What are CBD Topicals – and How Do They Work?

CBD Topical Cream in White Container|CBD Icon|

One of the most popular types of CBD products on the market, CBD creams and other topical treatments are making headlines as they provide thousands more with relief every day. What are CBD topicals, though – and why do they work the way they do?

Which type of CBD topical cream is the best to use, what kind of serving sizes should you expect before you start to feel relief, and why are topical treatments being used almost as often as CBD tinctures in the fast-growing cannabidiol crowd? Are there side effects, or a way to avoid them? We look to answer these questions today in our guide on everything about CBD topicals.

What is CBD?

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So, you might be wondering, “What is CBD?”

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the most abundant compound found in the hemp plant and the most abundant non-psychoactive component found within cannabis plants. Though it is considered non-psychoactive compared to THC, it does still have a variety of medicinal properties that are still being studied to this day. In fact, it can’t be completely called “non-psychoactive” because it does influence the central nervous system – however, when compared to THC, it is non-psychoactive for all intents and purposes. 

So far, we have promising research from clinical trials and publications regarding CBD. While we mostly have animal studies to go off of right now, animals share a big thing in common with us: they also have endocannabinoid systems. While these systems perform differently than ours, as THC can cause more negative reactions in other species we’ve seen more promising results for CBD.

What are CBD Topicals?

A hemp-derived, CBD-rich extract that can be applied to the skin instead of swallowed or ingested to start feeling the effects, a CBD topical works into target areas across the body for pain and inflammation faster than most other methods. 

Topical applications work faster by simply having to break through the skin barrier instead of metabolizing in the body through the digestive system. Once absorbed, users state their relief from inflammation, pain, and a plethora of other symptoms just from routine use. However, CBD topical treatments are not meant to reach the bloodstream, like most commercially available CBD products are designed to.

How Do CBD Topicals Work?

So, we mentioned we have an endocannabinoid system – now, what exactly does that mean? Well, our endocannabinoid system is made up of different types of cannabinoid receptors; CB1 and CB2. These receptors are found all across the body, and we even produce our own natural cannabinoids to interact with receptors for this system.

While CB1 receptors are primarily found in the spinal cord, parts of the brain, and the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are found mainly in the immune system, it is interesting to know both receptors are also found on the skin.

Now, you may be thinking – does that mean our body specifically has receptors for the compounds found within cannabis plants? Well, not exactly.

CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids simply look almost molecularly identical; not just to each other, but also to the natural cannabinoids we produce. Since the molecules look similar enough, some can activate CB receptors across the body, like THC, and some can interact to better regulate those receptors, like CBD.

Our endocannabinoid system, also known as the most recently discovered bodily function, may play a role in a massive variety of other functions throughout the body. From our immune system to the release of hormones in our brain, to memory and metabolism, our endocannabinoid system plays a part.

CBD topicals work by interacting with the cannabinoid receptors across our skin, but it interacts with these receptors by binding to other receptors involved in multiple different pathways. People report the most common medical reason for why they use CBD is to manage chronic or joint pain, so the fact that CBD salves and other topicals are so popular makes sense. Salves are one of the easiest ways to get relief from target areas across the skin that cause pain, inflammation, and more.

What the Research Says About CBD Topicals

In a rat model of arthritis, researchers looked at the effects of transdermal cannabidiol on inflammation and pain-related behaviors. The study aimed to examine the true efficacy transdermal CBD applications might have on the reduction of pain and inflammation, as well as assessing any adverse effects that could happen to the rats.

The results from the data shows that CBD topical applications might have a therapeutic potential for relieving arthritis-related symptoms, such as pain and inflammation, without any evident side effects. Since a whopping 50 million US adults were diagnosed with arthritis in the years between 2007 and 2009, solutions to providing relief for such a condition is becoming crucial.

A larger review looked at the most compelling research that’s been found for using cannabinoids for pain, examining 79 previous studies to cross-analyze the results and discover some conclusions. Unfortunately, only 4 of the 79 studies looked exclusively at CBD instead of CBD and THC together. The results demonstrated that we can assume CBD might be able to help address pain relief, but we don’t have the evidence we need to support it just yet.

Instead, we primarily have animal studies leading the charge. And while we do have positive results for those, we’re eager to see human study equivalents that can better test and confirm the hypotheses we’ve set up.

Is CBD Cream Just a Placebo?

With limited information available on the subject, some are willing to believe that CBD topicals are just another snake oil gimmick. Likewise, with the CBD industry so under-regulated, commercially available CBD topical products may not provide the sufficient dose needed for relief.

In addition, the use of the term “topical” means that a CBD product has to be effective enough to penetrate the skin to produce an effect, but not deep enough that it hits the bloodstream. A topical cream absorbing well enough into the skin to hit the bloodstream is considered a “transdermal” skin application, rather than truly topical. 

Once it’s in your bloodstream, it has the chance to hit the other CB receptors throughout your body, including the ones in your brain. Some may find a bigger benefit to that, though their topical CBD product would still be mislabeled.

What to Consider Before Buying Topical CBD Products

As a final takeaway for this guide, we want you to keep some things in mind when you decide to shop for CBD topical creams. First, CBD creams have the lowest chance of side effects. In fact, some studies found essentially zero side effects, even for high doses of CBD up to 900mg. Likewise, drug interactions between CBD and other prescriptions aren’t found when CBD is used topically instead. We believe this is the biggest importance of using a topical instead of a transdermal treatment option.

If you are worried your CBD product is more transdermal than topical and you run the risk of it getting into your bloodstream, remember that this is unlikely. As of yet, there are limited patents on “water-soluble” CBD, which would make the CBD molecules much easier to pass through the skin barrier. Instead, most CBD products are hydrophobic, staying on the outer layer of skin or accumulating in the sebaceous glands.

Always pay attention to the ingredients in your CBD topical, however. We don’t always know what’s in a CBD product, so use your best researching skills to look at a CBD brand’s web platform in full before deciding to buy. They should have a section where you can see their third-party lab results for every batch of product, as well as list the ingredients in each formula visibly in each product description.

Have you ever tried a CBD topical before? Did you find pain or inflammation relief across target areas on your body? We look forward to learning about your experience and having you add to the anecdotal evidence wracking up each day across the nation!



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