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How do Cannabis Topicals Work?

Producers and brands struggle to answer fundamental questions about the topical products they have created. Retailers are caught in the middle as they work to allay consumers’ apprehensions about them: How are they used? How do they work? Will they get me high? Let’s see if we can help.


The skin is the body’s largest organ and a barrier against viruses, pollutants, radiation, and more. It helps regulate body temperature, excrete toxins, synthesize vitamin D3, and absorb nutrients. Unlike other organs, skin has a lot of independence, relying largely on itself to produce regulating hormones, immune cells for repair, and the endocannabinoids that help balance other functions. Each skin structure contains its own cannabinoid interaction points, called CB1 and CB2 receptors.

As a part of how the skin self-regulates, endocannabinoids in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) work to detect and mitigate imbalances in the skin. Endocannabinoids are released in various amounts, depending on need. They then act on cannabinoid receptors and their associated organelles (mini organs) or cells to help restore normal or “healthy” function.

How Do Cannabis Topical Products Work?

While the ECS is integrated throughout the entire body, cannabis topicals function at a localized level via the skin. They leverage the benefits of phytocannabinoids, which are plant-based exogenous cannabinoids. They can interact with the ECS in the same way as their endocannabinoid counterparts; influencing integrated organelles that need extra help in managing disturbances. When applied topically, phytocannabinoids such as THC, CBD, CBG, and CBN can interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors upon absorption into the dermal layer of the skin, producing unique, stimulating and/or inhibiting effects that help promote balance in the skin and body.

What Makes an Effective Cannabis Topical?

Evidence suggests that not all cannabis topical products work in the same way: the skin is a more complex entry point into the body than other organs, such as the lungs or stomach.

Intelligent formulation determines a cannabis topical’s ability to reach and interact with cannabinoid receptors. One key indicator of an effective topical is that it contains naturally derived ingredients. Natural oils, rich in key fatty acids (like linoleic acid) can often be more easily absorbed than synthetic ones.

Only a few ingredients are capable of stimulating the tightly woven cells of the epidermal layer to relax and allow other nutrients and cannabinoids into the dermal layers, where CB1 and CB2 receptors reside.

Lavender, peppermint, and rosemary are excellent stimulus compounds.

Herbs such as lavender, peppermint, and rosemary are excellent stimulus compounds as they contain organic building blocks (terpenes) that temporarily dilate or loosen the cellular structure of the epidermis to allow the entry of oil nutrients and THC/CBD. Without them, it’s just a jar of cannabinoids.

Leveraging the entourage effect of plant-based terpenes, versus synthetic epidermal penetration enhancers, will typically result in less potential skin irritation and more absorptive benefits.

The skin-penetrating properties of terpenes work hard, depending on their combination with lighter and more effective carrier oils.

For example, ethyl hempate, an ester of hemp seed oil, has a very low comedogenic value, helping it rapidly deliver fatty oils, nutrients, and cannabinoids into the skin without clogging pores. Interestingly, it sometimes makes sense to combine low and high comedogenic ingredients. Balm and salve products will often contain beeswax to seal in moisture. Once cannabinoids, oils, and nutrients have been absorbed, these natural sealants saturate the skin, dry, and form lipid barriers to lock in the hydration and nutrients.

Many cannabis topicals use CBD as the only cannabinoid. CBD has been shown to contribute to relief from issues ranging from anxiety and stress to pain and insomnia.

There are indications that THC can also provide impactful topical benefits for individuals who wish to promote healthy and balanced skin or deploy localized pain relief.

Because of the entourage effect, it’s not about THC vs. CBD but choosing how best to combine them. Many topical products combine the two cannabinoids. Ratios like 1:1 and 8:1 (CBD to THC) have been shown to have dramatic effects compared to either cannabinoid on its own. Some research suggests that THC may be more of a receptor activator whereas CBD may be more of a receptor modulator.

Susan Casey and Darren Darcy are partners at Brandolier, a small-footprint, high-capacity marketing and product consulting group that offers insight, guidance, products, brands, and executions that capitalize on opportunities available to organizations in the cannabis space.

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