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A Proper Guide To Cannabis-Infused Topicals

An explanation of what topicals are, how they work, and if they might fit your needs.

In the ever-evolving world of weed, topicals are fast becoming the product genre du jour. What was a relatively niche market a few years ago has exploded in popularity, with CBD and THC-infused lotions, oils, patches, sprays, and even lubes flooding the cultural zeitgeist. Even corporate giants like Walgreens and CVS are beginning to get in on the action, announcing plans to sell CBD topicals in a number of states. However, as the buzz around topicals grows, so does consumer confusion. Thankfully, we’re here to change that, starting with a couple clarifications.

The What, Why, and How

The kind of topicals we’re talking about are cannabis-infused products that are absorbed through the skin. While topicals come in many forms and offer a litany of medicinal benefits, the science behind their magic is the same. It all comes down to the network of cannabinoid receptors found throughout the human body. When cannabinoids like CBD and THC come into contact with the receptors in our skin, they bind, activating those receptors and providing relief.

Do They Get You High, Though?

For the most part, no. When you smoke or eat cannabis, cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) enter your bloodstream, traveling to various cannabinoid receptors throughout the body and brain, creating physical and psychoactive effects. Most topicals never reach the bloodstream or the CB1 receptors commonly found in your central nervous system; they only penetrate the CB2 receptors found in the areas of the body where you applied the topical. Because they can’t penetrate deep enough to enter your bloodstream, topicals cannot get you high. That said, some high-THC transdermal patches are specifically designed to enter the bloodstream and could deliver a high. Have no fear—that usage would be clearly marked on the packaging. To put it simply, while some high-THC transdermal patches can deliver psychoactive highs, the vast majority of cannabis-infused topicals will not.

Now that we’ve got the basics down, we can jump into the many medicinal uses for topicals and their respective modes of delivery. For the sake of clarity, let’s break down the different types of topicals based on the medicinal benefits they offer.

Cannabinoids Against Pain and Inflammation

Topicals that provide relief from pain and inflammation are by far the most popular with consumers. As explained above, when applied to the skin, cannabinoids in the pain-focused topicals—whether it’s a lotion, oil, spray, or transdermal patch—react with the receptors linked to the body’s pain, inflammatory, and allergic responses. Lotions, oils, balms, and salves are the most popular method of delivery for topicals providing this kind of relief because there’s no risk of overdoing it. Apply these products to sprained ankles, sore backs, and even sensitive temples the next time a tension headache strikes.

Apply these products to sprained ankles, sore backs, and even sensitive temples.

Whereas lotions react only with the receptors found on skin cells, transdermal patches work a little differently by delivering cannabinoids through the skin and into the bloodstream, spreading CBD to other areas of the body such as the central nervous system. “Transdermal patches are generally more effective than other types of topicals,” says Boris Sharansky, co-founder of Papa & Barkley, a popular cannabis brand specializing in topicals. “While transdermal patches and topicals are similar in that they are both applied to the skin, the difference is that topical CBD products are not able to penetrate through the skin. Transdermal patches come out on top when compared to topicals because they are able to send the CBD through the skin, into the bloodstream, and therefore can have both a localized effect as well as an effect throughout your entire body.”

For relief that’s skin deep and beyond, try Apothecanna's Extra Strength Relieving Body Spray, Mary's Medicinals' Elite CBD Muscle Freeze, or Papa & Barkley's 3:1 CBD:THC Releaf Patch.


Cannabis Meets Everyday Skincare

CBD skincare lines are all the rage right now and for good reason. Not only does the wonder cannabinoid help fight acne, inflammation, and skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema, it may also provide some anti-aging effects to boot. The only caveat: not all forms of CBD are created equal.

While legal, regulated products use high-quality distillates or full-spectrum CBD derived from hemp and carefully bred flower, unregulated products—whether found on the internet or black market—are likely to contain low-quality, chemically-derived CBD isolates, synthetic forms of CBD, or no CBD at all. As the Center for Disease Control told ABC News, “There are no standards for making, packaging, or selling synthetic cannabinoid chemicals. That means that two packets of a brand-named product may have completely different chemicals.” These synthesized versions not only provide very few, if any, of the health benefits of lab-tested cannabinoids, they’ve also been known to cause mental and physical issues like violent behavior, hallucinations, paranoia, and even death. To avoid purchasing fake cannabinoids or products with no cannabinoids at all, make sure the products you’re buying are legal, regulated, and lab-tested (like those found on Proper for instance).

High-quality CBD skincare products treat acne in two ways: halting oil production and soothing inflammation.

High-quality CBD skincare products treat acne in two ways: halting oil production and soothing inflammation. We humans are the only animals that struggle with acne. Because we don’t have fur, our skin secretes oil to protect itself, especially on delicate epidermal surfaces like the face. Breakouts happen when the sebaceous glands in our skin produce too much sebum (acne-causing oil) in a process called liquid synthesis. As with all topicals, the phytocannabinoids in CBD react with endocannabinoid receptors in the sebaceous glands, halting the process of liquid synthesis and limiting the skin’s tendency to break out, as well as soothing inflammation and redness around the area.

When elastin in the skin begins to break down due to factors like aging, sun exposure, and stress, not only do wrinkles form, but the skin becomes less effective at fighting inflammation, retaining moisture, and repairing itself. “We know that inflammation and free radicals are two of the biggest causes for the aging effects on our skin, body, and health,” says James Kennedy, founder of the topical brand Apothecanna. “Cannabis contains some of the most remarkable compounds in the natural world effective for reducing inflammation. Combining CBD with pure essential oils selected for their potent antioxidant and nutritive properties actually tones down inflammation, resulting in the skin healing itself as opposed to masking the symptoms.”

Because CBD is a powerful antioxidant and strong anti-inflammatory, it speeds up the healing process, reversing signs of aging and counteracting the free radicals responsible for wrinkles. Studies also show that activating the endocannabinoid receptors on the face help to make the skin look more radiant and youthful.

For high-quality cannabis skincare, I’d recommend Apothecanna’s Everyday Face and Body Oil and Cannuka’s Calming Eye Balm.

Relax Your Whole Body

While creams, oils, lotions, and the like are great for treating pain in specific areas, sometimes you’re in need of full-body relief. And, if you’re anything like me, covering your body with a $50 lotion isn’t really an option. Whether it be that time of the month, a long day at work, or medical conditions such as fibromyalgia, topicals like soaks, bath bombs, and massage oils are great for alleviating large-scale woes.

Soaks are specifically popular when it comes to menstrual relief, combining the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of cannabis with healing Epsom salt. Epsom salt has been shown to soothe muscle aches, reduce inflammation, and help relieve bloating. Also rich in magnesium, it can even improve bone health. If you’re not in pain but simply stressed, magnesium has also been proven to lower the stress hormone cortisol. Similarly, CBD bath bombs are a great way to unwind, working to loosen tense muscles, soften the skin, reduce anxiety, and even soothe minor skin conditions.

Whether used during massage or incorporated into stretching, CBD massage oils are another great tool for relief. In addition to all the benefits of topical oils we discussed earlier, CBD also helps to warm your muscles, reducing tension and allowing you to achieve deep, clinical relaxation.

For full-body relaxation, I’d seek out Whoopi and Maya’s Lavender Soak, Majesty’s Rejuvenate Bomb, and Papa and Barkley’s 1:3 CBD:THC Releaf Body Oil.


Pot For Pleasure

The term “canna-sexual,” used to describe anyone who mindfully combines sex with cannabis, has emerged in the language of pop culture due to the plant’s ability to aid us in the bedroom. There’s tons of anecdotal evidence weed can help with intimacy issues and enhance sexual pleasure. Topicals like intimacy oils and weed lubes have been especially helpful for women who have difficulty reaching orgasm or experience pain during sex.

Random online CBD topicals are not—I repeat, are not—the move.

The science behind cannabis’s ability to improve sex starts, like all topicals, with the endocannabinoid system. But the delicate nature of the area the topicals are being applied to takes this a step further. Science shows that, when using topicals before sex, capillaries in the genitals actually expand, allowing more blood flow to the area, resulting in more pleasure. “Sexual topicals are a revolutionary approach to cannabis that many people still haven’t heard of. They work so well, especially for women, because of the uniquely absorptive nature of their genitals,” says Mathew Gerson, co-founder and CEO of Foria. “Both THC and CBD help to relax muscles and blood vessels while soothing inflammation and pain, both of which are common challenges that inhibit desire and libido. The results can vary, but the vast majority of our clients are very satisfied.”

Topicals have also been found to aid in female reproductive issues. Endocannabinoids are heavily involved in reproduction, especially fertilization. Scientists have found that low levels of endocannabinoids correlate with happy and healthy pregnancies. While fluctuations in these levels are normal, endocannabinoid imbalances are associated with many reproductive issues, including endometriosis, painful cramps, pain during sex, miscarriages, infertility, and ectopic pregnancies. Using topicals can help to regulate endocannabinoid levels, promoting overall reproductive health, benefiting your sex life and whatever (or whomever) may come from it.

A couple of my favorites include Foria’s Pleasure Within lubricant and Bond’s Sensual Oil.


Some Final Tips

The most important thing to remember when incorporating topicals into your self-care routine—whether that involves easing pain, reducing stress, or chasing a youthful glow—is to make sure your topicals are legitimate, meaning tested and from an upstanding source. Random online CBD topicals are not—I repeat, are not—the move. So be smart, check your sources, and for the very best in topical care, consult Proper. 


About the Author

Lindsay is a writer, stoner, and on-camera personality. Since moving from NY to LA, she’s gone from writing about countercultures at large to mostly focusing on the one surrounding cannabis. At this point, she knows a fucking lot about weed.

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