skin isn’t cut, burned, or blemished, it’s fine, and that’s not exactly wrong. However, it isn’t exactly the whole story, either. Your skin keeps lots of stuff out, but it’s more permeable than it appears, especially at the molecular level. If you’re using products with inflammatory ingredients, you may be inadvertently sabotaging yourself. CBD can be very effective against muscle and joint pain, inflammation, and neuropathic pain, but its benefits could be reduced (or even negated) by the wrong supporting ingredients.
Product formulations also play a role in how the ingredients behave and function in a practical setting. For example, an alcohol-based roll-on won’t double as a massage oil the way a heavier, oil-based salve might. Something made of volatile (meaning “quick to evaporate,” like isopropyl or ethyl alcohol) carriers that evaporate more readily will have a stronger cooling effect than an oil-based formula (and the reverse is also true: An oily product will produce a more lasting warming effect than something alcohol-based). In this way, two products with otherwise very similar supporting ingredients might behave very differently when the basic formulation is changed.
Everyone’s skin is different! There are many unique skin types and everyone has different needs and concerns. Knowing the composition of the topical products you use helps you avoid things that don’t agree with your body and choose products that support your individual health goals.
Knowing the origin of the ingredients in your CBD topical product can help you make safer, more ethical, more sustainable buying decisions that align more closely with your values. This could include buying vegan, kosher, cruelty-free, certified organic, non-GMO, local, and any number of other criteria that are important to you.
Carrier Ingredients: What Type Of Product Do You Need?
The main difference between different product formulations and consistencies is the carrier ingredients they utilize. A carrier ingredient is one that is used to dilute the active ingredients in a product while making it more easily absorbed into the skin. Carrier ingredients are also used in oral CBD products (usually MCT oil, though hemp seed, olive, almond, and other oils may also be used), but our focus here is on topical carriers.
Since CBD is lipid-soluble, the most effective CBD skincare carrier ingredients tend to be non-polar molecules like fats, oils, and alcohols. While petroleum jelly and other oil products are sometimes used, the high environmental impact of these ingredients usually leads us to choose something more sustainable.
For salves, balms, lip products, and other intensely emollient formulas, carrier ingredients often include things like coconut oil, shea or cocoa butter, beeswax, mango butter, and other plant-derived oils. The consistency of formulas based on these ingredients ranges from waxy to whipped to creamy, and they often feel rich and heavy on the skin. Some absorb fairly quickly, while others take on a tacky or oily texture for some time after application.
Butter and oil-based carrier ingredients tend to be heavy, and these ingredients may cause some skin types to break out (coconut oil is a particularly common offender) when used all over, especially on the face. For dry skin, however, heavier formulas may be preferred to lighter products. Effects like the warming sensation brought on by capsicum or the tingling induced by peppermint tend to be extended in these buttery formulas. This may be especially helpful to people seeking to manage pain or relax muscles.
For hydration and skin protection without the waxiness, we suggest reaching for formulas that use plant-derived oils as a base. The options are pretty broad here; you’ll likely see oils from sources like olive, safflower, apricot seed, hemp, grapeseed, sweet almond, avocado, jojoba, argan, Monoi, and others. These oils will do a good job of extending the effects of warming or cooling products, though olive and Monoi may contribute to breakouts for some skin types.
These ingredients yield products ranging in consistency from very fluid oils to more viscous lotions. Some absorb quickly without much residue, while others may leave a lingering oily feeling on the skin after application. To minimize greasiness, we suggest reaching for products that blend plant-derived oils with an even lighter ingredient like aloe vera juice or cetyl alcohol.
The lightest and most volatile (quick to evaporate) carrier ingredients aren’t oils at all, but a sort of semi-polar group of ingredients that include aloe vera juice, vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, and alcohols like isopropyl, stearyl, or cetyl. Of these, we strongly prefer aloe vera juice, vegetable glycerin, or cetyl alcohol, which tend to be gentler on the skin than alternatives. This is because propylene glycol, while generally safe for topical use, may be inflammatory for some skin types.
Isopropyl and stearyl alcohols have a tendency to dry skin over time due to their impact on the bonds between skin cells. These ingredients may be okay to use once in a while, but we prefer to stick to products we don’t have to second-guess reaching for again and again.
Cetyl alcohol, a coconut-derived fatty alcohol, is less damaging to skin due to its higher emollient content. Aloe vera juice is a very well-tolerated and non-comedogenic moisturizer for even the most sensitive skin types. Vegetable glycerin, like cetyl alcohol and aloe vera, evaporates quickly and is gentle enough for general use, even for sensitive skin. These ingredients evaporate from the skin more readily, so they’re ideal for enhancing the cooling effects of things like peppermint, arnica, and chamomile.
Plant-Derived Compounds & Botanicals
In the interest of sustainability, we prefer to opt for plant-derived ingredients wherever possible. Additionally, the terpenes found in plant extracts may help improve the efficacy of CBD and other cannabinoids. Terpenes can modify the effects of CBD by amplifying specific effects or adding complementary properties of their own.
We should note that just because an oil or extract is natural doesn’t mean that it’s completely without risk for everyone. Undiluted essential oils like peppermint, tea tree, and cinnamon can cause chemical burns if applied undiluted to the skin, for instance, and chamomile may provoke a potentially dangerous allergic reaction in people sensitive to ragweed or other members of the Asteraceae family. “Natural” ingredients are equally capable of producing an adverse reaction as synthetic ingredients, so don’t assume a product labeled “vegan” or “all-natural” is automatically safer by default. We love our botanicals, but they aren’t fully risk-free.
One of the main therapeutic effects of CBD is its ability to act as an anti-inflammatory, reducing excess inflammation and taming related symptoms like redness, fever, swelling, and pain. The natural world is full of anti-inflammatories—aspirin is derived from willow bark, for instance—that may be utilized to enhance the soothing properties of CBD. These may include green tea, turmeric, ginger, capsaicin (extracted from chili peppers), lavender, chamomile, frankincense, resveratrol, arnica, peppermint (or any other variety of mint), cinnamon, clove, lemon balm, and other plant extracts.
Many of these compounds also have pain-relieving properties when used topically, including willow bark (and some types of pine bark), turmeric, ginger, lavender, frankincense, arnica, clove, lemon balm, and cinnamon. In addition to analgesic effects, many herbs can produce temperature sensations in the skin that may help to reduce pain perception.
For example, herbs like peppermint, arnica, frankincense, and lemon balm yield cooling, tingling sensations that may help to reduce swelling. Plants like ginger, peppers, and cinnamon can induce a sensation of warmth, helping muscles to relax and ease tension. Herbs with differing effects can be combined to produce more of a tingling sensation that can help stimulate nerves in a way that reduces nerve pain in many people.
Because there are so many different compounds that work through so many diverse mechanisms in the body, herbal ingredients often create a marked difference in function between otherwise comparable products. The scent produced by a particular blend may also be a benefit, as there’s some compelling evidence to suggest that scent is important to how we perceive pain. Eucalyptus, lavender, chamomile, citrus, and cinnamon are popular in aromatherapy circles, but you should use whatever you find soothing or comforting.
Vitamins, Minerals, & ‘Unpronounceables’
Some products, (usually salves and balms) consist solely of CBD, a carrier oil or two, and a few botanical ingredients. However, products like roll-ons, lotions, sprays, and other more modern formulas will have at least a few ingredients that look a little intimidating. These might include things like L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C, a skin brightener and antioxidant), niacinamide (vitamin B3, a humectant and skin protector), retinol (vitamin A, an antioxidant that helps fight signs of aging), or alpha tocopherol (vitamin E, used to restore moisture to the skin and protect it from damage).
For the most part, these ingredients are included for a reason and likely bring some skin-nourishing benefits to the table. That said, you may need to be on the lookout for things like phthalates and parabens (plasticizers used to emulsify ingredients that can cause adverse reactions in some skin types), DMDM hydantoin (a preservative known to release formaldehyde over time, which is irritating to most skin types), and phenoxyethanol (a stabilizer linked to allergic reactions in some consumers).
These are some of the most common causes of allergens in topical products, so try to avoid them if you are prone to breakouts or skin allergies. That said, it isn’t an exhaustive list—sodium laureth sulfate (and other sulfates), fragrances, dyes, and other compounds can also act as irritants in some people. If you have a bad reaction to a product, discontinue use immediately and monitor your symptoms. If they persist longer than a day or two, visit your doctor to make sure there isn’t an underlying problem at work.
Other additives might include something like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (mineral sunscreens that form a barrier between skin and damaging solar radiation). Thickeners or emulsifiers may also be used to maintain product texture (hydroxyethylcellulose is one, but others might include xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan, or potassium sorbate). These ingredients aren’t necessarily anything to panic about, but may cause adverse reactions for those with especially sensitive skin. For this reason, we recommend exercising caution with unfamiliar compounds and researching them when necessary.
Best Full Spectrum Salve: Pure Relief Pain Salve
Pure Relief’s Pain Salve has a high, full-spectrum CBD content, 500 mg, and deeply penetrating and nourishing essential oils to enhance the relieving effects of this salve. The primary ingredient is cold pressed hemp oil, but other helpful anti-inflammatories and healthy trace minerals like arnica and magnesium assist the pain-relieving effects of CBD. We love the scent, and the powerful relief this salve provides for aching muscles.
Best Synergistic Topical Bundle: Spektra Pain Relief Bundle
Spektra comes through with tried and true products for CBD consumers providing the best combination to get natural long-lasting relief. The Pain Relief Bundle includes a CBD vape for quick and direct effects of CBD, an oral tincture for specific and high dosing if you need, and the amazing transdermal Relief CBD patches that can be worn up to four days to provide pain relief. Not only that, but all Spektra products are additive-free, pesticide-free, no harmful fillers, formulated with organic essential oils only, and harness the power of full-spectrum phytocannabinoid-rich CBD.
Best CBD Oil For Your Skin: Leef Organics Wild Crafted Skin Oil
CBD is an amazing antioxidant and free-radical fighter. This Leef Organics oil is food your skin! This oil is a well balanced botanical blend, with CBD and Kukui Nut Oil—a plant-based superfood, packed with other beneficial oils. This Wild Crafted oil is like food for your skin! The oils are easily absorbed into the skin and lock in the good stuff. The oils protect the deep layer of your skin by keeping outside aggressors out and enhancing your glow, boosts collagen, and improves skin elasticity and tone.