CBD Topicals: Everything You Need to Know
Mar 17, 2021
Why topical CBD? Why for your aches? Why for your skin? Why to use it before exercising and after sunbathing? Why has topical CBD captured the imagination of the skincare community?
Why indeed? One essay seems hardly sufficient to cover all the ground. The history goes far back – and the science goes deep.
Much more than skin deep <ahem>.
Though we’ll never know for sure, it seems that for most of human history, the hemp we used contained low levels of the cannabinoids like CBD and THC. Perhaps one percent of each. That’s closer to the agricultural hemp of today than it is the high potency marijuana in modern recreational use. But to be clear on our terms, they’re all cannabis. They’re all one species of plant that can interbreed. Hemp is the shorthand name for cannabis cultivars (strains) with low THC that tend to grow long and straight. Marijuana is the shorthand name for the cannabis cultivars with high THC that grow short and bushy. So when we look at the history of topical cannabis use, it’s probably closer to modern hemp that it is to modern high potency cannabis.
The entourage effect and the skin
But it’s not the cannabinoids alone that go into a well-made hemp extract. Of course, the cannabinoids are vital: lots of CBD, small amounts of THC to act as a helpful microdose to enable the CBD work better, and all the minor cannabinoids like CBG, CBC, and CBN that each possess their own range of actions.
Terpenes also play an important role. They give cannabis its unique profile of scents, and they’re produced by almost all plants. Cannabis just happens to contain a large array of them. When terpenes enter the human system, besides their own wide range of actions, also alter how the cannabinoids interact with our cells. Referred to as the ‘entourage effect’, it’s the idea of all parts of the plant working together for good. So, even though there tends to not be many terpenes in any one plant, they punch above their weight.
And that’s just the famous classes of molecules. A typical hemp plant contains over 500 compounds. There’s been much scientific interest in the stilbenoids and lignans, the flavonoids, and the phenolic components. The complexity of the plant is what makes a modern biochemist throw up their hands in horror – and it’s what makes them so potent for healing us.
Early human use of hemp topicals
How did humans figure out to put hemp into a fatty carrier for applying to the skin? We’ll surely never know. But it goes back beyond the first written records. Most likely, we first encountered the cannabis plant somewhere in the steppes of Central Asia as we migrated from Africa. It so quickly became a hallmark plant of human civilization that surprisingly, the father of ethnobotany, Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, suggested that hemp was the first plant ever domesticated by humans.
Nutritious seeds? Fiber for ropes, harnesses, bows, and fishing lines? A psychoactive effect to help bring the tribe together? And a helpful ointment when mixed in fat and smeared on the skin?
What’s not to like?
It’s no surprise that the first written reference to using cannabis topically comes from Egypt, the pharmacists of the ancient world. In both the Berlin and Hearst papyrus, there are references to the topical use hemp for skin conditions. The ancient Assyrian medical tablets prescribe cannabis preparations for skin lesions. For India, with the longest unbroken use of psychoactive cannabis, topical cannabis goes back to at least 1000 BCE. For China, with the longest unbroken use of nonpsychoactive hemp, a hemp porridge is used to treat a variety of skin diseases, including fungal and bacterial conditions. It’s also in many of the prescriptions in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And the West wasn’t slow to embrace topical hemp either. In medieval Europe, besides its wide use orally for a range of conditions, a hemp topical for pain was used by the doctors and plant medicine women.
But we make no medical claims for CBD. It is a topical product to maintain healthy skin. With prohibition, the research on CBD is not as robust as it should be because scientists have not been able to study it will because it’s extracted from cannabis, a plant wrongly put in the US drug scheduling system as Schedule 1 – an addictive drug with no redeeming medical value. But what researchers could study was our endocannabinoid system and its intricate involvement with our skin’s health and homeostasis.
The endocannabinoid system and the skin
We’ve been studying the endocannabinoid system since its discovery in the late ‘80s when Drs. Allyn Howlett and William Devane first found the CB1 receptor. This discovery solved the mystery of how cannabis displayed such a wide array of psychoactive effects in humans. With weed, it’s striking that everyone gets high in a different way. That’s because the CB1 receptor exists on neurons across the highest regions of the brain – and many of the lower ones. Different concentrations in different brain areas lead to different effects. The CB2 receptor was discovered after, and now we know that it’s on almost every organ of the body – including the skin - because of its deep connection to the immune system.
However, the discovery of the receptors only thickened the mystery. If a receptor exists, it means there must be something already existent in the body that binds to it. The human brain isn’t keeping a cannabinoid receptor around just in case the humans happen to stumble into a shrub in Central Asia that produces cannabinoids. The lock necessitates a key.
In Jerusalem, they found the key. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his team, on a grant from the US National Institute for Drug Abuse, isolated the first known endocannabinoid found in a human brain and body. They named it anandamide (AEA), after the Sanskrit work for joy or bliss. Research later revealed that endocannabinoids were in every creature with a spinal cord – and every other lifeform besides protozoa and insects. Interestingly enough, it turned out that the endocannabinoid system in animals evolved many millions of years before the cannabis plant ever did, sometime after the fall of the dinosaurs. Something about this system for homeostasis – for balance – made it essential to the evolution of complex life. After the discovery of anandamide, we found the other well-studied endocannabinoid: 2-AG, often referred to as the yin to AEA’s yang.
All of this is important for organ systems in the body – but especially for the skin. If you search for one of the many excellent meta-reviews of the functions of the endocannabinoid system in the skin, you’ll first see that the endocannabinoid system’s machinery is found on most of the types of cells found in the skin. You’ll find endocannabinoids in sebocytes that produce the oily sebum that keeps our skin supple and protected, in fibroblasts that produce collagen and heals wounds, in mast cells responsible for inflammation and regulation of skin aging, in melanocytes that produce the protective coloring of skin, in sensory nerves that transmit sensations of pain and touch, in hair follicles, in sweat glands, in immune cells of the skin and perhaps most importantly, in keratinocytes.
Keratinocytes make up 90% of human skin. They’re our first barrier of defense against heat, UV radiation, water loss, bacteria, fungus, parasites, and viruses. They’re what makes the skin a fantastic organ – and our largest. Like clockwork every month, your entire outer layer of skin is turned over and replaced. It’s a dynamic process that starts to slow down as we age. And it’s phenomenal.
To keep this process going, the skin maintains a network of stem cells deep in the epidermis. Sometimes, they make copies of themselves, and other times they differentiate into a new type of cell that will be a keratinocyte. This process of the cell dividing further, changing its genes and its nature through several intermediate cell types, then migrating to the outer skin layer is a highly regulated and vital process of skin health. Of all the stem cell types that we’ve studied, the stem cells of the skin and their epidermal differentiation mechanism is one of the most well studied and understood. The cell goes through four different cell types, and then starts to migrate to the surface, then allows itself to die in a very specific pattern that locks the deceased skin cells in a tight armadillo pattern, which is effective as a strong barrier against the outside world. And increasing evidence indicates that the molecule that controls this process is anandamide.
That’s only the beginning. In the skin, the CB2 Receptor regulates the release of the pain-relieving endorphins. The presence of cannabinoids activates antioxidant pathways that help clean up free radicals that damage the skin. Endocannabinoids inhibit the activation of the mast cells that cause allergic inflammation. UV radiation causes damage to melanocytes, which produce the melanin that gives protective color to our skin. And activating the CB1 receptor helps prevent the melanocytes from going out of control, and becoming cancerous. The ECS regulates the protective sebum oil that covers our skin and the production of lipids underlying our skin that keep it fleshy and well-oiled. The dysregulation of the ECS has been linked to dermatological disorders, such as: atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, scleroderma, and pruritus (itchiness). Even acupuncture, the most well-proven of ‘alternative therapies’, by Western scientific standards, seeks its help for inflammatory pain via the CB2 receptors.
Topicals versus ingestibles
So how do we activate the endocannabinoid in the skin? With topical hemp extracts rich in CBD.
The difference between a topical product versus an ingestible, like an oil or capsule, is the route of administration. When you take a CBD product orally, it’s absorbed by your digestive tract, passes through your liver, and then into your bloodstream for transport to all over the interior of your body.
When you use a topical product like a balm or cream, the hemp extract is applied to the skin. Because the cannabinoids are fatty lipids, they absorb into the skin for beautifying and strengthening. When you apply a hemp extract onto the skin, the CBD helps to activate the endocannabinoid machinery to protect the skin.
What topical is right for you?
We have a nice thick CBD balm. Because the balm contains no water, the oils and waxes give it a thick consistency that protects the skin. We have lotions and creams that feature a cornucopia of top-shelf botanicals sourced from around the world. The lotions and creams have a lighter consistency that moisturize the skin, as well as soothing and enriching it. Our rich skin serum is designed to deliver higher levels of CBD to the skin while maintaining a light smooth feeling when applied. As for our CBD Roll-ons, they win industry awards for their ingredients and formulation. Perfect for before or after exercising, these Roll-ons absorb quickly and are easy to apply.
So is there a reason that we believe in using topical CBD to enhance the endocannabinoid system and help with skin health? Absolutely. Do we make any medical claims for topical CBD? No.
But we’ve dedicated our labs and our entire company’s brainpower to make the finest array of topical CBD-rich hemp extracts options in the marketplace. Not only do you know that they are safe and well-made, with third-party tests and QR codes, it’s a treasure trove of CBD topicals like no other.
So however you want to help your skin and enhance your endocannabinoid system, head to CV Sciences and buy a topical product today.