The Complete Guide to Cannabis Topicals


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Most people are familiar with cannabis as something that you smoke. But, have you ever tried putting cannabis oil on your skin?

Topical cannabis preparations have been used for millennia for the treatment of pain, wounds, and skin conditions. Now, modern science is backing up some of these ancient traditions. For the canna-curious, here is a complete guide to cannabis topicals and how to make them:

What are cannabis Topicals?

Cannabis Creeme

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Cannabis topicals are infused balms, creams, salves, lotions, and beauty products. These products are intended for external use and are not meant to be consumed orally or inhaled.

Topical cannabis can be made with oils extracted from the cannabis plant, isolated cannabis compounds, or infused oils that can also be used for edible concoctions.

Some of them are made with specific strains, attempting to harness the unique potential of individual plant varieties.

They are different from hemp beauty care. Products labeled as “hemp” are often made with oils of pressed hemp seed.

In contrast, they are typically made with essential oils extracted from plant material, not seed material.

What are cannabis creams used for?

Cannabis for topicals
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Topical marijuana has a wide variety of uses, many of which make topicals excellent to have handy around the home.

Yet, in order to understand what topicals are used for, it’s important to have some basic knowledge about why the plant is so special in the first place.

While hemp seed is rich in nourishing fatty acids, the essential oil of cannabis is filled with an abundance of micronutrients. The most notable of which are compounds called phytocannabinoids.

Phytocannabinoids are a class of chemical compounds thought to be unique to the cannabis plant.

The famous psychoactive in the herb, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is a phytocannabinoid. So is the popular cannabidiol (CBD), which does not produce a psychotropic “high.”

These compounds, among many other molecules found in cannabis oils, have many beneficial effects on the human body. When applied topically, some of the herb’s medicinal properties include:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
  • Antiseptic
  • Analgesic (pain relief)
  • Sebostatic (anti-acne, CBD only)

These qualities mean that they can be used for a wide variety of different ailments. The top five include:

1. First-aid

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As mentioned above, Cannabis Lotion has antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving qualities. These properties make topicals excellent to have on hand as a general first aid tool.

While creams and balms should generally not be applied to open wounds, topical cannabis can be applied to the skin for localized relief of swelling, aches, pains, and potentially as a wound-healing aid.

2. Insect bites

Cannabis for insect bites
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Feeling itchy? The anti-inflammatory and numbing properties of cannabis make topical application particularly useful for insect bites and stings. Though, it’s important to treat infected areas with the appropriate antiseptic before applying a cannabis salve.

3. Medical treatment of wounds

cannabis medical treatment

A case report published in early 2017 suggests that topical cannabis may one day be useful in the medical treatment of cancer wounds.

In the case report, a 44 year-old-man with a fistula caused by an aggressive cancer of the cheek reported improved pain relief from vaporized and topical marijuana.

While cancer eventually took the man’s life, the reporting clinician found that the man’s tumor shrank by five percent during the first four weeks of topical cannabis treatment.

The man used a highly concentrated form of cannabis oil infused into sunflower oil as a carrier. Unfortunately, the man was hospitalized and passed away after one month of topical cannabis. By the time he first tried topical cannabis, his condition had become quite severe.

The study was published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

4. Pain management

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While more research is needed, topical cannabis is often used by medical cannabis patients for relief from inflammatory pain like arthritis and muscle soreness.

While cannabis infused topicals do not penetrate into the bloodstream, they do provide a concentrated dose of anti-inflammatory compounds to a localized area, making them beloved for pain management.

5. Cosmetics

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Searching for a way to enhance your anti-aging cream? What about a topical solution to acne? As luck would have it, cannabis compounds are potent antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules that protect against damage from environmental hazards like pollution and radiation. These hazards contribute to accelerated aging, leading to more fine lines and wrinkles.

Skin care products rich in antioxidants are thought to protect against damage caused by environmental stress. As an antioxidant-rich plant, cannabis makes for an excellent addition to cosmetic creams and balms.

Some preclinical research also suggests that one cannabis compound, CBD, has an anti-inflammatory and sebostatic effect on acne.

Sebum is the oil that the body produces to lubricate and waterproof the skin. Acne and blemishes are associated with an excess production of sebum.

As a potential sebostatic compound, CBD cream may make for a helpful spot-treatment for acne. CBD oils can be purchased online in a growing number of countries without a medical cannabis authorization.

How do they work?

cannabis cream
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While cannabis seems helpful for a variety of different ailments, how do they actually work?

As it so happens, phytocannabinoids like CBD and THC in them work their magic on the skin for one primary reason. These compounds have the ability to tap into what is perhaps one of the most important neurotransmitter networks in the human body.

Cannabis compounds engage with a large neurotransmitter network in the human body called the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

A neurotransmitter is a chemical communication that helps nerve cells throughout the brain and body communicate with each other.

The ECS is made up of several different parts, including endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors, transporter proteins, and enzymes.

Endocannabinoids are the human-made versions of phytocannabinoids. Endo refers to internally derived cannabinoids. Phyto refers to plant-derived cannabinoids.

Cannabinoid receptors are the landing locations for both plant and human derived cannabinoids. These receptors are found on the surface of cells, including skin cells.

In fact, cannabinoid receptors are thought to serve several purposes in this skin. These include regulation of the skin’s immune system, stress response, and oil production.

When you slather on topical cannabis, active compounds in the plant engage with cannabinoid receptors to produce therapeutic effects.

Are cannabis terpenes and creams beneficial for the skin?

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While there is emerging evidence that cannabis compounds are beneficial for the skin, cannabinoids are not the only helpful molecules found in cannabis.

The plant is capable of producing over 530 different chemical constituents. The majority of these chemical compounds are not unique to cannabis, such as smelly terpenes. Terpenes are aroma molecules that give each individual strain its unique scent and aroma.

Terpenes are what give flowers like lavender their relaxing fragrance. They are also the culprits behind the pungent skunkiness in some cannabis varieties.

Terpene molecules are produced by plants for a variety of reasons. These scents can be used to both attract pollinators and deter potential predators, like herbivores and pesky insects.

A growing body of evidence suggests that both terpenes and cannabinoids work together to produce synergistic effects. This means that the two classes of plant chemicals combined, they can amplify each other’s effects.

The presence of terpenes is thought to increase the medicinal potential of them. These include improved anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and pain-fighting abilities.

When it comes to skincare, a terpene of interest is linalool. Linalool is most abundant in lavender, but cannabis can also produce a fair amount of this plant. Linalool has a sweet floral fragrance that is thought to promote relaxation.

As luck would have it, evidence suggests that linalool may be helpful for healing burns. If this is the case, a strain high in linalool could be particularly useful as a topical first-aid remedy for pain management and burn relief.

Research on the synergistic potential of these elements is only just beginning. As cannabis science moves into the future, more detailed information on which individual varieties are best for skin care and cosmetics are sure to emerge.

The interaction between plant terpenes and cannabis compounds is another great reason to consider mixing additional essential oils into them.

Will cannabis topicals make you high?

The simple answer to this question is no, they will not make you high. When applied topically, cannabis creams works in a localized area.

Cannabinoid molecules like psychoactive THC are also not large enough to penetrate through all three layers of the skin to get into the bloodstream.

Instead, topical cannabis works by relieving pain, inflammation, and protecting against stress and damage in a localized area.

There is one caveat to this, however. Emerging cannabis medicine and lifestyle companies are now offering transdermal cannabis patches.

In a way, these patches are similar to the warming patches sold in drug stores. The primary difference is that these transdermal patches deliver a dose of cannabinoids that can penetrate through the skin and enter the bloodstream.

However, it is important to note that the effects of a transdermal patch will not be the same as inhaling a dose of THC. Even if the transdermal patch contains THC, the cannabinoid will be released very slowly over an extended period of time.

For skin disorders

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While research is in preliminary phases, cannabis lotion has gained the attention of medical researchers. Currently, researchers are looking into the benefits of topical cannabis for the following skin conditions:

  • Psoriasis
  • Skin tumors
  • Dermatitis
  • Scleroderma
  • Acne vulgaris

Unfortunately, meaningful clinical trials in humans have yet to be completed for these conditions. However, based on preclinical evidence, topical cannabis medicines are suspected to help relieve some of the symptoms of these ailments.

Where can you buy them?

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Topical lotions and balms containing CBD are sold legally and quasi-legally in several countries, including the United States.

Topicals containing psychoactive THC, however, can only be sold at medical cannabis access points and legal recreational dispensaries.

How to make your own cannabis topicals

homemade medical cannabis topical

Already, there are excellent cannabis-infused pain creams and beauty products on the market in some countries. However, they are simple enough to make right in your own home.

To make a basic cannabis topical, you simply infuse dried cannabis buds into a skin-healthy oil, like coconut or olive oil. Here are some basic steps to follow:

Step 1: Cannabis decarboxylation

Before infusing, it is recommended to first “activate” the cannabis through a process called decarboxylation. In unheated plants, psychoactive THC is found in a non-active acid from, THCA. For added benefit, THCA needs to be converted to THC.

Decarboxylate your dried cannabis flower by grinding it and placing it evenly over parchment paper on a baking sheet.

Loosely cover the pan in tin foil or with a glass lid and and bake in the oven at 240℉ (115℃) for 40 minutes.

Step 2: Infuse with oil

Choose your ideal oil and add to a slow cooker or double boiler.

Dried cannabis buds can be slowly simmered in an oil in a crockpot or on a stovetop, so long as the temperature remains below 340℉ (171℃). This step will infuse the activated cannabinoids into the carrier oil.

Step 3: Strain the plant material

Tightly fit a cheesecloth or strainer over a glass container and strain the plant material from the oil.

Step 4: Oil Cooling

Let the oil cool to room temperature before use. Refrigerate if needed.

It is important to keep in mind that oils infused with plant materials will have a shorter shelf-life than other beauty products unless you choose to add in stabilizers. Refrigeration will extend the shelf-life of certain oils.

A second topical cannabis option is full-extract medical cannabis oil (FECO). Some medical cannabis patients with serious skin conditions choose to place FECO directly onto their ailments.

FECO is a crude and uncut cannabis extraction, often made using an alcohol as a solvent. It is also called Rick Simpson Oil (RSO).

Note: The information in this article is intended for helpful and informative purposes and should not be used in place of medical advice or treatment.

The Complete Guide to Cannabis Topicals
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