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Ask a Certified Cannabis and Health Coach: Do CBD Topicals Actually Work?

This is the first in a series of posts where a Certified Cannabis & Health Coach will answer all of your burning questions about CBD, THC, or anything else about the cannabis plant and her many uses.

Today is all about CBD topicals. Most of us have heard of (or used) CBD drops or edibles, but does CBD work on your skin? In today’s post, we’re going to deep dive into CBD topicals: what they are, what they’re used for, whether they actually work, and how to source or make them.

A quick note: Certified Cannabis & Health Coaches are trained experts in cannabis, and work to guide people to the safest, healthiest, most effective cannabis products that you can buy or DIY. That makes use wonderful resources for your cannabis questions!

If the thought of becoming a Certified Cannabis and Health Coach or a Certified Cannabis Educator interests you, check out our FREE Cannabis Careers Class by clicking below!

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What is a CBD Topical?

First up, let’s define “CBD Topical.” 

Broadly speaking, a topical is a product applied topically to soothe skin issues like irritation, pain, dryness, or wounds. 

Topicals have a few subcategories: Lotions, creams, salves, and balms. Lotions are the lightest of the bunch, with the highest water content. Creams have slightly more oil, and are a little thicker than lotions. Salves and balms are oil-based with no water content, and work great as barrier creams, because a thin layer remains on top of the skin. 

Any of these formulations can work as a CBD topical, so for purposes of this discussion, I am going to lump all of these subcategories together and use the word “topical” to refer to them interchangeably. 

What makes a “topical” into a “CBD topical”? Simply the addition of an oil that has been infused with CBD from the cannabis plant. 

cbd topical lotion salve

What are CBD topicals used for?

When we think of using CBD for our health and wellness, most of us think of ingesting CBD drops or gummies. In those forms, CBD can address a range of health issues, from anxiety to seizures to IBS, because of its interaction with our endocannabinoid system (ECS). 

But CBD is also incredibly effective when taken topically. ECS receptors are also found in the skin, which means you can get the same magic out of CBD from applying topically if your issue is skin-deep.

Another benefit is that CBD topicals are non-impairing; you will not get high from using a CBD topical on your skin, or have any noticeable psychoactive effect as you can when ingesting CBD’s sister compound, THC. 

CBD topicals are most commonly used to address:

Eczema and Psoriasis

CBD topicals are wonderful at combatting eczema and psoriasis, skin conditions characterized by rash, dryness, itchiness or flakiness, typically appearing on the arms or behind the knees. Eczema and Psoriasis are both chronic conditions, and skin flare-ups can happen at any time. CBD topicals work beautifully to calm skin dryness and inflammation caused by both.

Muscle Pain

This is another place where CBD topicals really shine. Muscle pain comes from many sources, exercise overexertion, a nagging injury, or pain and stiffness from sitting too much. (#officelife!). Whatever the cause, CBD topicals are extremely effective at treating muscle pain. 

Joint Pain

Because CBD topicals generally provide relief to about an inch below the skin, it is only effective for joint pain when the joint is relatively close to the surface. For example, CBD topicals work wonders at relieving the pain of arthritis in the fingers, but they’re not as good at addressing inner hip pain. For joints that are deeper in the body, CBD drops or edibles would be a more effective choice.

CBD Face Serums

CBD is more recently being applied as a beauty product, in the form of face serums and moisturizers. This is a place where CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties provide significant benefits: CBD face serums can treat acne, dryness and itching, and help regulate skin’s oil production.

CBD bath bombs

While this is not a classic “topical,” I am including here because it is still a way for CBD to heal by coming into contact with your skin. Your skin is your largest organ, and anecdotally people have reported huge relief from pain and stress by including a CBD bath bomb with their soak.

How to Use CBD Topicals

This may be obvious, but it does bear clarifying – in contrast to CBD that you ingest and can expect relief from symptoms throughout your body, topicals only provide localized relief. That means you need to be very specific about where you have pain or dermatological issues and only use it there. 

Once you’ve found your spot, to make most out of your CBD topical, my main tip is that you REALLLLLY have to rub it in. Cannabinoids don’t want to just jump under your skin, you have to coax them in there, which means rubbing in a topical for much longer than you would a typical lotion or salve.

Okay, so do CBD Topicals Actually Work?

Yes! Recent clinical studies like this one and this one have confirmed what people who use CBD topicals have known for some time, that it is “a safe and effective non-invasive alternative to improve the quality of life in patients with some skin disorders, especially on the inflammatory background.”

The American Academy of Dermatology agrees and has said that cannabis topicals may “improve conditions such as acne, psoriasis and eczema by reducing the inflammation associated with these diseases.”

As with most things cannabis, because it has been difficult to study until very recently due to federal prohibition, as Cannabis Coaches, we also have to rely on anecdotal evidence. You have to hear consistent results about something before you can really even refer to it as anecdotal “evidence,” and topicals are one of those topics.

Here at CCI, we have heard a nearly endless stream of CBD topical success stories. Here is just one example from Certified Cannabis & Health Coach, JayJay (who is also the subject of a fabulous CCI Grad profile):

“Just got off the phone with my inlaws. My MIL has been suffering from debilitating arthritis that just flared up recently. She was diagnosed with osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. For the past few weeks, she has been in agonizing pain, and she was not managing well. I got her some CBD, gave her some THCA oil I made, and Andrea Meharg’s topical that was gifted to me. I just got off the phone with her, and she sounds like a completely different person!! Upbeat and happy. She says her pain went from 100% to about 20%. Inflammation is dramatically reduced. Sleep improved. They just called to thank me! I’m just so thankful I could help relieve her pain and for this incredible medicine!! Had to share.”

JayJay O’Brien, Certified Cannabis and Health Coach, and founder of Naturalistically Now

What Concentration of CBD Topical Should I Buy?

This is a tricky question, for which I frankly don’t think a great answer exists…yet. But let’s run through the variables at play:

Topicals are different than ingestibles

Ingestible CBD, like drops or gummies, have clear doses, and although there is not yet a medically established “standard dose,” it is generally considered safe to consume 5-50mg of CBD per day. 

When taking a THC edible, we have that dosing even more precise – “start low and go slow” means you should start with a very low dose and wait for it to take effect before you take more. I can confidently give the advice to new THC users that starting with a 10mg gummy will likely be too much. Starting with 1-3mg is a good idea, and you can fine-tune your dose from there.

But that same logic doesn’t really apply in the world of topicals. First of all, it’s wicked hard to figure out just how many milligrams you’re applying at a given time. Let’s say your topical has 450 mg CBD in a 1.5 oz jar. How much is in each swipe out of the jar that you’re rubbing in?

Broad Spectrum CBD vs. CBD Isolate

Second, you must consider whether your product is broad-spectrum CBD or CBD isolate.

Topical CBD products range in concentration from 200mg to 2000mg, in all different amounts of carrier substances. A CBD topical with 2000mg CBD is almost certainly made from CBD isolate, which has a smaller therapeutic window than broad-spectrum CBD which contains other plant compounds like THC in small doses. That means the milligrams of CBD in the product are not an apples-to-apples comparison, you can likely find more relief in a smaller dose of a broad-spectrum product. 

Complimentary Beneficial Compounds

Some CBD topicals also include essential oils, which help the CBD penetrate the skin more effectively. The essential oils may also provide their own anti-inflammatory relief along with the CBD. This throws your dosage math even further out the window, as you’re now introducing bioavailability as an undeniable but hard to measure factor.

Certificate of Analysis

As I’ve written about on my personal blog, the CBD market is largely unregulated, there is no governing body vetting that the amount of CBD claimed on a given label actually matches what is in the container. Numerous studies have shown that it most often does not contain the label’s potency. That fact alone takes your attempt at topical dosage math and throws a giant monkeywrench in the calculations.

However, many high-quality CBD producers have taken it upon themselves to have their products third-party lab tested to both ensure accurate potency information but also to show the absence of pesticides, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals. Those products will come with a “COA” or “Certificate of Analysis,” which shows the results of the third-party lab testing.

Buying CBD products that include a COA is one of the only ways to guarantee that the dose on the label actually matches what’s in the jar.

How to Make Your Own CBD Topical at Home

make cbd salve at home

If all of the variables I just listed sound overwhelming to you, you may want to consider making your own CBD topical. DIYing allows you to have complete control over what goes into your topical, AND the satisfaction of calling yourself a Kitchen Witch. 

CCI Head Science Teacher and CEO of Reveal Cannabis, Andrea Meharg, has this quick and easy recipe for homemade salve on her YouTube channel. (You should definitely subscribe. She has over 100 videos focused on using cannabis for better health!)

Making your own CBD-infused skincare products is easier than it sounds, and will save you hundreds of dollars compared to buying these products on the open market.

Advice from your Certified Cannabis and Health Coach

So now we know: what CBD topicals are, what issues they can address, how to use them, how to dose them, how to source them, and you even have a resource on how to make your own! The title of this post is “Do CBD Topicals Actually Work?” and I hope that by now you know that is a resounding YES!

Putting all of this information together, my advice as a Certified Cannabis and Health Coach is to buy (or make) a broad-spectrum topical that includes a COA in the lowest available concentration to start. 

I recommend the lowest concentration because it will also be the lowest price point. If the CBD topical works for you in that concentration, perfect, you’re all set. If it doesn’t, you can increase the amount you use of the lower-concentration product and see if that helps. If that still doesn’t cut it, then when you purchase next time, go up a level in concentration until you find the product that works for you.

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What other cannabis questions do you have that you’d like answered by a Certified Cannabis and Health Coach?

Drop them in the comments below, and your question could become our very next post!

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Guest blogger and proud CCI graduate Kate Johnson, JD is a Certified Cannabis Educator, Certified Cannabis & Health Coach, and the founder of Your Kush Coach. She helps people curious about CBD and THC find their cannabis fit through practical advice and quality product recommendations. Get in touch! yourkushcoach.com


Kate Johnson

Your Kush Coach helps people curious about CBD and THC find their cannabis fit through practical advice and quality product recommendations. Get in touch! yourkushcoach.comView Author posts

5 thoughts on “Ask a Certified Cannabis and Health Coach: Do CBD Topicals Actually Work?”

  1. My son was in an near tragic accident 8 years ago. About two years later I started dabbling in cannabis for pain relief for him. We found that with thc gummy’s we were able to discontinue his mood altering meds. Then I started with cbd. I am making a great cream with organic coconut, Sweet Almond and Shea butter. Along with some essential oils for muscle relaxers and pain relief. Works great!!

  2. Hi iv bn making homemade topicals for 4years using Cannabis Roots and organic unrefined coconut oil. It has helped so many of my family and friends suffering a variety of illness and conditions. How can I make my topical last longer finding that the more you use the cream the more frequent u need to apply , like your body starts to get immune? how can i make it stronger? so eg my dad has arthritis in his knee he applied topical cream had instant relief 4 the whole day now he has to reapply at least x3 times per day?

  3. Hi How can I make my topical last longer?finding that the more you use the cream the more frequent u need to apply , like your body starts to get immune? how can i make it stronger? so eg my dad has arthritis in his knee he applied topical cream had instant relief 4 the whole day now he has to reapply at least x3 times per day?

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