Most CBD is consumed orally or is inhaled, with consumers reporting various reasons why they take it, but CBD products that are applied topically are also gaining traction. We find CBD added to creams, balms, gels, lotions, roll-ons, even bath bombs. Consumers explain they are trying CBD topically for conditions primarily related to pain relief (arthritis, migraines, nerve damage, and muscle aches,) but they’re also using CBD for skin care issues like anti-aging, anti-redness, and anti-bacterial function. While various scientific studies show that our body’s innate endocannabinoid (our own cannabinoids) receptors regulate the body’s inflammatory response, do we know if phytocannabinoids (plant-derived cannabinoids like CBD and THC) can even be absorbed through the skin?
Why Might CBD Function When Applied Topically?
In 1988 the existence of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) was documented, and since then, numerous endocannabinoids (ECs) and their receptors have been detected all over the human body including peripheral organs like the skin. In addition, ECs interact with other receptor signaling pathways which partially mediate neuroprotection, anti-inflammation, and analgesic actions.
This cool diagram courtesy of as study of studies published in Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol show us how preventent these receptors and transmitters are in the skin.(1)
In layman’s terms, ECs directly and indirectly influence organs, systems, and even other mediating compounds in our bodies. The way CBD and other cannabinoids interact with all these systems truly is not well understood, but scientists have seen it happening live in the lab. There is much to learn about how and why cannabinoids work, then more research is needed to determine optimal dosages, and even more research should be conducted on topical transmission of cannabinoids.
So now that we know that the ECS plays an important regulatory function in the skin, it is plausible to speculate that treatment with topical cannabinoids could be efficacious for certain disorders, or skin health in general. Limited evidence available does suggest applying cannabinoids, and specifically CBD, topically may be a viable route of administration for certain conditions…but which?
Potential for Anti-Aging, Redness Reduction, and Antioxidant Effects
CBD is a very powerful antioxidant, more powerful than vitamins C and A, and by destroying free radicals it may delay the aging process.(4) Oxidative stress induces cell damage and can result in chronic inflammation if left unchecked. It is also implicated in skin disorders and skin aging. Since the ECS affects inflammation, scientists did an in-vitro study using human cells and showed that CBD penetrated cells and balanced the oxidative stress response resulting from UVB irradiation and hydrogen peroxide. As this was true in a lab, the researchers suggested that CBD-containing product lines like those made by Pure Hemp Botanicals skincare partner Bleue, may help slow skin aging caused by various environmental oxidizers, but said more research would be needed to prove it.
Knowing that our ECS is all about balance, there is speculation that CBD might help balance and modify the level and activity of both oxidants and antioxidants. This may help the skin maintain its normal cellular metabolism, which may limit the aging process and promote more healthy looking skin.
People have been very interested recently to learn whether cannabinoids can help the body fight tough infections, including antibiotic-resistant skin infections like MRSA. The preliminary data indicating the antimicrobial and antibiofilm activity of hemp come from the essential oil (steam distillate) fraction of hemp which is composed mainly of terpenoids such as myrcene, α-pinene, β-caryophyllene and other terpenes, but no significant levels of CBD. It may be that a more raw form of hemp extract will prove useful for its antimicrobial properties.
If CBD and raw hemp oil turn out to be effective anti-microbially, it is also speculated that its antibacterial properties might help reduce acne breakouts. One study explored the effects of CBD on human sebocytes, which are the cells that create sebum. Out of control they make acne, and products like Bleue’s Foaming Facial Cleanser might help reduce it. The researchers found that CBD prevented these cells from creating too much of the oily sebum. They also reported that CBD triggered an anti-inflammatory reaction in the cells and prevented inflammatory cytokines from activating. Cytokines may trigger acne, so reducing them may help prevent further breakouts.(3)
Improves Moisture and Collagen Production
Dry skin causes the early appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Scientists found that ECs are responsible for oil production in the sebaceous glands and theorize that dry skin may be caused by a shortage of endocannabinoids. Supplying phytocannabinoids by using a CBD-containing moisturizer like Bleue’s Nourishing Face Cream might result in an improvement in the production of natural skin oils, making the skin supple and preventing the appearance of fine lines.
The breakdown of collagen can be accelerated by free radicals leading to sagging, wrinkling, and lines on skin. As a powerful antioxidant, CBD could stabilize and improve the production of collagen which firms the skin by strengthening connective tissue.(4)
Eczema and Psoriasis
In addition to arthritis, topical CBD products are being studied to see what effect they have on eczema and psoriasis. In a small study with 20 patients published in 2019 in Clinical Therapeutics, a CBD ointment used over three months for psoriasis, atopic dermatitis and scars significantly improved symptoms and signs of the skin disorders. Participants used a CBD-enriched skin ointment twice daily for 3 months. They showed improvements like reduced inflammation. No irritation or allergic reactions were reported, but as with any small study, larger studies could help confirm results.
Is CBD Right for My Skin Condition?
Talk to your doctor first, especially if you are taking other medications, but remember that CBD applied topically does not enter the bloodstream to act systemically in the same volume as CBD taken orally or inhaled. Its action tends to be focused on the area needing attention.
(1) Baswan SM, Klosner AE, Glynn K, Rajgopal A, Malik K, Yim S, Stern N. Therapeutic Potential of Cannabidiol (CBD) for Skin Health and Disorders. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2020 Dec 8;13:927-942. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S286411. PMID: 33335413; PMCID: PMC7736837. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7736837/
(2) “(WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/beauty/cbd-for-skin)
(3) Oláh A, Tóth BI, Borbíró I, Sugawara K, Szöllõsi AG, Czifra G, Pál B, Ambrus L, Kloepper J, Camera E, Ludovici M, Picardo M, Voets T, Zouboulis CC, Paus R, Bíró T. Cannabidiol exerts sebostatic and antiinflammatory effects on human sebocytes. J Clin Invest. 2014 Sep;124(9):3713-24. doi: 10.1172/JCI64628. Epub 2014 Jul 25. PMID: 25061872; PMCID: PMC4151231. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4151231/
(4) “Interesting facts about CBD anti-ageing cream” https://www.jpost.com/HEALTH-SCIENCE/Interesting-facts-about-CBD-anti-ageing-cream-591861