Although they’re not the most commonly used, cannabis creams and balms can be effective for localized relief.
When should your customers consider applying cannabis topically? What should they know? Here’s an evidence-based look at this oft-overlooked cannabis administration method.
The topical administration route refers to applying a cannabis-infused product directly to your skin. There are many different kinds of cannabis-infused topicals, including creams, balms, salves, massage oils, bath bombs, and patches.
These products typically contain whole-plant cannabis extract or pure THC or CBD mixed with other common skincare ingredients such as oils, shea butter, or beeswax.
Topical cannabis products can only affect the part of the body they’re applied to because the cannabinoids can’t reach the blood vessels.1 As a result, they can’t get you high.
The only exception to this is transdermal products, which use special formulations that allow cannabinoids to pass deep enough into the skin to reach the bloodstream. Early studies on transdermal cannabis preparations are promising but more research is needed.2
Topical cannabis products work best for localized concerns such as muscle or joint pain, headaches, or skin inflammation because they only affect the area you applied them to.
They’re easy to use and won’t get you high, show up on drug tests, or cause other potential side effects of cannabis, such as anxiety.
In the case of transdermal products, there’s also the advantage of long-lasting effects (as much as one or two days) 3 thanks to an ongoing release of cannabinoids rather than the peak and gradual decline that happens with smoking and other consumption methods.
This can help provide ongoing relief while avoiding the psychoactive effects of high THC concentrations.
The main strength of cannabis topicals — their localized effects — is also their biggest weakness.
Since they only affect one part of the body, topicals are not really an option for recreational use or addressing systemic health issues. However, transdermal formulas can help offset this, since the cannabinoids can reach the whole body via the blood vessels.
Another potential downside of topical products is poor skin penetration, especially if they use a water-based formula.4 Again, transdermal products can help by using formulas that enhance the absorption of cannabinoids.
Like all skin products, there’s also a small possibility that some of the ingredients, such as fragrances, can irritate the skin.
Are Topical Cannabis Products Right for Your Customers?
Topical cannabis administration is ideal for people looking for clear-headed relief of localized issues such as muscle or joint pain, headaches, or eczema.
Although transdermal technology holds the promise of making topical cannabis products effective for whole-body relief, more research and development are needed.
For now, the other three cannabis consumption methods — oral, inhalation, and sublingual — are the better choice for recreational or therapeutic effects that affect the whole body.
Need to connect your customers with the right topical product? Take a look at our Producer Connect database, which lists cannabis topicals from dozens of brands.
1 Hess, C., M. Krämer, and B. Madea. “Topical application of THC containing products is not able to cause positive cannabinoid finding in blood or urine.” Forensic science international 272 (2017): 68-71.
2 Hammell, D. C., et al. “Transdermal cannabidiol reduces inflammation and pain‐related behaviours in a rat model of arthritis.” European Journal of Pain 20.6 (2016): 936-948.
3 Huestis, Marilyn A. “Human cannabinoid pharmacokinetics.” Chemistry & biodiversity 4.8 (2007): 1770.
4 Bruni, Natascia, et al. “Cannabinoid delivery systems for pain and inflammation treatment.” Molecules 23.10 (2018): 2478.