What are Cannabis Topicals and How Do They Work?

There are many ways to consume cannabis. You can smoke it, eat it, take it as a pill or oil supplement, or you can put it directly on your skin. The final option, which involves applying cannabis topicals, provides pain relief and other benefits.

Cannabis Topicals 1 1
Cannabis Topicals 1 1

This article will review cannabis topicals so you can determine if it’s the best application method for your needs.

What are Cannabis Topicals?

Cannabis topicals may contain THC or CBD. They are applied directly to the affected area. They come in the form of creams, salves, balms, ointments, and more.

Topicals are commonly used to relieve pain and inflammation. But they also provide anti-aging and antiseptic benefits. Some evidence suggests they can be beneficial in fighting skin cancer.

Why Use Cannabis Topicals?

  • They Don’t Enter Your Bloodstream: Topicals do not enter your bloodstream, so they won’t be detected on drug tests. However, transdermal products are meant to absorb through the skin into the bloodstream. It’s important not to confuse the two.
  • No Psychotic Effects: If you are using THC for pain relief, you may experience psychotic effects which can interfere with productivity and may cause anxiety and paranoia. A topical will never produce psychotic effects.
  • They Go Directly to the Affected Site: When you take cannabis internally, it will spread throughout the body. It may not directly address the issue that you are hoping to treat. Cannabis topicals are applied directly to the affected site so they can work their magic.


Selective focus shot of green Original Amnesias on a dark background
Selective focus shot of green Original Amnesias on a dark background

Topicals can be made with THC, CBD, or a combination of the two. Both can be effective in providing relief. Do some research to determine which is best suited to your needs. You may also try different products to see which works best.

Note, THC will not produce psychotic results when applied to the skin. Nor will it cause you to test positive on a drug test. These matters should not be considered when choosing a product.

Most cannabis topicals are broad-spectrum CBD which means they contain mostly CBD along with some THC and other terpenes and cannabinoids. However, you can purchase full spectrum CBD which contains CBD and other terpenes and cannabinoids but no THC, or a CBD isolate which is pure CBD.

Most people choose a broad spectrum or full spectrum product. The additional cannabinoids and terpenes help CBD provide effective results.

What are the Benefits of Cannabis Topicals?


Research shows that cannabis has anti-inflammatory properties. It works with the endocannabinoid system to reduce inflammation associated with pain and other conditions. The fact that cannabis is anti-inflammatory makes it beneficial in the treatment of:

  • Skin conditions like eczema, acne, and psoriasis
  • Arthritis
  • Peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage)
  • Temporomandibular disorder (jaw pain)
  • Muscle soreness


CBD’s antimicrobial properties make it ideal for preventing and reducing the spread of skin infections. It has even been shown to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Scientists are studying the effectiveness of the compound in treating acne, wounds, and other skin conditions.


A 2022 study reviewed cannabis’s potential in treating skin cancer. Cannabinoids have been shown to inhibit tumor growth, proliferation, and invasion. It may be a promising option for the treatment of melanoma and cell carcinoma of the skin. More studies are needed to establish cannabis topical’s potential in fighting cancer.

Pain Relief

Cannabis’s anti-inflammatory properties are linked to its ability to provide pain relief. A 2020 study looked at 29 patients with peripheral neuropathy to determine the effectiveness of cannabis topicals. Findings showed a significant reduction in intense pain, sharp pain, and cold and itchy sensations.


Cannabis topicals, and CBD in particular, have been recognized for their anti-aging effects. When combined with retinol, CBD has been found to promote cell proliferation and reduce oxidative stress. It also helps maintain skin homeostasis and barrier protection. It increases antioxidant and inflammatory activity and optimizes sebum production to reduce acne. It also counters skin irritation often caused by retinol.

What are the Various Types of Cannabis Topicals?

Young woman applying moisturizer on face with closed eyes.
Young woman applying moisturizer on face with closed eyes.
  • Oils: Most people think of oils for dosing, but they can also be applied to the skin.
  • Creams and Lotions: These products are ideal for moisturizing skin.
  • Gels: Gels mix cellulose and water and sometimes contain alcohol and fragrance. Note that alcohol and fragrance can irritate the skin. Gels are oil-free, so they are ideal for oily skin. They also absorb quickly. They reduce sunburn and inflammation.
  • Sprays: Sprays are ideal because they are thin and easy to apply. However, they are not as easy to control as other types of topicals, so it can be difficult to get an accurate dosage.

What to Look for in Cannabis Topicals?

Lab Testing: The cannabis market is still highly unregulated. Look for cannabis topicals sold by brands that do 3rd party lab testing. Testing ensures products are made with non-toxic ingredients and are as pure and potent as advertised.

Reviews: Research products carefully and check online reviews. Make sure you are buying a trusted product from a reputable brand.

Other Ingredients: Many cannabis topicals are mixed with other ingredients. It’s typical to find other all-natural products like aloe vera and coconut oil in the products you purchase. However, some topicals may contain unnatural ingredients, or you may be allergic to some of the ingredients in the product. Read the label carefully before making a purchase.


Cannabis topicals come in varying dosage amounts. A low-dose product will have 3 mg of cannabis per application while a higher-dose product will have 8 mg. It’s wise to start with a lower dosage and increase as needed.

Put the topical on a small area of skin before moving on to a larger area. Doing so will help you determine whether the product will cause an irritation or another type of reaction.

If all goes well, move on to the wider affected area. Topicals can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours to start working. Allot the proper amount of time before applying more.

Now that you know more about cannabis topicals, will you add them to your wellness routine?

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