Cannabis and CBD in Skincare & Cosmetics: Worth the Hype?

Cannabis is a trendy ingredient in almost everything these days. It is in food, drinks, cosmetics, health supplements, and even fashion prints. It of course may be a “post-prohibition” hype: with the plant being a social taboo in most countries for so long, embracing it as part of normal life, in public can bring about a sense of liberation and freedom. On the other hand, cannabis enthusiasts are convinced that the plant has a promise to help us against many diseases, as well as be effective in maintaining good health, well being and glowing skin. What should we make of the cannabis trend in skincare products: are brands just jumping on the fashion bandwagon or can cannabis truly have unique positive effects on the state and appearance of our skin? We’ve reviewed the evidence so you can make an informed choice for yourself.

Cannabis plant is famous (and infamous) because it contains a specific type of chemical compounds called phytocannabinoids. There are over 100 different types of them. These compounds are similar in their chemical structure and biological effect to endocannabinoids, the chemicals that human body produces naturally. These chemicals can bind to special receptors in our cells, “instructing” the cell to behave in a certain way. For example, to change its inflammatory response or grow slower or faster. In addition to endocannabinoids (produced by human body) and phytocannabinoids (extracted from cannabis), there are also synthetic cannabinoids. They are produced in a lab, but can have the same or similar effect as the other two.

Cannabinoids, and their ability to interact with our cell receptors, is the essence of the therapeutic and cosmetic promise of cannabis. It is important to note that not all parts of the hemp plant contain cannabinoids. For example, hemp seeds contain, if any, only a small amount of cannabinoids. This means that if you see a product with a cannabis seed extract in it, you should not expect any cannabinoid-related effects. The seed extract can be good for softening the upper layer of the skin though (as other plant oils do).

Among the many different types of cannabinoids found in cannabis, the two types, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the most studied and used ones. THC has the ability to bind to receptors in our central nervous system. Because of this property, it can have a psychoactive effect on humans. In other words, THC can make people feel high. CBD, on the other hand, does not have a psychoactive action but still can impact many other processes in our body.

In many countries, the use of THC is strictly regulated and even outright illegal. CBD, on the other hand, is more readily available both for medical, recreational and cosmetic use. This is why CBD is the cannabinoid that we hear about in the context of skincare. Beyond that, CBD has the ability to bind to receptors that are especially abundant in our skin. This fact by itself explains a lot of the current enthusiasm around the use of CBD in skincare. If this chemical is able to “talk” to our skin on the biological level, can it instruct it to behave younger, healthier and turn up the glow?

The potential is certainly there. Researchers have established that cannabinoid signaling is important for regulating skin health, proper barrier function and regeneration. The major theme with all the possible applications of CBD in skincare is that while the potential is promising, we do not have enough studies yet to know how to apply CBD to bring about positive effects and minimize negative ones.

What makes matters so complicated is that CBD does not have a direct effect on the skin like a vitamin C or hyaluronic acid does. Instead, you can think of CBD as a messenger that can pass on information to skin cells. Unfortunately, at the moment scientist do not fully understand the “language” in which CBD and skin cells communicate. This means that we cannot “write” our own CBD messages to the skin with any precision. This is why it is a good idea to take any promises that skincare brands are making today about their CBD products with a grain of salt: maybe they work, maybe they don’t, and no one knows just yet what side-effects are possible.

In case you are ready to take a chance on CBD skincare though, let’s take a closer look at the potential upside. There are two main potential skin benefits for applying CBD topically. The first one is decrease in sebum production. A few first studies show that CBD can help regulate the activity of sebaceous glands in skin. The second major potential benefit of CBD on skin is an anti-inflammatory effect. These two potential effects make CBD a solid candidate for treating acne and clogged pores. Because of the anti-inflammatory promise, researchers currently investigate the CBD’s potential as a treatment for psoriasis, allergic and atopic dermatitis. When it comes to cosmetics, it means that CBD holds promise in supporting a healthy skin barrier function, might help against dry skin and reduce skin irritation from other actives (for example, retinoids). In addition, given the fact that inflammation in skin is an enemy of collagen, CBD might be a helpful ingredient in skincare regime aimed at reducing signs of skin aging. Again, despite this exciting potential, we don’t have enough data to be certain of the effect from a topical application of CBD and the effective concentrations yet.

It is important to highlight that despite the potential anti-inflammatory properties, CBD itself can be an allergen and can cause skin irritation.

What do you need to know when choosing cosmetic skincare products with CBD today? Here are a few tips to help you maximize your chances of buying effective CBD cosmetics on the market today.

1. The product need to include “cannabidiol” in the ingredient list. Alternatives like “hemp oil”, “hemp seed extract” do not count - these compounds are unlikely to contain CBD.

2. Go for products that disclose the exact amount of CBD contained in it. While we do not have the information on the effective concentrations yet, it is a good sign for a brand to at least know and share the CBD amount in their product.

3. Do not buy products that claim to have CBD sources from plants other than cannabis. While this is possible in theory, cannabinoid-similar ingredients from other plants (a few companies advertise “CBD from hops”, for example) are even less researched than cannabis CBD.

4. Look for products that are properly preserved. CBD can easily lose its effectiveness when exposed to light and air, and it needs to be stabilized in a formula with preservatives, anti-oxidants and opaque packaging.

5. Remember that the side-effects of topical CBD are not known yet, so it is better to avoid using it on children, as well as during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

The bottom line: CBD is a promising ingredient in skincare, with the most exciting potential in helping reduce acne and clogged pores, reduce skin oiliness, calm down inflammation and support healthy skin barrier. At the same time, we do not have enough studies just yet to be certain that a skincare product with CBD can have these benefits, nor do we know the effective concentration or how to apply CBD for the best outcomes. Even more importantly, we do not know the side effects topical products with CBD can have. This is why, if you decide to give CBD cosmetics a try, use it with caution: carefully select a brand and product, do patch testing and stop using it in case you notice any adverse reaction.

At the same time, new data on effects of CBD in skin are likely to be released in the coming months. The interest and funding for studies on CBD in dermatology have been booming as many countries are relaxing their regulations on medical and recreational use of cannabis. Worry not, we at WIMJ will continue to watch the space and will keep you posted!