My Flat-Footed Quest to Find the Ultimate CBD Topical

The world of CBD lotions and balms can be confusing. Here are five brands that I can now vouch for (and what a doctor has to say about them).
February 23, 2021, 3:32pm
cbd topical lotions and balms
Composite by VICE Staff

My feet are bad. Really bad. I blame my grandfather, whose feet were so flat that he wasn’t able to join the army in World War II, and was instead rerouted to the Merchant Marines, where he was stationed as a radio officer. While I didn’t inherit his desire to enlist, I did receive his cursed flatness, which, combined with various injuries over the course of my reckless life, including falling down the stairs years ago and breaking my ankle while in an altered state (ironic, considering where this is going), means that I’ve dealt with a lot of pain. Across my years of inflammation, arthritis, and even sporadic episodes of gout, I’ve sought a breadth of solutions, including visits to orthopedic surgeons and physicians, X-rays, physical therapy, excessive use of various kinds of herbal gels and creams (like arnica), industrial-level anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals, ankle braces, orthotics, boots, and more. The amount of time and money I’ve spent on my feet is honestly staggering, and I’ve basically lost faith that the medical establishment can do anything for me at all. 

In spite of all this, I try to stay athletic, and have found that a healthy mix of pilates, cycling, and strength training helps me stay strong and maximally resistant to injury and pain… though those things still do happen. Most recently, a change in cycling cleats led to a wild foot cramp that turned into a massive gout explosion, sidelining me for over two weeks. After finally RICE-ing it away (with the addition of a ton of ibuprofen), I was left with a serious knot in my foot that would not disappear. Let’s pause here and back up a bit. 

I’ve recently been awakened to the divine power of CBD, a.k.a. cannabidiol, the chemical compound extracted from cannabis that’s currently experiencing skyrocketing popularity as well as scientific curiosity (and skepticism). After swearing off weed (and basically everything else) more than half a decade ago, I figured I had left the thrills of youth behind, settling into a mellow, grown-up life of simply drinking a lot of wine. However, one night last summer, a friend convinced me to try CBD. He said it could make me feel relaxed and not high (because it's isolated from THC, it's non-psychoactive), but that most likely I wouldn't feel it at all, and for some reason that would be a good thing. He insisted I take two 5-milligram gummies, which together consituted one “dose.” The baby that I am, I haggled it down to half of one gummy for my first outing and indeed felt nothing after taking it. But I later experimented with higher doses and different forms of delivery (like oils), and became a believer in CBD’s power to help me chill out without feeling stoned. In addition to its purported success with anxiety, I was also vaguely aware of its other legacy as an alleged magical cure-all for local pain. One of my friends told me that her parents had become obsessed with CBD for its anti-inflammatory properties, while another took it daily to stave off aches and pains from working out. Online, I’d frequently seen celebs and athletes like plant-based Ironman and esteemed hardcore legend John Joseph of Cro-Mags preaching CBD as a mighty recovery tool. If he was into it, I thought it may be worth a try.

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So when my most recent inflammation attack wouldn’t go away, I was quick to add some CBD cream into my healing regimen, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t eradicate that hellish knot basically overnight. I was thrilled, but also left with questions. Why did this work when nothing else did? Was I treating the injury and inflammation, or just the pain? Was there a difference? Unable to find answers online, I went to one of the country’s esteemed experts on CBD and its medical uses, Dr. Peter Grinspoon, instructor at Harvard Medical School and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. 

According to Dr. Grinspoon, there isn’t really a divide between pain and inflammation—they’re two sides of the same coin. And, he says, CBD can be very successful at managing both for many patients. “CBD has a very potent anti-inflammatory effect,” he explained. “It suppresses cytokines and interleukins, and so it helps turn off the body’s hyperreactive response to the injury that helps perpetuate the inflammatory response, which contributes to pain.” So a reduction in inflammation can also promote healing of the injury.

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When one has determined that an injury is nothing serious like a bone break or a torn meniscus, Dr. Grinspoon actually recommends starting with CBD topicals to treat mild-to-moderate pain; in his view, Tylenol or ibuprofen should be thought of as secondary and always short-term options. “If people have, like, chronic back strain, it would be great if they tried some CBD cream before they reached for the ibuprofen. It’s just safer,” he said. “People are so quick to reach for these pharmaceuticals, ones we’ve been taking for decades. People just assume that if it’s over-the-counter, it’s safe, but some of them aren’t safe.” He added that every year, there are actually tens of thousands of injuries (like kidney damage and stomach ulcerations) caused by non-steroidals like naprosyn, naproxen, and ibuprofen (found in over-the-counter drugs including Aleve and Advil). “I’m guessing that ten years from now, people are going to be reaching for cannabis cream and CBD cream first,” he mused. 

Dr. Grinspoon prefers not to recommend specific brands and products, instead wanting to give people the tools to become savvy CBD shoppers on their own. He is also quick to warn that the current lack of regulation in the industry means that efficacy can be inconsistent, and many brands and products remain unreliable. “Don’t just go to the gas station and buy CBD,” he told me. “One of the problems is that it’s not regulated. You just have to read everything about CBD with a bit of grain of salt.” He pointed out that, at the very least, one should always aim for CBD that has been independently tested and has received a Certificate of Analysis.

With all of this new knowledge, I let his wisdom guide me as I went deeper down the rabbit hole, searching for the ultimate CBD topical. 

One product I can definitely vouch for is the one that healed my foot: Charlotte’s Web/CBDMedic Arthritis Aches & Pain Relief Ointment. (I love Charlotte’s Web and have also had great experiences with their recovery gummies, which I like to take after a demanding ride). With 200 milligrams of CBD hemp extract per tube and plenty of good herbal additions like eucalyptus, lavender, and jojoba oils—Dr. Grinspoon confirmed that people have been using herbal medicines like these to some effect for hundreds of years—as well as 10-percent menthol for a dope-feeling and quick-acting cooling sensation, this one is solid. 

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CBDMedic Arthritis Aches & Pains Relief Ointment, $29.99 at Charlotte's Web

I’m also a big fan of Verma Farms, whose pineapple CBD oil is part of my nightly regimen. Verma offers a 100-milligram product called Tropical CBD Lotion, which contains soothing, spa-experience ingredients such as aloe, coconut oil, rosemary leaf extract, and rose flower water. Maybe it’s their Hawaiian vibe, but their stuff just invites you to drift away into your own breezy paradise. 

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Photo: Verma Farms

Tropical CBD Lotion 100mg, $49.99 at Verma Farms

cbdMD has a huge variety of topicals available, from moisturizing lotion to lidocaine spray. Both the “recover” and “freeze pain relief” series seem great for pain, with the latter being an award-winning gel topical that comes in either roll-on or squeeze bottle form; furthermore, it comes in 300-, 750-, 1,500-, and 3,000-milligram options, so you can truly have it your way. 

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Photo: cbdMD

CBD Freeze Roller, $29.99 at cbdMD

At first glance, Lord Jones may look like they make bougie junk for British yuppies, but a closer examination reveals a portfolio of really cool CBD products, from gumdrops and tinctures to chocolates and bath salts. Their body lotion comes in a full-spectrum 100-milliliter version that contains 200 milligrams of CBD as well as a small amount of THC. (There’s also a 50-milliliter broad-spectrum option.) Don’t be scared off by the THC, though; it’s not going to get you baked. “I always think topicals with THC work a little better,” Dr. Grinspoon told me. “In theory, nobody should be against topicals with THC, because you can’t get high off of them. Nobody can have fun with a topical.” So, if you’re looking to not have fun and you can find this product, jump on it. (Also, it smells amazing.)

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Photo: Lord Jones

Whole Plant Formula CBD Body Lotion, $60 for 100 ml at Lord Jones

Aspen Green's Pain Relief Body Balm contains 1,000 milligrams of CBD per jar; another full spectrum product, it does contain a trace amount of THC. At $90, this one’s a bit pricey, but it’s a 100-percent organic product that devotees say packs a serious punch. And with floral, spicy, citrus and earthy terpenes—aromatic compounds, basically—it reads like the Seth Rogen healthy meme, so you’ll feel like a self-care god just by slathering it on. 

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Photo: Aspen Green

Pain Relief Body Balm, $90 at Aspen Green

With CBD topicals, we’re still in kind of a middle ground: While they lack federal regulation and aren't really acknowledged by the medical and pharmaceutical establishments as legitimate remedies, learned believers like Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Grinspoon are doing all they can to make sure people know that CBD can be not only a compelling alternative, but in many cases safer and more effective than more mainstream options.

As with most things health-related, though, it’s ultimately up to you to make the smartest choices for your body—ideally, with adequate research—and that includes doing your own experimenting with CBD. My choice, though, is clear: slather it on.