The Beginner’s Guide to Topical CBD

The Beginner’s Guide to Topical CBD

Posted by Grön on Nov 12th 2018

Balms and creams and lotions, oh my!

CBD is the new cool kid on the block, and for good reason. With the ever advancing movement of cannabis legalization going on in North America, more and more people are discovering THC’s little sister CBD, and they are liking what they are finding. So much so, in fact, that CBD is popping up in everything from bath bombs to lip balms and everything in between. With enough products on the market to make sure you are lathered in CBD from head to toe, it’s enough to confuse even the veteran CBD fan.

But worry not! In this article, I am going to give you everything you need to know about the world of CBD topicals. Whether you have been utilizing CBD for years or considering your first purchase, this guide will help you become the CBD guru of your group of friends.

What is a CBD topical?

“Topical” is a fancy word for a cream, balm, lotion, salve, or any other sort of substance that is applied directly to a particular part of the body with the intention of treating that specific area. Generally, the substance has some sort of medicinal element, like CBD, that is delivered to the desired area through its application.

So, what is the difference between a cream and a lotion? Or a salve and an ointment?

The short answer: not much. All these substances are trying to do the same basic thing: take CBD and apply it to your skin so that it absorbs and has the desired effect. In fact, the words “balm,” “ointment,” and “salve” are virtually interchangeable with little to no difference between them, aside from maybe some marketing jargon.

The longer answer is that there can be differences in the consistency of the product, and that might actually make a difference in how your skin absorbs the CBD. Creams and lotions tend to have a higher concentration of water which allows them to spread over the skin easier and are more quickly absorbed. Ointments and balms, on the other hand, tend to have a higher concentration of oil, making them linger on the skin longer so that the CBD absorbs more slowly over time.

Which you choose will largely depend on what you want to use it for. If you are using a CBD topical for a specific medical condition, it might be a good idea to chat with your doctor about the best delivery method. Otherwise, I say just go with your own personal preference for what feels best on your skin.

How does topical CBD work?

To understand how topical CBD works we first have to understand how CBD in general works, so let’s jump in!

Pretty much every living thing with a spine has receptors all throughout its body that interact with chemicals called “cannabinoids” that are naturally produced by the animal itself. That’s right, your body is producing cannabinoids all by itself, right now!

This process of producing and interacting with cannabinoids in the body is called the “endocannabinoid system” (ECS), and is responsible for some pretty important stuff like the regulation of pain, appetite, mood, memory, and the immune system. In general, the ECS helps your body maintain some of its most basic and important functions.

What’s amazing is that we have found cannabinoids that are produced in plants that can interact with our own ECS and help it do its job. We call these plant-based chemicals “phytocannabinoids.” They are kind of like vitamins for your ECS.

When we apply CBD directly to the skin in a balm or cream it is able to absorb through the skin and bind with the cannabinoid receptors near the location of your ailment. Think of it as a precision drop of body-helping soldiers right at the location you need them most.

Will topical CBD get me high?

No, and there are two main reasons why it won’t:

First, CBD is not psychoactive in the way that its rowdier cannabinoid cousin THC is, meaning it won’t give you a feeling of being “high.”

Second, even if there are traces of THC in your balm or lotion, topicals rubbed into the skin don’t make it all the way down to the bloodstream. Think of it this way: have you ever used a skin lotion that contains alcohol (check your ingredients, I bet you have!) or sanitized your skin with rubbing alcohol? Did you get drunk? I’m guessing not.

Can I use too much?

Studies keep showing that CBD is one of the safest substances out there with no known level of toxicity, making it virtually impossible to overdose. Since the amount of CBD absorbed through topical application is relatively low, you should feel confident in using as much topical CBD as you like.

That being said, you should always start any new skin care routine by using a small amount at first to make sure there are no adverse effects. Start small and slow and work your way up. Plus, you might have an allergic reaction to one of the other, non-CBD ingredients, so be sure to take your time.

I’m going to be honest with you. When someone claims their product can cure everything under the sun from cancer to the common cold, I start looking for the words “snake oil” engraved somewhere on the bottle. That’s why I want to be clear up front that CBD is not a magical substance that will fix anything wrong with you. To imply that is downright unethical, in my opinion.

However, CBD does seem to have some pretty exciting effects, and even though the science on it is still in the beginning phases, there is good reason to think it can do some pretty cool things for you.

Pain management

We all feel the wear and tear of daily life but add being hunched over a desk or scrunched behind the wheel of a car for hours at a time and you have a recipe for serious aches and pains. Luckily, this is one area where topical CBD looks promising.

Remember all that talk about the ECS and how it helps regulate pain? There are a couple of ways it might achieve this. First, the endocannabinoids in your body naturally help regulate the sensations of pain that you feel, and CBD elevates the number of pain-fighting cannabinoids in your system.

Second, a lot of pain is the result of inflammation of some sort or another, and CBD is a proven anti-inflammatory. In fact, recent studies have shown that topical CBD is effective at reducing pain caused by inflammation in animals, so things are looking pretty good. This is particularly good news for those suffering from inflammatory conditions like arthritis and those with acute soreness caused by tissue damage during exercise.

Although more research definitely needs to be done, I’ve seen enough research on topical CBD to feel confident in saying you should give CBD a try for:

  • Arthritis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Chronic, localized pain
  • General joint pain
  • Muscle soreness

Skin conditions

More and more companies are beginning to add CBD to their skin care and beauty products, and it’s easy to see why. Since CBD has such strong anti-inflammatory properties, absorbing it directly into the site of the inflammation is an absolute no brainer. Not only that, but you can pack the CBD in a balm or lotion that carries with it other ingredients with tons of skin-healthy properties. It’s a win-win!

What’s even better is that some researchers have found that CBD might treat or prevent the most dreaded skin condition known to teenagers everywhere: acne. Turns out that when CBD is absorbed into the skin it tends to inhibit lipid synthesis, limiting the amount of sebum your skin produces. In other words, it prevents your skin from overproducing the oils that clog your pores and ruin your junior prom.

Again, research is only just starting in these areas, but CBD looks like a fantastic way to tackle some of the more common, and more annoying, problems that crop up on the body’s largest organ. Here are some of the skin conditions that CBD might help:

  • Acne
  • Red, puffy, or inflamed skin
  • Psoriasis
  • Eczema
  • Flaky and patchy skin
  • Rashes


Although this could technically fall under “skin conditions,” it felt different enough to warrant its own section. Researchers have shown that CBD has strong antibiotic and anti-microbial properties. Combine that with its anti-inflammatory abilities and you have a perfect substance for fighting infections on the skin.

What’s even more exciting is that some researchers are looking to CBD as a way of potentially fighting drug-resistant bacteria like those that cause staph infections. I don’t know about you, but the idea of antibiotic resistant super bugs scares me to death, so anything that helps in that department is OK by me.

But in general, topical CBD might be a good way of treating:

  • Bug bites
  • Bacterial infections (MRSA)
  • Burns
  • Cuts and scrapes
  • General skin infections


The ECS is the system responsible for the euphoric feeling called “runner’s high” that many experience during and after physical exercise. So, it’s no surprise that early research is showing that CBD might be effective in fighting anxiety, depression, and other sorts of mood regulation.

But that all has to do with ingested CBD, not CBD that is applied topically. Although many companies are putting CBD in products like bath bombs that are meant to induce relaxation, I find this area a little harder to swallow. Remember, topical CBD does not enter the bloodstream, so it has little chance of getting to the receptors in the brain that would largely be responsible for shifts in mood.

That being said, many still report finding some success with topical CBD as a way to relax after a long day, and who am I to argue with them? Maybe it’s one of the other ingredients in the product, maybe it’s from aromatherapy, maybe it’s the soothing act of massaging the balm into one’s skin, or maybe it’s just the good old placebo effect.

Regardless, using CBD as a relaxation tool certainly won’t hurt you, so why not give it a shot, and let me know how it worked when you do!

CBD is a compound that we are just now beginning to better understand and the early signs are very exciting. Given what we know about CBD and how it interacts with our bodies, applying it topically makes perfect sense and has some solid early research to back it up. What I find most exciting about CBD is that all signs point to it being a safe alternative to other potentially dangerous or side-effect ridden treatments. I look forward to what future researchers discover, and I encourage you to give it a try for yourself.

For those of you who have already taken the plunge into topical CBD, what have your experiences been? I invite you to share your stories and results, good or bad, with us in the comments below. While the researchers slowly begin to give us the information we need, let’s get a conversation going and help each other through this new and exciting frontier!