Is Topical CBD Effective?

Unless you live under a rock, you'll know there's a huge buzz surrounding cannabis-based compound cannabidiol, aka CBD.

It's in everything from gummies, capsules, beverages, vape products, and even skincare. While there is a lot of research to support CBD's benefits when taken internally—by eating or smoking it—there's still a lot to learn about CBD's effectiveness when applied to the skin.

Many people swear by their CBD topical products for several reasons, from maintaining skin hydration to supporting post-workout recovery and soothing tired muscles and joints.

Let's get into what we know about how topical CBD works, its benefits, and its uses.

How is Topical CBD Different from Eating or Smoking It?

Smoking, eating, sublingual drops, or rubbing it onto the skin—These are the common modes of administration of taking CBD.

When you smoke or eat CBD, it enters the bloodstream to interact with endocannabinoid receptors to exert its effects throughout the body. Once it's completed its job, cannabinoids get metabolized by the liver. Most topical applications of CBD don't enter the bloodstream.

We say "most" because some companies are developing medical-grade transdermal CBD patches designed to enter the bloodstream. It's a technology already in use in pharmaceuticals to administer medication such as steroids and painkillers, but there's very little evidence to support that the transdermal CBD patches on the market are as effective.

Cannabinoids rubbed onto the skin don't enter the bloodstream.

Instead, they interact with endocannabinoid receptors on the skin [1]. Depending on the products' ingredient list and strength of CBD, it can have different effects, from maintaining your skin to supporting discomfort in the joints and muscles.

Smoking & Vaping CBD

You can smoke hemp flower rolled into a joint containing CBD, terpenes, and a variety of other cannabinoids. Hemp flower looks and smells like marijuana, but it doesn't have high concentrations of THC—the psychotropic cannabinoid—to get most users an intoxicated high.

Since hemp and marijuana flower are nearly indistinguishable at first glance, this isn't the most discreet method, and burning plant matter can be harsh on the lungs.

Another popular way people are inhaling CBD is with vaporizers. You can find a wide variety of disposable and re-usable vape devices and CBD juices or pure hemp extract that's heated by an electric coil just before it reaches a burning point.

Vaporizing is much more discreet, comes in a wide variety of flavors, but it's not without its downsides.

There are many potentially dangerous compounds in vape liquids, and the electric coil can get hot enough to irritate the lungs. However, many people enjoy smoking CBD because it delivers fast-acting and potent effects since it reaches the bloodstream almost instantaneously through the lungs.

Eating CBD

CBD oils, gummies, capsules, and other clever treats are a beginner-friendly introduction to CBD. With so many options out there, you're bound to find an edible CBD product you enjoy. These don't require any extra equipment and don't irritate the lungs.

Compared to smoking CBD or applying it topically, feeling the onset of effects takes more time (20–45 minutes). It's also much less potent because the digestive system and liver break down the active compounds before reaching the bloodstream. The plus side is that the effects of eating CBD tend to last much longer.

Applying CBD To The Skin

CBD creams, lotions, and balms are many people's favorite ways to relieve soreness naturally.

CBD topicals are great for people who want to target the effects of CBD, like supporting a healthy inflammatory response and mobility to an area, like overworked muscles, sensitive skin, or sunburns.

It's fast-acting, and you can reapply as often as you need it without feeling the side effects of taking too much CBD internally, like nausea, dizziness, or drowsiness.

To get the most effects of CBD on the skin, you'll need products with a high CBD content, or you're just better off using a regular cream or lotion. You can find products marketed as CBD pain relief cream that include ingredients like camphor, menthol, and capsaicin, which you can find in your typical drugstore muscle and joint pain creams.

Here are a few reasons why many people enjoy CBD topicals:

  • Easy to use: Everyone has used a cream or lotion before. It's a familiar format for using CBD, and you can target specific areas on the body that needs the most care.
  • Numerous options: CBD is a stable compound that's found to be very well-tolerated on the skin. You can find it in so many different product types to suit your wellness goals.
  • Lasting effects: Anecdotally, muscle rub creams seem to have longer-lasting effects when combined with high-strength CBD, providing you with lasting relief.

How Does CBD Interact with the Endocannabinoid Receptors on the Skin?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is an intricate cell signaling system that regulates homeostasis. It’s critical in maintaining various processes like sleep, memory, hormones, and appetite. Researchers believe CBD has broad-acting effects because it encourages efficient cell signaling within the ECS, helping the body maintain homeostasis to promote the optimal function of our vital systems [2].

You can find endocannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids (the messenger cells) in the skin. CBD doesn't have an affinity to bind to the receptors, but instead, it helps to keep higher levels of endocannabinoids by preventing enzymes from breaking them down. CBD may also have promising anti-inflammatory properties that help manage a healthy inflammatory response in irritated skin and sore muscles [3].

Research on the effectiveness of the topical application of CBD for managing skin problems isn’t conclusive, and the FDA hasn’t approved any CBD product for treating skin disorders.

Common Types Of CBD Topical Products

CBD Balms

CBD balms are wax-based products that contain very little to no water. The wax helps to add a protective layer on the skin to trap in moisturizing ingredients. Balms have a thick, cream to an almost waxy texture that's not readily absorbed into the skin. They're best for very rough and dry patches of skin like chapped lips, cracked knees, elbows, and hands.

CBD Lotions

CBD lotions are water-based products. You can find them in various thicknesses, depending on the oil to water ratio, but they're typically designed for all-over body use and penetrate the skin very quickly to add moisture.

CBD Creams

CBD creams are thicker than your lotions because they have higher oil content. Creams are designed for intense hydration. Common ingredients found in CBD creams include coconut oil, hemp seed oil, and jojoba oil.

Remember that CBD creams applied to your face should have a different formula than the ones you apply to your body. Some ingredients, like coconut oil, may clog pores as it's considered a comedogenic ingredient.

CBD Massage Oils

Massage oils have a combination of carrier oils made from seeds and nuts, like avocado oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil, and hemp seed oil. They have a very slick consistency to allow hands to glide over a large surface area on the body but with enough friction to massage muscles.

Combining CBD with massage therapy has many benefits, as massaging muscles and connective tissue can help with mobility, inflammation, pain, and relaxation.

CBD Serums

Serums belong into the category of skincare. They're lightweight products that contain active ingredients to improve the appearance of the skin. CBD happens to be a trending compound in the skincare industry for its potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects [4].

There are many different skin serums out there targeted to specific concerns, like vitamin C for brightening, hyaluronic acid for moisture, and retinoids for fine lines and wrinkles.

Will Topical CBD Get You High?

Topical CBD will not get you high because it's not a psychotropic compound like its cousin THC—the main cannabinoid in marijuana.

THC has a unique molecule shape that is affiliated with CB1 receptors in the central nervous system, which can stimulate a flood of hormones that alter our sense of perception and mood, resulting in the marijuana high.

CBD is also found in marijuana plants but much fewer quantities. If you want to avoid getting high from your CBD lotion or CBD oil, make sure you're using hemp-derived CBD.

How to Use Topical CBD Cream

1. Consider Why You're Using The Product

CBD is a versatile ingredient, but it's not the only active ingredient in many topical formulas.

Look for the product that suits your wellness goals—whether it's for hydrating the skin all over the body, supporting workout recovery, or adding to your skincare routine.

2. Look For High Strength CBD Products

One of the issues we've noticed in topical skin products is that they don't contain enough CBD to deliver much effect.

Often, brands will add a sprinkling of CBD to include it into the ingredient list and charge unsuspecting customers a premium price tag. Look for products with at least 5–8 mg of CBD per ml of the product if you want to experience CBD's potential benefits to your skin, and read the Certificate of Analysis to ensure that it contains the specified amount of cannabinoids.

3. Prepare Your Skin

You should wash and dry your skin before applying any CBD topical, as it helps the active ingredients penetrate the skin more effectively.

Before rubbing the CBD product into a large area of your body, you should patch test it on the skin on the inside of your arm to ensure you don't have an allergic reaction to the formula.

Factors to Consider When Buying Topical CBD Products

The CBD industry is highly profitable, which also draws a lot of shady companies into the market. We've outlined some best practices when shopping for CBD topicals to protect your skin and your wallet.

Hemp Extract Type

Full-spectrum CBD and CBD isolate the most common hemp extract types you'll come across.

This refers to the cannabinoid profile extracted from the hemp plant. Full-spectrum CBD contains as close to the hemp plant's natural phytochemical profile, and it's the least processed extract. It may contain up to 0.3% THC, which is legal federally.

Experts agree that full-spectrum extract is the best choice as the other cannabinoids and terpenes in the product can amplify the effects of CBD.

CBD isolates only contain CBD. They're cheaper to manufacture as the extraction process doesn't need to worry about heat-sensitive cannabinoids. People who are sensitive to fragrant terpenes or live in states with strict laws surrounding THC may only have access to CBD isolate products.

Broad-spectrum extracts are a happy medium. They contain other cannabinoids and terpenes that support CBD but undergo extra steps to remove THC. They're not as common on the market, but they're an excellent option for those who can't purchase products containing THC.

Shop With Reputable Brands

There's a huge scandal where Amazon sellers have been found to pay for fake product reviews to promote sub-par CBD products, but there are CBD brands out there that are run by genuine people who have their customer's best interests at heart.

Shop with brands you feel good about.

Read the brand's mission, look at third-party product review websites, browse through forums to see what others have said about the company. It might take a bit more research, but you'll know that you're shopping with a brand with integrity.

Read The Certificate Of Analysis

The Certificate of Analysis (COA) comes from a lab test separate from the manufacturer. This isn't a required practice in the industry, but reputable brands will opt for it to provide their customers with transparency.

The COA indicates the CBD content, cannabinoid profile, and potential contaminants found in the extract. You want to make sure that the hemp extract is clean and contains the marketed amount of CBD so that you're getting your money's worth.

The Takeaway: CBD Topicals

While the research surrounding topical CBD is still underway, many people wear topical CBD products to soothe sore muscles, support their skincare routine, and help with relaxation.

It's important to keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any CBD topical products for treating, curing, or mitigating any disease, so if you come across a brand that claims their CBD cream or lotion can—stay away.

CBD is a great ingredient in skin products, but it's not the only ingredient out there that can help with your wellness goals.

To make the most of your CBD topical, read the whole ingredient list to ensure it suits what you're after in a lotion, balm, or serum. There are many scam products out there that don't have your best interest at heart, so you'll need to read between the marketing lines and decide for yourself what works best for your lifestyle.


  1. Baswan, S. M., Klosner, A. E., Glynn, K., Rajgopal, A., Malik, K., Yim, S., & Stern, N. (2020). Therapeutic potential of Cannabidiol (CBD) for skin health and disorders. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 13, 927.
  2. I Khan, M., SobociŦ, A., M Czarnecka, A., Król, M., Botta, B., & Szczylik, C. (2016). The therapeutic aspects of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) for cancer and their development: From nature to laboratory. Current pharmaceutical design, 22(12), 1756-1766.
  3. Palmieri, B., Laurino, C., & Vadalà, M. (2019). A therapeutic effect of CBD-enriched ointment in inflammatory skin diseases and cutaneous scars. Clin Ter170(2), e93-e99.
  4. Jhawar, N., Schoenberg, E., Wang, J. V., & Saedi, N. (2019). The growing trend of cannabidiol in skincare products. Clinics in dermatology, 37(3), 279-281.



The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated the statements made regarding these products. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant to substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your health care professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product.

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