Research on this trendy skin-care ingredient is limited. Read this comprehensive guide before you buy.
Few ingredients have taken skin care by storm quite like CBD. And if you look carefully, it’s everywhere: in sunscreens, masks, lip balms, moisturizers, and more. The question is: Should you really be slathering this stuff on your skin?
First, let’s talk about what CBD is. Cannabidiol (CBD) is an active ingredient in the cannabis plant, according to Harvard Health Publishing. CBD can be derived from either medical marijuana or hemp. Although marijuana contains CBD, CBD doesn’t have psychoactive effects. (THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical that causes the high.) All that said, CBD won’t lead to any mind-altering effects.
The Proposed Benefits of Skin-Care Products With CBD
Experts attribute the popularity of CBD to its “do anything” reputation. In fact, many people turn to CBD in the hope of treating various ailments, including anxiety, insomnia, pain conditions, and now — increasingly, it seems — skin problems.
In general, manufacturers add CBD to their products to give them a boost. “CBD is a very cost-effective way to enhance products,” says Austin Katz, cofounder of Sheabrand in Brooklyn, New York. CBD is in a range of products — those that claim to treat acne, dry skin, and eczema — because of its versatility. “I think we’re living in an era where people want to feel empowered to address their needs on their own,” he says.
Potentially Helps Inflammation, Eczema, and Psoriasis
One of the touted functions of CBD is controlling inflammation. “The body has two CBD receptors that we know of: CB1 and CB2,” says Robert Dellavalle, MD, PhD, adjunct professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora. When applied to skin, CBD interacts with these receptors to turn down the inflammatory response. This happens by “decreasing the interleukins, which are chemicals that are like the immune system’s fire alarm that calls the fire department in an emergency. CBD may decrease the loudness of that fire alarm,” he explains.
In short, you may see less redness overall, and in skin diseases, including eczema and psoriasis, it may also be effective in tamping down itch, possibly because CBD creams may help reduce dryness, per a review published in July 2017 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (Dr. Dellavalle was a coauthor of that report.) Keep in mind, though, that the review included only three studies: two in humans but with small sample sizes and one in mice, which doesn’t necessarily translate to human health. Therefore, more studies on the potential benefits of CBD for reducing skin redness are needed.
Additionally, a small study published in the March-April 2019 issue of the Italian journal Clinical Therapeutics looked at 20 participants with either psoriasis, eczema, or scarring and found that a specific CBD ointment improved measures of skin hydration (by moisturizing and preventing water loss), boosted elasticity in the skin, and in general bettered their quality of life. This could have been due to the fatty acids in the ointment but was also likely in part because of the anti-inflammatory effect of CBD, the researchers say. Yet more research in a larger human population is needed to know for sure.
For many skin diseases, dermatologists often prescribe topical steroid creams, which act as anti-inflammatory medicines. “These are very safe for most people, and they’re effective, but some people don’t want to use steroids in any way. CBD could be a nonsteroidal therapy to fill that gap,” says Dellavalle. Side effects of topical steroids include thinning of the skin if overused or used long term, but you can help avoid these risks when using them correctly, notes the National Eczema Association. Working with your dermatologist to ensure that you have the right medication at the right dosage can help with this.
Indeed, Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist in Hamden, Connecticut, and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, prefers to use CBD “in inflammatory skin conditions as they’re fizzling out.” She adds, “I recommend generally using a medication to put out the fire and then using CBD to clean up the carnage.”
Beyond that, though, is the potential to use CBD as a tool to delay early signs of aging. “Inflammation is the basis of all skin disease, including aging,” she says. But while there’s a lot of hype surrounding CBD in skin care — and health in general — there is no cure-all. “Everything has its advantages and disadvantages or limitations,” says Dr. Gohara.
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Possibly Plays a Role in Treating Acne
Along with being a potential therapy for inflammatory skin diseases, CBD is also featured in some anti-acne products. For instance, Mantra Mask’s CBD Blemish Mask combines CBD and pimple-fighting tea tree oil. “There are CB2 receptors on sebaceous glands, which produce oil. According to research, CBD influences the sebum production of cells and has an anti-inflammatory component,” says Jeanette Jacknin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Solana Beach, California, who specializes in CBD skin care. This echoes findings outlined in articles previously published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation and Experimental Dermatology.
Dr. Jacknin also points to preliminary research presented in June 2019 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology that found topical CBD may help kill a range of gram-positive bacteria. “This bacteria is one cause of acne,” she says. (For the study, researchers collaborated with Botanix Pharmaceuticals, a company that develops products to treat skin diseases like acne and psoriasis.)
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May Decrease Inflammation From Sunburns
Finally, one of the newest uses for CBD skin care is in sunscreen. Dellavalle notes that it does make sense to add CBD to sunscreen, as its anti-inflammatory properties may help reduce the effects of a sunburn, such as redness. Of course, the idea is to apply sunscreen correctly (following guidelines from the American Academy of Dermatology), but in real life, many people miss areas, and applying a CBD-infused SPF may supply more general absorption and temper the reaction of sunburned spots, he says.
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What Scientific Evidence Doesn’t Yet Tell Us About CBD for Skin Care
If CBD sounds like the answer to your skin woes, it’s helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. “What we don’t have in CBD is a lot of research. [CBD has] been illegal federally for so long, and it’s been difficult to do research on something that’s previously been considered on par with cocaine or heroin,” says Dellavalle. That’s starting to change, though. The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the definition of marijuana, which meant that CBD products were no longer considered like marijuana. This has paved the way for researchers to conduct more studies on CBD, and for product manufacturers to create and sell CBD products legally, though per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is still illegal to market CBD as a supplement.
A review published in June 2018 in the Dermatology Online Journal, which Dellavalle coauthored, pointed out that while CBD may “have shown some initial promise as therapy for a variety of skin diseases,” there is a need for large, high-quality, randomized, controlled trials, a sentiment echoed in an article published in December 2020 in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. Another paper, published in the May-June 2019 issue of Clinics in Dermatology, urges people and their doctors to approach these products with the same caution. Finally, though topical CBD tends to be well tolerated and may have a role in addressing various skin issues (including acne, dryness, and irritation), there’s still ongoing research on the safety of CBD treatment, notes an article published in 2020 in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology.
Unknowns About CBD Dosage
Scientists still don’t know the ideal dose of CBD for treating skin conditions or promoting general health. Some companies, like Sheabrand, formulate with different doses depending on the area of skin the product is designed for — the body or the face, for instance — for maximum penetration. Scientists also don’t know where CBD stands in relation to proven topical therapies, like retinoids, vitamin C, or alpha hydroxy acids.
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Questions About Cannabinoid Combinations
There are hundreds of other chemicals in the cannabis plant, and researchers don’t know what combinations are best. For instance, terpenes, the essential oils in plants (including cannabis), may exert synergistic benefits, suggests the Clinical Therapeutics study. “So much research needs to be done. We’ll be sorting this out for the next 25 years,” says Dellavalle. On the horizon with more research from universities and companies, says Jackin, may be more targeted and efficacious therapies for conditions like eczema and acne.
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8 Steps to Take Before Trying a CBD Skin-Care Product
For now, know that CBD products are safe in general, and early research suggests that they may make a difference in how your skin looks and feels. Just don’t count on it as a cure-all for any skin condition. In other words, talk to your dermatologist before replacing products they have recommended with ones containing CBD, and don’t treat any new skin conditions with CBD products until you speak to your dermatologist. If you’re interested in venturing into CBD skin care, here’s what you need to know before you buy and try:
- Test it out first. CBD is well tolerated, says Jacknin. Still, it’s worth knowing that whatever is in the product isn’t going to set off your skin and make things worse, especially if you have a sensitive complexion. “Whenever you’re putting any plant product on your skin, you’re potentially allergic to it,” Dellavalle says. He suggests testing the product on your forearm once or twice a day and checking for the development of a rash. Skin’s clear? Go ahead and use it on your face to see if it makes a difference for you.
- Do your homework. Though the ideal dose isn’t yet clear, the amount of CBD in the product should be clearly listed on the label. “I wouldn’t buy anything that doesn’t say how much CBD is in it,” says Jacknin. With the skyrocketing rise in popularity come snake oil salespeople who claim that products have CBD in them but contain none; there’s just not great regulation of these products yet. You can check the FDA’s website for warning letters sent for deceptive labeling to a specific company. Jacknin also recommends looking for the COA, the certificate of analysis, on the bottle, which indicates third-party testing.
- Know what CBD is. Jacknin says that she’s seen “cannabis sativa oil” marketed in stores as CBD oil. “This is just hemp oil. While hemp oil is where CBD is extracted from, hemp oil itself has a very minuscule amount of CBD in it,” she says. In this case, this may not be deception on the part of the stores, but they may not exactly understand what they’re selling.
- Remember more research is needed. Keep in mind that per the FDA, CBD products cannot claim to treat or cure a specific disease. The FDA also notes that it’s currently unknown how different delivery methods of CBD affect your body’s intake or how the use of multiple CBD products over time may affect your health. For example, it’s unclear how consuming an oral CBD tincture would compare to applying a topical formulation, or whether there are health implications to using a CBD skin serum along with adding an oil to your food.
- Ask around. Depending on the laws in your state, there may be licensed dispensaries in your area. Often, the people there have the best info on product testing, third-party verification, and recommendations for quality brands, says Dellavalle.
- Shop smart. “This is a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” says Jacknin. “It’s not totally regulated, and there are a lot of unscrupulous people trying to cash in on this,” she says. A few brands that Jacknin says are among those worth looking into are Sopris Health & Wellness and Standard Dose.
- Try a serum. Gohara recommends serums as her CBD product of choice because they’re highly concentrated and easy to layer.
- Talk to your dermatologist. If you’re battling a skin condition, CBD products may fit in your treatment regimen. Or they may not. Talk to your dermatologist about if and how it would fit with your current protocol, especially if you’re currently managing a skin condition.