Cannabis topicals: what are they, and how do they work?

Cannabis topicals: what are they, and how do they work?
Steven Voser

Maybe you've tried seemingly every form of cannabis under the sun. Maybe you've never tried weed before, not wanting to bother with psychotropic effects. Either way, you may not have considered one particular sort of product: cannabis topicals. They don't get you high, but they offer all the other soothing sensations and benefits cannabis offers.

For a novice, cannabis topicals can be a confusing subject. Figuring out what they are and how they work isn't really common knowledge, so we wouldn’t blame you for being curious about what they do. After all, most of the time we hear about people smoking, vaping, or eating weed. So, what could cannabis do for your skin?

As it turns out, cannabis and our largest organ may be a good match, and research is currently being conducted to give us a better idea as to why.


In short, a cannabis topical is any product applied to the skin that’s infused with compounds sourced from weed plants. They may contain THC, CBD, or a mix of both, along with a blend of terpenes.

The term “topical” may invoke thoughts of medical creams or lotions, but the definition is more extensive than you’d think. To demonstrate what we mean, we’ll go through a list of the more popular types of cannabis topicals.


Of course, there are a wide variety of cannabis-loaded salves and balms to choose from. People use those sorts of products to soothe and protect their skin, and cannabis is known to be loaded with soothing compounds, so the combination makes perfect sense.

Rather than blending the actual flower into the balm, however, manufacturers will often utilise a concentrate of cannabinoids and terpenes. If you want to make cannabis balm at home, for instance, you’ll need to use coconut oil to absorb the THC. It’s quite easy to do, but we recommend going for store-bought products if you need a specific dose of THC/CBD.


Yes, the lube you use to spice up nights with your lover counts as a topical. In turn, you can find all sorts of cannabis-infused lubes wherever weed or lube are sold.

Of course, there’s little to no research into whether cannabis truly improves lube, as those would be difficult tests to conduct. However, as we’ll explain later on, cannabis has potential benefits for our skin, and we imagine that applies no matter where the skin is.


We don’t know about you, but when we see a nice makeup palette, we think, “there should be weed in this”. Thankfully, there are all sorts of companies fulfilling our wishes, claiming the formulations offer benefits for the skin or relief from certain conditions. Their claims aren’t necessarily backed by science, though, so make sure you do your research.

Most cannabis cosmetics are loaded with CBD oil, but we imagine that’s only because research and testing is far stricter when infusing THC. That said, it’s only a matter of time before THC starts to pop up in all sorts of makeup and beauty products.


Lastly, considering how heavily cannabinoids and terpenes have been studied for their medicinal uses as of late, it only makes sense that THC and CBD have made their way into medical creams.

These creams are engineered to soothe all sorts of skin-related health conditions, with some being notably more effective than others. They all have potential, however, and they’ll likely become more comprehensive as more research is done and formulas are tweaked accordingly.

Medical creams


Many people new to weed-infused products assume “cannabis” and “THC” are interchangeable terms. It’s important to note, though, that CBD products often fall under the umbrella term “cannabis”, even where THC is medically and recreationally legal.

The reason is simple enough; people recognise terms like cannabis and weed instantly. The terms still have a touch of that “taboo” factor, and are effective for marketing in turn. The term CBD, while gaining popularity, is not as recognisable. It’s still mentioned on the front label, but it’s not often part of the product name.

That being said, you can expect the benefits of topicals infused with either THC or CBD to mostly match up.


Speaking of benefits, you may wonder what good cannabis does when added to topicals. After all, what part of the skin would even take in THC or CBD?

As it turns out, rather than being restricted to our internal workings, the endocannabinoid system extends to our skin. Like those inside our bodies, the receptors in our skin are equipped to work with endocannabinoids. In turn, plant cannabinoids can either bind to these same receptors, or affect the system indirectly.


That leaves another major question, though: Can these products get you high? Well, with CBD products, it’s completely out of the question, as that cannabinoid can’t get you high to begin with. Even if the topical has THC, though, it still won't get you high.

Why? Simply enough, topical THC (and other cannabinoids for that matter) can’t penetrate through the skin to enter the bloodstream.

There are, however, transdermal products that are designed to send cannabinoids into your bloodstream via the skin, but those are distinct from true topicals. Since you’ve likely decided on whether you want to get high or not, that difference in terminology is key to note.


As we mentioned earlier, there’s been a decent amount of research into the effects cannabinoids can have on our skin. In that process, we’ve discovered a promising set of benefits that could give cannabis topicals a place in medical care.


To start, cannabinoids have been tested at relative length to determine if they can serve as a treatment for multiple sclerosis. There’s still nothing proven, but a 2015 study on CBD’s efficacy in cream form against autoimmune encephalomyelitis, a common model for MS, shows significant promise. Specifically, they found mice with the condition experienced neuroprotective effects and decreased symptoms when treated daily with a CBD-infused cream.

Being able to fight off the condition on multiple fronts, CBD shows tons of promise as a treatment for this and similar conditions in animal models. While this doesn’t count as solid proof, it’s enough evidence to clear the way for research on humans dealing with MS.


Now, while CBD is often considered the “medical” cannabinoid, THC has plenty of potential applications for skin health as well. Allergic dermatitis, for instance, seems to fold in the face of the psychotropic cannabinoid.

The researchers behind this 2013 study gathered both normal mice and mice with CB1/2 receptor deficiency, with both groups suffering from AD. They treated the mice with topically applied THC, and found that both groups enjoyed decreases in myeloid immune cell infiltration and swelling, indicating the treatment quelled allergic inflammation.

Of course, more research will have to be done to back up these findings. However, the fact that it seemed to work on mice with no active CB1/2 receptors opens up a world of possibilities.


Lastly, people dealing with psoriasis may find themselves soothed by cannabis creams in the near future. Back in 2007, scientists tested human skin samples with an undisclosed blend of cannabinoids to see how they’d impact skin cell production. As it turned out, the cannabinoids were able to slow it down significantly, with their effects being independent of the CB receptors. This, in turn, suggests that cannabinoids could have a place in the fight against psoriasis.

Now, as much optimism as that brings us, there are a few issues to acknowledge. To start, the study doesn’t mention which cannabinoids were used. Second, the study was done over a decade ago, so there’s much more work to be done. And, there need to be tests on living human volunteers, rather than just skin or cell samples.


As we’ve been discussing cannabis topicals in general, you may be wondering what CBD in particular will be able to do for you.

As mentioned, the effects of topical cannabis are very localised, meaning they only impact the area they’re directly applied upon. In turn, you likely can’t use topical CBD to treat any mental or internal physical issues.

That being said, CBD has been observed to successfully tackle inflammation and pain in preclinical settings, both of which are issues one may end up experiencing with their skin. In those cases, you could certainly try using a topical CBD cream to support your current treatment. However, you should only do so after consulting with your doctor.

You could also try using CBD topicals for less serious issues like sunburns, but it’s worth noting that nothing has been proven in regards to its efficacy in that context.


While we’re rounding out this discussion, we figure we should quickly go over how to use these topicals on yourself.

Simply, all you have to do is take a bit of the topical and apply it directly to your skin. You’ll want to test it on a small patch first, just in case there’s an allergic reaction or anything like that. If that doesn’t happen, feel free to apply the topical to the entire affected area.

You can’t get high off of these, so there’s no risk of going overboard, but it’s wise to start with a small amount regardless. After all, once you find an amount that works for you, why use more? If the amount is insufficient, feel free to use a bit more and see what happens.


Given the minimal risk and wide range of potential effects, we think there are plenty of reasons to give cannabis topicals a chance. Whether you go for a THC lotion, some CBD makeup, or 1:1 lube, there are an untold number of possibilities waiting to be explored.

Steven Voser
Steven Voser

Steven is a long-time veteran of cannabis journalism, having delved into every aspect of the subject. His particular interests lie in cannabis culture, the emerging science of cannabis, and how it is shaping the legal landscape across the globe.