What are Cannabis Topicals

What are Cannabis Topicals

New methods of cannabis consumption are bringing us further away from the notion that marijuana belongs solely in a bong or joint – or that it has to get you high, for that matter. Cannabis-infused topicals are an example of how new modes of consumption are revolutionizing perceptions of marijuana as their accessibility, safety, and efficacy invite even the most unlikely patrons into the world of medical cannabis.

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What are topicals?

Topicals are cannabis-infused lotions, balms, and oils that are absorbed through the skin for localized relief of pain, soreness, and inflammation. Because they’re non-intoxicating, topicals are often chosen by patients who want the therapeutic benefits of marijuana without the cerebral euphoria associated with other delivery methods. Other transdermal innovations are fast arriving in the cannabis market, including long-lasting patches and tingly lubricants for patients and recreational consumers alike.

What are Cannabis Topicals

Strain-specific topicals attempt to harness certain terpenes and cannabinoids in a chemical profile similar to that of Blackberry Kush, Permafrost, Blueberry, or whatever other strains the processor wishes to imitate. Along with THC, CBD, THCA, and other cannabinoids, topical producers may also select ingredients and essential oils for additional relief, like cayenne, wintergreen, and clove.


Every person has an endocannabinoid system, a complex system connecting the brain to the body that is made up of receptors (CB1 and CB2) found throughout the body. When cannabis is inhaled or ingested, the cannabinoids from the cannabis bind to these receptors which can have a variety of effects depending on which cannabinoids are consumed. Both types of receptors are found in the skin’s epidermal cells and sensory nerves. When a cannabis topical is applied, the cannabinoids bind to the receptors in these cells causing localized effects such as pain relief and/or anti inflammatory response. Of course the exact effect of a topical is dependent upon the ingredients, including the cannabinoid content.

As the cannabinoids are binding to local receptors in the skin, topicals are mostly considered “non-psychoactive” as the cannabinoids are not actually entering the bloodstream. In order for a cannabinoid such as THC to have a psychoactive effect, it needs to enter the bloodstream and pass the blood/brain barrier. In fact, a study published by Forensic Science International found that a cannabis topical applied to the participants did not cause their blood or urine to test positive for THC. However as everyone’s endocannabinoid system is particular to their bodies, there is anecdotal evidence of people experiencing psychoactivity due to low tolerance, higher potency topicals, or a combination of the two. As with any new cannabis medicine, one should test it when free of obligations in order to fully register how the medicine interacts specifically with their body.

Interested in learning more about using cannabis topical treatments? Schedule a visit with an expert. If you’re in the Ann Arbor area, contact the team at Arbors Wellness for a free consultation.

How Are Topicals Different from Other Types of Cannabis?

The main difference between topicals and other forms of cannabis is in how the body processes the cannabinoids.

When cannabis extract is ingested, it can produce effects that are similar to those experienced when cannabis flower is smoked or vaped. When cannabis is inhaled, its THC is absorbed by the blood in the lungs and moves quickly to the brain, which can produce an almost immediate whole-body effect, possibly within minutes. However, when cannabis extracts are applied topically, the effects will generally only be felt locally, on the area the product is applied.

As with consumption of any form of cannabis, the intensity and longevity of the effects depend on many factors, such as your weight and sex, how much food you’ve eaten that day and how quickly your metabolism works.

What about essential oils?

Cannabinoids, however, are not the only beneficial molecules in cannabis.

Terpenes, the chemicals behind the herb’s famous scent, also have therapeutic benefits.

Terpenes are molecules that are generally recognized as safe by the U.S. FDA and are found in plant essential oils.

One of the notable terpenes in cannabis is pinene, which is also found in pine needles.

Like an all-natural Vapor Rub, pinene is an expectorant and potent bronchodilator.

This compound happens to be one of the most abundant terpenes in some cannabis varieties that fall under the “Kush” denomination.

Another terpene to care about is linalool, which is also found in lavender oil.

Linalool is thought to be particularly useful as a topical treatment for burns, as it has cooling properties.

A 2015 study published in Natural Products & Chemistry Research found that linalool was more common in cannabis varieties that fall under the OG family.

Evidence suggests that as little as 0.05 percent of these molecules can have pharmacological effects on the body.

In general, about one to two percent of cannabis oils are terpenes.

This is enough to be pharmacologically active.

Unlike cannabinoids, which tend to be big molecules that may not soak deeply into the skin, terpenes can.

When searching for a good cannabis topical, ones that contain both cannabinoids and terpenes are idea. Terpenes are found in the essential oils of just about any plant.

What are cannabis topicals used for?

Topical applications of cannabis have been used for millennia.

In fact, early concoctions of cannabis flowers and honey were used by ancient Egyptians to ease the pain of childbirth.

In other cultures, including ancient China and in some regions of Europe, cannabis poultice and other topical remedies were applied to wounds.

Apart from consuming the herb orally, topical cannabis was a primary way that humans have utilized cannabis throughout history.

What are Cannabis Topicals

When it comes to more modern applications, here’s what cannabis topicals are used for:

1. Anti-inflammatory

Whether it’s a sprain, infection, burn, or another abrasion, cannabis topicals are potent anti-inflammatories.

Topicals provide localized relief to a specific area, potentially allowing you to avoid the need to take a systemic medication.

While extreme cases of inflammation will likely require reinforcement, some of the common anecdotal ways cannabis patients use these anti-inflammatory topicals include:

  • Twists and sprains
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Joint pain (arthritis)
  • Muscle pain
  • Burns
  • Bruises
  • Swelling

2. Antiseptic

Have a wound?

It is now fairly well accepted that cannabis has antiseptic potential.

Cannabinoids like THC and CBD have even been found to be effective in killing Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is a superbug that is resistant to the use of antibiotics.

Evidence suggests that these compounds hold antimicrobial qualities for the plant, protecting growing plants from harmful pathogens.

It is possible that these same qualities are what give cannabis powerful antiseptic properties for the skin.

3. Pain relief

If your pain is skin deep, topical cannabis may be able to help.

Not only is the herb a potent anti-inflammatory, but it is a well-known analgesic.

In fact, surveys suggest that many medical cannabis patients prefer cannabis over prescription painkillers.

Unfortunately, there has yet to be sufficient human research on whether or not topical cannabis can ease severe pain from ailments like arthritis or muscle strain.

However, many patients report relief from these conditions through topical cannabis application.

Until there is more data, the only way to say for sure if canna-ointments will work for you is to test them out.

4. Anti-aging  

Cannabinoids are potent antioxidants.

Antioxidants are vital for preventing cell and DNA damage caused by free radicals.

Many free radicals come from external sources, including pollution and UV radiation. These external factors contribute to the fine lines and wrinkles on the face.

As powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidants, there is a growing number of beauty products and cosmetics that utilize the anti-aging potential of cannabinoids. They can be added to homemade night creams or infused into a daily moisturizer.

5. Acne control  

Looking for a new acne solution?

Research suggests that at least one cannabis compound, non-psychotropic CBD may reduce excess oil in the skin.

As mentioned above, CBD also has antiseptic properties, which makes it a compound of interest in acne skincare.

6. Anti-cancer

There is mounting evidence that cannabis may be a useful tool in combating cancer.

While significant human trials are lacking, a case study published in January of 2017 suggests that topical cannabis applications may be helpful for managing pain and perhaps even healing malignant wounds.

In the case study, a 44-year-old man was able to reduce his doses of pharmaceutical painkillers by 25 percent and his wound saw a five percent reduction in size after applying a topical cannabis oil.

Though, unfortunately, the man’s condition had progressed so severely that he passed away.

This is an unfortunate reminder that we must never consider cannabis to be a cure-all or a silver bullet.

It’s a medicinal tool that you can learn how to use by itself or in conjunction with other therapies.

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