You may have observed, especially if you live in a fairly progressive city, that the wellness industry has a raging boner for CBD, one of the core non-inebriating compounds in cannabis. I'm a wellness editor and CBD, more formally known as cannabidiol, is the star ingredient in almost every product that’s sent to me to sample these days. I’ve gotten CBD oil tinctures, chocolate, gummies, lube, carbonated beverages, matcha, and a shit-ton of skincare products, including lotions, face masks, and soap.
There’s been developing research about the benefits of ingesting CBD extract oil for pain relief and as a less addictive sleep aid, but there’s significantly less proof of its healing properties on our skin. These products are being sold widely and we have very little idea of how safe they are, whether they’ll improve your skin, or if they’re just a waste of money.
But have no fear. I got you. For you, my reader-baes, I have tried every godforsaken CBD skincare product sent to me, read all the glowing, piss-their-pants-excited claims that companies have made about them, and talked to several venerable dermatologists with strong BS detectors about the purpose and efficacy of skincare products that contain CBD. A note: I checked out skincare—lotions, creams, serums and products like that—rather than CBD balms meant to soothe sore muscles.
Most CBD-infused skincare products boast that CBD has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties—so if you use them, poof, your skin will be less puffy and younger-looking, overall. I jumped at the chance to debunk this lofty claim because anyone who reveres science can sniff a bogus, Goop-y claim to make you look younger from a mile away.
For better or worse, I couldn’t exactly debunk it. I did, however, find a less starry-eyed (and more reasonable) perspective on these products.
The first thing to keep in mind that CBD is still unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Because it’s unregulated, the quality and purity of CBD products can vary substantially,” says Charles Crutchfield, a professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Research has shown that rarely does a CBD product actually contain the actual concentration of CBD that the label reports.” (It’s so scandy, there’s a whole-ass study on this in a prestigious medical journal.) This lack of regulation is important to keep in mind because, of course, dosage is crucial. The general absorption of CBD via the skin is very low, he says, and poor-quality products may make it relatively ineffective.
We have CBD receptors on the top layer of our skin, our hair follicles, and our oil glands—so there is a physiological mechanism of action for any alleged benefits, says Kenneth Mark, New York-based dermatologist and clinical assistant professor in the New York University department of dermatology. He tells me that people are excited about CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties because almost every skin condition you can think of—from eczema to acne—is linked to inflammation. As for CBD as an antioxidant, he believes that it’s an even better one than vitamin C. “And we all know how much hype vitamin C has for skincare,” he says. (I didn’t know this, but found that it’s true.)
When I questioned this CBD-is-better-than-vitamin-C thing, he sent me a study to back it up, but it was in rodents—which is the perfect segue from good and into the unknown. Most of CBD’s benefits on skin haven’t yet been proven in humans. The only fairly revelatory research that derms point to is from 2017, and it showed the benefits of cannabinoids on (diagnosably) itchy skin. I can actually testify on this one since CBD lotion has been really soothing on my sunburn in the past.
The main question I had in mind as I tried the lotions and creams is, if brands are peddling these skincare products (most of which are fairly pricey), is it worth incorporating them into wellness regimen versus to try and treat a skin condition in particular? Can it have preventative benefits?
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Ultimately, there’s theoretical potential for the use of cannabis in dermatology but nothing convincing yet, says Raman Madan, director of cosmetic dermatology at Northwell Health and professor of clinical dermatology at Hofstra University. “It even seems that some of the improvements people are seeing, for example with eczema, is because they are moisturizing—and the moisturizer just happens to have some form of CBD in it. A lot more needs to be done to make a definitive conclusion, but for now I wouldn't look at it as a cure for anything.”
Madan makes a great point: Some of these moisturizing CBD products have soothing emollients such as manuka honey, and cocoa and shea butter. We can’t really know if it’s the CBD in the product or the other stuff that’s making a difference until we have some more formal research on humans.
Look, animal research is still research, so if you want to see if these products have positive effects on your skin and you have the money to spend, be my guest. It’s my very strong belief that if you’re excited about a product, it’ll urge you to take care of your skin in general. And the placebo effect ain’t nothing to sneeze at either, especially since studies show that it can be potent in relation to skin.
That being said, I did some “research” of my own. While I don’t know how these products would affect eczema or a condition like that, my skin is dry as hell in the winter so I was just looking for something that feels as or more moisturizing than my Brandless body butter that costs five dollars a tub and has rescued me from a winter residency in Ashy Elbowville.
Out of the literal 40-ish products I have gotten to try gratis (this story has actually been in the works since November because I tried each one for several days), a few stood out. I liked Uncle Bud’s Hand and Foot Cream for its viscosity and scent—citrus mint sounds weird, but smelling like a summer salad is glorious and gender-neutral. Veritas Farms’ lip balm was soothing and didn’t that weird white residue on my lips. Extract Labs Body Cream is more balm than cream, substantial but non-greasy, and a little goes a long way.
Kiehl’s makes a Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil which is light enough to use on your face and makes it feel like a baby’s butt and smell faintly like the glorious fields of hemp I once pranced through in Kentucky. Every single CBD oil marketed for the skin, by the way, is hella expensive and at $49, I found this one to be the only one I’d actually buy. And last but not least, this eye serum from CBD for Life is hangover-face friendly—I can’t vouch for the “anti-aging” claim in any of these products but there might be some truth to the anti-inflammatory theory because this definitely de-puffed my under-eye bags than other, non-CBD products I’ve used.
So there you have it. While some derms believe the future of CBD in your skincare products is bright, it’s still out there in the future. And until I get some scientific evidence of people straight Benjamin Button-ing off these CBD lotions, I’m going to stay skeptical and selective.
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