“Much of the scientific evidence points to CBD’s ability to modulate pain, inflammation, and the histamine response when applied topically,” Chasen said. “It has been shown to diminish redness, help with painful arthritic joints, and quicken the healing process.”
Since creams are thicker, they may be more beneficial for very dry skin. Salves, on the other hand, are made with oil and wax, and without water. Creams may absorb faster than salves, so they may be preferable for muscle pain.
The human body has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) that regulates appetite, mood, and pain and pleasure sensations. Cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD can activate our body’s ECS by binding to cell receptors in the skin, muscle tissues, and nerves. This interaction explains why the most common uses for CBD cream are chronic pain and inflammation.
Benefits of CBD cream
Another way to help assure a particular CBD oil’s quality is by finding a product that was manufactured in a Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP)-compliant facility, which must follow certain FDA standards to qualify.
Finding the most effective mixing ingredients that will properly mingle with CBD oil or CBD isolate is also important. A carrier oil, such as coconut oil, shea butter, CBD tincture, or isolate can also be mixed to create a therapeutic homemade topical.
With no regulation of CBD in place, customers must take extra steps to make sure they are purchasing quality CBD products. In study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2017, researchers tested 84 CBD products from 31 companies and found only 31% accurately labeled with the correct amount of CBD. One way to make sure a CBD manufacturer is reputable is by purchasing a product that includes a certificate of analysis (COA) from a third-party testing lab.
In fact, since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp-derived CBD products on a federal level in the US and placed them under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, the health and wellness market has been inundated with an array of CBD creams and other topicals.
That said, we don’t always know exactly what’s in the CBD products out there due to a lack of regulation. Until recently, CBD was regulated as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning that the federal government believed it had a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. But the FDA approval of Epidiolex last year and the passage of the Farm Bill in December 2018 changed things by lifting the federal ban on commercial hemp production (hemp also contains CBD in lower amounts than cannabis). But it also made things more confusing because we’re still waiting on actual CBD regulations from the FDA. In the meantime, companies are treating hemp-derived CBD as if it’s perfectly legal, Dr. Tishler says.
If you’re worried about a purely topical CBD product getting into your bloodstream, Dr. Tishler explains that’s unlikely. CBD is hydrophobic (meaning it isn’t water-soluble) and lipophilic (attracted to lipids, like oils) and tends to stay on the outer layer of skin or possibly accumulate in the sebaceous glands unless it’s paired with “enhancers” (ingredients designed to help them make it through the skin, at which point they would instead be transdermal). Making a truly “water-soluble CBD” has been a challenge for the industry, although there are a variety of patents out there.
“There’s really no substitute for doing proper human studies, which are difficult, expensive, and ethically complicated,” Dr. Tishler says. And we simply don’t have them for CBD and pain.
So…is CBD cream just an expensive placebo?
Why does the body have receptors for compounds in cannabis? Well, it doesn’t exactly. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD are similar enough to compounds that your body naturally makes, called endocannabinoids, that they can interact with this system. Normally, the endocannabinoid system is thought to play a role in a variety of functions in the body, helping to regulate things like parts of the immune system, the release of hormones, metabolism, and memory.
More recent research suggests that many of CBD’s effects may occur outside of CB receptors, Jordan Tishler, M.D., medical cannabis expert at InhaleMD in Boston, tells SELF. In fact, according to a recent review published in Molecules, CBD may have effects on some serotonin receptors (known to play a role in depression and anxiety), adenosine receptors (one of the neurological targets for caffeine), and even TRPV-1 receptors (more commonly associated with taste and the sensation of spiciness).
But at this point, we have no idea how deep the commercially available creams are penetrating. And even if they’re getting to that sweet spot in your skin, we don’t know how much CBD is getting there or how much is necessary to provide an effect.
All of this points to how hard it is to study the specific effects of CBD on its own—which might be why it’s tempting to claim that it’s the cure for everything without a whole lot of research to actually back up all of those claims.