Roll-ons, salves, balms, creams, sprays, gels — there is no shortage of variety with CBD topicals. If you’ve looked into using CBD for pain relief, you’ve probably seen half a dozen of each of these formulations, each with different carrier and supporting ingredients. There are even CBD topicals dedicated to addressing skin care, wound healing, and other concerns outside of pain management. Even within the pain management sphere alone, topical products can be used to produce varying sensations to alleviate different types of pain, from aching joints to tingling neuropathy to pulled muscles.

This variety is due largely to the supporting ingredients a particular product is formulated with. While the active ingredient (CBD) remains the same across these formulas (provided they meet our CBD Buyer’s Guide criteria), the carrier and supporting ingredients can modify its effects, enhancing certain effects by acting in concert with CBD. This broad range of potential products presents some potentially wonderful outcomes for patients and consumers (which we are absolutely here for), but not without some potential pitfalls.

Part of our mission at The CBD Encyclopedia is a commitment to helping our readers make informed purchasing decisions that support their well-being in both the short and long terms. In that spirit, it’s important to us to share the current science of topical CBD products. This includes details about how different ingredients work as well as what symptoms they might help alleviate. Skin plays a significant (and often overlooked) role in overall wellness, and we believe strongly in empowering our readers to treat it — and themselves — more kindly.

Here, we break down supporting ingredients by condition, highlighting the most effective product formulations, herbal extracts, and minerals for your symptoms. We’ll also discuss potential concerns associated with topical use of these ingredients, focusing on sensitive skin types and common skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis.

Below, you’ll find a list of different symptoms beginning with types of pain before addressing symptoms of injury like swelling and broken skin. We close with dry skin because it’s such a common issue (check out our article on CBD and skincare for skin-specific concerns). We’ve chosen to limit this discussion to medicinal use, as there’s quite a bit of ground to cover. For a more detailed breakdown of ingredients for a certain symptom, look for links to our dedicated articles on CBD topicals in each listing.

CBD Topicals for Joint Pain

There are many potential causes of joint pain and swelling, from sprains and injuries to chronic conditions like rheumatoid, psoriatic, or osteoarthritis. Regardless of the root cause, the pain and swelling you feel in your joints is the result of damage to the joint capsule itself, which causes debris to create friction within the joint and induces an inflammatory response that disturbs the fluid balance of the joint. This can lead to pain, stiffness, and mobility problems and may be influenced by factors like barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature.

Topical CBD Carrier Types for Joint Pain

Because of the nature of joint pain, temperature sensation is of special concern — and different temperatures can work differently to alleviate joint pain.

Most of the time, we tend to prefer warmth over cooling on our joints, as the temperature can help encourage better circulation and fluid movement. To that end, we prefer oil-based or waxy products, like salves or balms, for use on joints. We find that these formulations better support the warming action of ingredients like ginger or capsicum, aiding circulation and extending relief. Our preferred ingredients include:

  • Plant oils like those from coconut, olive, grapeseed, and avocado make for nourishing and sustainable carrier oils that maximize the absorption of CBD.
  • Beeswax is a heavier ingredient that hydrates and soothes skin while providing a protective barrier over the surface. It isn’t vegan, but can be collected sustainably, so use your discretion here.
  • Natural butters like shea or cocoa have long been used to hydrate skin, and their lipid-rich compositions make them ideal carrier ingredients — just know that their intensive emollient properties may be a bit heavy for oilier skin types.
  • When we’re looking for a cooling sensation to ease swelling and freeze away pain, we reach for a product with a lighter formula. While alcohols like stearyland cetyl are often used (and may be effective for some people), they can be quite drying for others, especially when used regularly. Our preferred carrier ingredients for cooling products include:
  • Aloe vera juice provides plenty of hydration while contributing to cooling by evaporating quickly — the benefits of alcohol without the skin damage.
  • Vegetable glycerin (sometimes noted as glycerol or just plain glycerin) is often used to improve the texture of products like roll-ons, thinning and smoothing them for better application while providing some skin-soothing and hydrating benefits. Propylene glycol may also be used for this purpose, which is mostly fine for topical products (though it may negatively affect some people in high concentrations).
  • While we prefer to skip alcohol-heavy products, we’ll definitely choose cetyl alcohol over stearyl or isopropyl any day. This is because cetyl alcohol, a fatty alcohol derived from coconut, has a high lipid content that can help return moisture to the skin, minimizing the potential drying effects of alcohol.

Supporting CBD Topical Ingredients for Joint Pain

  • Aloe Vera – While we tend to think of aloe vera for burns and other acute injuries, there’s evidence to show that it may have joint pain-relieving properties as well, and that these benefits are available when the plant is used topically. Aloe vera extract also helps hydrate, soothe, and protect the skin, and is well-tolerated by most people.
  • Capsaicin – You might know this molecule as the stuff that gives peppers their heat (and yes, it is the active ingredient in pepper spray), but it’s more than just the kick in your hot sauce. Capsaicin is excellent at improving circulationin the skin and underlying tissues when applied topically — in low concentrations, of course. This compound can produce a warming sensationthat helps soothe pain while it dilates blood vessels and increases the ability of fluids to move through your tissues, making it potentially highly effective at addressing joint pain and stiffness (especially the pain caused by weather changes and cold snaps).
  • Cat’s Claw – This is a tricky one, so use with awareness and caution. Cat’s claw is an herb that has been shown to possess anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties, which may be beneficial to many people suffering from joint pain. However, there’s a potential catch for rheumatoid arthritis patients in particular, as that immune-boosting power might send an already-overactive immune system into full-on beast mode, worsening symptoms as the body attacks its own tissues. Cat’s claw may work well for people with osteoarthritis, but those with rheumatoid arthritis should proceed with caution.
  • Epsom Salts – Don’t overlook bath salts for joint pain! Epsom salts can help soothe soreness, and some evidence suggests that they might be useful in helping restore electrolyte and mineral balance to joints and muscles. They also combine well with heat therapy to alleviate pain and help improve mobility.
  • Eucalyptus – Eucalyptus is another plant with wide-ranging medicinal benefits, including pain management. Eucalyptus contains a hefty dose of tannins, which help reduce the inflammation and swelling that exacerbate joint pain. If your joints are especially swollen and painful, eucalyptus may help alleviate inflammation and restore balance to your tissues.
  • Frankincense – Also known as Boswellia, this plant resin may be especially beneficial to sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune illnesses. This is because frankincense helps block the action of leukotrienes, chemical messengers for the immune system that increase inflammation. This action may help support the anti-inflammatory action of CBD, especially when used consistently over a longer period of time.
  • Ginger – Sometimes called zingiber on product labels, ginger has been used in traditional medicine for millennia to treat a wide range of symptoms, including joint pain. When applied to the skin, the extract can help improve blood flow and circulation to the skin and underlying tissues. This action, in turn, can support the body’s ability to clear tissues of excess fluid and promote healthy circulation. This effect may produce the secondary benefit of reducing swelling when ginger is applied topically.
  • Green Tea – One of the world’s most popular beverages, the anti-inflammatory action of green tea has been used for medicine by many cultures and traditions throughout human history. While the specific mechanisms are still being studied, researchers believe that compounds called polyphenols help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body, both when ingested and when applied to the skin. Green tea is about 30% polyphenols by weight, and extracts from the plant are full of these helpful molecules.
  • Turmeric – Not just for culinary use, turmeric (sometimes labeled as its active ingredient, curcumin) has long been used to help soothe pain and inflammation, both internally and topically. Emerging evidence suggests that turmeric may be useful in slowing the advance of rheumatoid arthritis, and its soothing properties may help alleviate swelling and inflammation, thereby reducing pain and stiffness in sore joints.
  • Willow Bark – This one goes back to the days of Hippocrates, who described patients chewing the bark to relieve pain and swelling. The plant can help alleviate pain and inflammation when ingested, but evidence suggests that these benefits may also extend to topical application. While willow bark is usually taken orally, we’re starting to see it added to topicals more often.

CBD Topicals for Nerve Pain

Nerve pain can be symptomatic of a variety of conditions ranging from diabetes to cancer to autoimmune conditions. The root cause of nerve pain is damage to your body’s nerve cells, which causes them to misfire and behave erratically. Nerve pain often feels sharp, like pinpricks, and may have an electric element to the sensation, making it potentially very disrupting and debilitating. Fortunately, topical products can be very beneficial for neuropathic pain, reducing the severity and frequency of pain.

Topical CBD Carrier Types for Nerve Pain

Ultimately, the best type of product for you will depend on how your nerve pain feels. Different products will produce different sensations, which can be helpful to counter the pins-and-needles feeling of neuropathic pain.

For burning or stinging pain, you might prefer lighter products with a cooling sensation. We find that products formulated with things like aloe vera juice, cetyl alcohol, or vegetable glycerin produce a stronger cooling effect than heavier, oil-based products.

If you prefer more of a warming effect, we recommend using products with a base made of oils, plant butters, or waxes. The lipid-dense composition of ingredients like avocado oil, shea butter, and beeswax can help amplify and extend the effects of warming ingredients, helping you feel better longer.

Supporting CBD Topical Ingredients for Nerve Pain

  • Capsaicin – While it isn’t for everyone, products that feature small amounts of capsaicin (the compound that gives chili peppers their characteristic heat) may help soothe some types of nerve pain. Researchers believe that capsaicin may have a desensitizing effect on the skin, helping to temporarily reduce the sensation of pain.
  • Clove Oil – The humble clove is a botanical pain relief powerhouse; one studyfound its oil to be as effective as benzocaine at alleviating pain during a medical procedure. While the exact mechanism remains poorly understood, researchers think that the analgesic properties of clove oil may be due in part to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
  • Eucalyptus – The analgesic properties of eucalyptus may extend to nerve pain as well, though current research suggests that this may have more to do with its aromatherapeutic application than through transdermal use. Eucalyptus can trigger asthma attacks in some people, so it’s best used well-diluted and with caution.
  • Feverfew – Long used to treat fever and pain in traditional medicine, the leaves and flowers of the feverfew plant (also known as Bachelor’s Button) may help reduce muscle spasms and the tingling or burning often associated with neuropathic pain. This may be due to the terpenes and flavonoids within the plant, according to emerging research.
  • Ginger – Ginger has been used to treat pain and inflammation for centuries, and its anti-inflammatory properties may benefit people struggling with nerve pain. Research suggests that the plant can help soothe pain and inflammation, whether consumed or applied topically.
  • Lavender – A darling of the aromatherapy world, lavender is prized for its soothing, anxiolytic, sleep-inducing properties. However, the plant also possesses antifungal, antibacterial, and analgesic properties. Current research shows that lavender can help alleviate migraines compared to placebo, and may be applicable to other types of nerve pain.
  • Peppermint – Peppermint contains, among other compounds, menthol, which is well-known for the cooling sensation it gives when applied to the skin. This cooling may be helpful for some types of nerve pain, providing a pleasant numbing effect. Limonene and carvacrol, other major constituents of peppermint, may also help alleviate pain and inflammation when applied topically.
  • Rosemary – Current research suggests that this beloved culinary herb may be used to treat seizures and pain. Rosemary has been demonstrated to help relax smooth muscle (the muscles that contract automatically, without your control), which may help to reduce the pain caused by erratic nerve firings.
  • Turmeric – Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, possesses powerful anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. In fact, turmeric was found to be as effective as ibuprofen for pain relief when used over a period of weeks.

CBD Topicals for Muscle Pain

Muscle pain can result from a number of common conditions such as stress, injury, strain, or overuse. The pain is caused by trauma to the muscle fibers themselves, which send pain signals when the tissue is flexed or stretched. Topical CBD products may help support healing within the muscles while alleviating inflammation and pain in the immediate term. Evidence suggests that topical CBD can help relieve muscle pain, support athletic recovery, and ease inflammation in injured muscles.

Topical CBD Product Types for Muscle Pain

Your preferred product will likely vary depending on the severity of your pain and the sensations you most enjoy: cooling, warming, a combination of the two, or neither of them. For people looking for the most neutral experience possible, we recommend cream- or oil-based products with minimal added ingredients.

For patients seeking a cooling or tingling sensation, we suggest a lighter product formulated with something like cetyl alcohol. The more volatile base means that the product will evaporate quickly, amplifying the cooling sensation and increasing immediate numbing and pain-relieving effects.

If you desire a more warming product, we recommend something formulated with a heavier base like coconut oil, cocoa butter, or olive oil. These base ingredients will help extend the warming effects of other supporting ingredients, thereby prolonging relief.

Supporting CBD Topical Ingredients for Muscle Pain

  • Basil – Research has shown basil, a common garden herb and spice cabinet staple, to possess anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties. When applied to the skin, basil oil can help reduce cramping and soreness, as well as aid in recovery.
  • Chamomile – You might know chamomile flowers from your tea cabinet. Often used to promote sleep, chamomile can also provide soothing benefits when applied to the skin. Evidence suggests that chamomile may possess antispasmodic properties, soothing cramps and easing tension.
  • Capsaicin – Capsaicin, the chemical compound that gives hot peppers their fiery taste, is a vasodilator that promotes circulation and widens blood vessels. This can be very beneficial for muscle pain, especially pain resulting from an injury or overuse.
  • Lavender – A perennial favorite among essential oil enthusiasts, lavender acts as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic when applied to the skin. Research shows it to be effective at reducing muscle pain and tension when used topically (diluted, of course).
  • Lemongrass – Lemongrass, a staple herb of Thai cuisine, may have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. When applied to the skin, emerging research showed lemongrass to reduce pain and inflammation in injured muscles.
  • Magnesium – Transdermal magnesium has been used to treat muscle pain for many years in the form of Epsom salts. Magnesium is crucial for regulation of muscle contractions, and a 15-minute soak can help relieve pain and cramping in sore or injured muscles.
  • Marjoram – Marjoram is a bit of an unsung hero of the spice rack. The herb possesses antispasmodic and analgesic properties, helping to alleviate pain and reduce cramps and spasms when applied topically.
  • Peppermint – Peppermint oil possesses antispasmodic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory effects when applied topically. It also produces a cooling sensation that can help numb pain within a few minutes of application (again, diluted!).
  • Tart Cherry Juice – Emerging research shows that tart cherry juice may help reduce pain in both the short and long terms. Participants using tart cherry extract in a recent study reported less pain 24 and 48 hours after a strenuous exercise session compared to participants using a placebo.

CBD Topicals for Swelling

Swelling is, essentially, an inflammatory response that causes the body to retain fluid. While this often occurs in the extremities or at the site of an injury, swelling can also affect mobility, quality of life, and general physical comfort. Topically applied CBD has shown to be effective at helping to reduce swelling, both in the skin and in the underlying tissues.

Topical CBD Carrier Types for Swelling

Cooling to neutral products tend to be more effective against swelling compared to warming topicals, though there are some exceptions. We recommend starting with a product formulated to emphasize cooling and anti-inflammatory effects, then gradually moving toward warming products if you feel they are more effective for you.

To amplify cooling ingredients like peppermint or arnica, we suggest choosing a more liquid formula like a roll-on. These products tend to be made with things like cetyl alcohol or sunflower seed oil, which absorb more readily into the skin and evaporate relatively quickly, soothing pain and swelling in the immediate term.

If you find that warming ingredients like capsaicin and turmeric are better suited to your body, reach for oily or waxy product formulas. These might be made with coconut oil, shea butter, or beeswax and may help extend the effectiveness of warming ingredients as well as amplify them.

Supporting Topical CBD Ingredients for Swelling

CBD Topicals for Wound Care & Broken Skin

CBD can be applied to cuts, burns, sores, and other injuries that break the skin’s surface, but you should be especially choosy about carrier and supporting ingredients. While there are benefits to applying CBD to a wound, those benefits could be reduced or even negated by ingredients not intended to be applied to broken skin. If you’re in doubt about a product’s safety, opt for a pure CBD oil with no added flavorings or colorings.

Topical CBD Carrier Types for Wound Care

We strongly recommend using ointments or balms for wound care over roll-ons or other fluid products. This is for two reasons: first, roll-on applicators in particular are not sanitary for use on broken skin. Second, the oil-based nature of ointments and salves helps to create a protective barrier over the skin that supports healing. Gels and liquids do not offer this benefit as strongly (though they may be used effectively for things like mild burn or sunburn).

When looking for a CBD product to apply to broken skin, seek out something specifically formulated for broken skin. The best carrier ingredients for wound care tend to be things like coconut oil, beeswax, shea butter, or lanolin. These ingredients will help protect your skin from irritants while promoting healing activity in skin and underlying tissues.

Supporting CBD Topical Ingredients for Wound Care

This is probably the situation where individual skin sensitivities have the most potential to cause discomfort or other issues, so knowing your body is important. Also, there are some ingredients to avoid. These include capsaicin, cinnamon, menthol, and other intense ingredients — it’s best to stick to gentler botanicals (if you choose to use them at all). These may include:

  • Aloe Vera – One of the gentlest botanicals available, aloe vera gel has been used throughout human history to treat burns, cuts, scrapes, and other forms of skin damage. The gel within the plant’s leaves has been shown to possess skin-healing and protective properties, making it an ideal addition to wound healing CBD topicals.
  • Goldenrod – While it often gets a bad rap for causing allergies (like chamomile, it’s in the same family as ragweed and may cause reactions in some people), goldenrod can help promote healing activity by reducing inflammation at the site of injury.
  • Lavender – The soothing properties of the lavender plant extend to wound healing as well — not only can lavender extract reduce inflammation in injured skin, it can also help keep infection at bay while a wound closes. This is because lavender possesses antibacterial properties alongside its anti-inflammatory and analgesic compounds.
  • Marigold – Marigold flowers, also known as calendula, are favored among landscapers, but the plant and its blooms may provide wound-healing benefits beyond their aesthetic appeal. Research suggests that marigold flowers may promote skin healing through anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial actions.
  • Neem – Neem oil is widely used in southeast Asia for skin, hair, body, and even oral hygiene products. Neem is a powerful antimicrobial and antifungal, helping protect wounds from infection. It may also help to reduce inflammation and promote healing in injured skin.
  • Yarrow – Yarrow, a plant used by many cultures to reduce pain, inflammation, and anxiety, may help promote healing and reduce bleeding when applied to wounds.

CBD Topicals for Dry Skin

Topical CBD can be very beneficial to dry skin, especially parts like elbows and knees that are more prone to flaking and scaliness. When combined with hydrating and humectant ingredients (more on those below), CBD can help alleviate itching while soothing skin, protecting against free radical damage while improving symptoms like hyperpigmentation and rough texture.

Topical CBD Carrier Types for Dry Skin

When using CBD to treat dry skin, it’s crucial to select products made with quality carrier ingredients. It’s best to choose emollient ingredients like shea butter, coconut oil, cocoa butter, or olive oil for intensive, lasting hydration. As an added benefit, these ingredients will help to create a protective barrier over the skin’s surface (beeswax is especially good for this), helping to heal damage and prevent further injury.

It’s best to avoid products formulated with isopropyl or stearyl alcohols for dry skin, as they can actually exacerbate the problem. This is because alcohols chemically break apart the bonds between the cells on your skin’s surface. While this is intended to help hydrating and humectant ingredients penetrate deeper into the skin, it can do more harm than good in very dry skin. If you must use a product with alcohol, opt for cetyl alcohol, a fatty alcohol derived from coconut that is shown to be less damaging to the skin.

Supporting CBD Topical Ingredients for Dry Skin

  • Almond Oil – Almond oil is an excellent option for people with very sensitive or acne-prone skin. This is because almond oil possesses antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that can help to soothe cranky skin. Almond oil is ideal for dry skin because it hydrates in the short term and protects from excessive water loss in the skin in the long term, maintaining moisture balance throughout your busy day.
  • Aloe Vera – A favorite for burns and scrapes, aloe vera is an intensive, non-comedogenic (won’t clog your pores) hydrator that restores moisture to skin quickly and effectively. Aloe vera gel also gives the added benefit of absorbing well into skin while still creating a protective barrier over skin, shielding it from damage that can occur when the top layers of skin are dehydrated.
  • Beeswax – Beeswax acts as a very effective skin protectant and can help attract moisture to the skin throughout the day, promoting long-lasting hydration. Because of its intensity, beeswax may be best used in areas prone to dryness, such as elbows, knees, and hands.
  • Cocoa Butter – Richly emollient cocoa butter is a good option for skin that is very prone to dryness and cracking, though it may be a bit too heavy to use all over for many people. Cocoa butter is demonstrated to be an effective moisturizer and skin protectant, and its thick consistency gives it a luxurious feel.
  • Cucumber – There’s a reason that cucumber slices are such a pervasive component of spa treatments: the vegetable contains compounds that help restore hydration to the skin’s surface. Cucumber also helps your cells to retain the moisture it imbues them with and is especially gentle for sensitive skin types.
  • Grapeseed Oil – A sort of dermatological powerhouse, grapeseed oil offers a plethora of skin-nourishing benefits. First, it’s non-comedogenic, hypoallergenic, and gentle for even sensitive skin types. Second, it contains high levels of vitamin E and linoleic acid, two compounds shown to help reduce scarring and hyperpigmentation while improving skin tone and texture. Grapeseed oil also possesses mild anti-inflammatory properties and helps to reduce the appearance of spider veins, hyperpigmentation, and other inflammatory skin conditions over time.
  • Mango Butter – Mango butter is shown to provide intensive, lasting hydrationto skin, especially in people prone to dryness. The butter, extracted from the pit of the mango, contains high levels of vitamins A and C, which may help brighten dull skin and improve overall texture and tone. Because of its richness, mango butter is likely best kept away from the face and any areas of the body prone to breakouts.
  • Neem – Neem oil is demonstrated to hydrate skin while extending anti-inflammatory benefits that may be especially helpful for people with dry, itchy skin. The oil also possesses antifungal and antimicrobial properties, making it a good option for people looking to protect skin damaged by severe dryness.
  • Papaya – While it’s less common in the West, many cultures have historically used papaya to nourish skin, fight aging, and reduce inflammation. Papaya is rich in antioxidants, as well as vitamins A, C, and E, all of which play important roles in restoring and maintaining skin health. Papaya may help to soothe inflammation, itching, and redness while hydrating dry skin.
  • Pumpkin Seed – A tasty byproduct of Halloween Jack-o-lanterns, pumpkin seeds are high in skin-protectant, anti-inflammatory components like linoleic acid, tocopherols, and sterols. These compounds are found in high concentrations in pumpkin seed oil, which can confer both nourishment and protection while alleviating red, itchy skin.
  • Shea Butter – Shea butter is a richly emollient plant butter that possesses anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It may also provide skin-protecting benefits, though further study is needed.
  • Tamarind Seed – A tangy fruit popular among many cultures and cuisines across the globe, tamarind seeds may possess antioxidant properties. While the exact mechanism isn’t yet fully understood, early studies show tamarind seed extract to be effective at preventing skin damage from UVA rays.

Takeaway

While CBD can be used to effectively treat pain, inflammation, injury, and a variety of skin conditions, its effects can be modified and enhanced by the ingredients working alongside it. When searching for a topical CBD product, be mindful of the label and reach for formulas that are targeted to alleviate your symptoms. Selecting the best formula for your needs can help ensure a more satisfying experience that supports your health and wellness goals.

Kat Austin

Kat Austin

After a difficult pregnancy, simultaneously worsening back injuries, increased anxiety, and more intense migraines, Kat was seeking relief but was being offered a myriad of prescriptions that left her, like many others, with unwanted side effects. Upon discovering the medical benefits of cannabis and CBD, she has seen a complete transformation in her life. Through her writing, extensive research, and analysis, Kat hopes to give you the tools you need to design your most effective health regimen.