Debunking a Myth: Cannabis Topicals for Pain and Arthritis

We are big fans here of CBD and THC topicals for skincare. I’ve reviewed a few including Clean Coconut Skincare – and generally, I am very satisfied with my moisturized clear skin. Cannabis skincare products have been shown to work wonders on things like eczema and acne (hemorrhoids too! Sexy…), but products for pain are often pushed right alongside of the beauty products – and it appears they are not as effective as companies claim.We talked to Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Scheyer as well as Neurologist Dr. Ethan Russo about cannabis topicals for pain and this is what they each said.

Dr. Andrew Scheyer:

“Here are my thoughts. First, most topical cannabinoids are nonsense. They are pretty big molecules and won’t magically cross the skin unless they are dissolved in a transdermal solvent like DMSO (just like touching a datura flower won’t send you into a psychedelic dissociation for 10 hours – big molecules don’t easily penetrate skin, which is why we have skin.

For the most part, topical CBD is either a) placebo or b) the effect of someone going from no-cream to cream, rather than the effect of CBD (i.e. if I am not a user of topical treatments for my sore joints and I suddenly start using a CBD cream, I’ll almost certainly see a positive effect, but its most likely because I started rubbing cream on my sore joints, not because CBD does anything).

Also, the dosages that we see in good research are SO far off from what people are using. Orally for instance, anxiolytic effects of CBD start around 150mg. That means the $10 CBD latté you see at your café that has 10mg of CBD would need to be consumed 15x to have even a small effect.. Same goes for topical. Per square cm of skin to reduce inflammation you’d need to apply about 15mg of CBD and that’s IF it’s in a good solvent like DMSO.

The other point is that, depending on why you’re using it, the logic is that it must be getting into the bloodstream. Cannabinoids may actually be really useful for hemorrhoids and eczema for instance, in which case they don’t need to enter the blood and any ol’ cream is totally fine. But for inflammation or pain, the only way they are working is by entering your plasma. If they are doing that, then it’s no different than eating or smoking it when it comes to transfer to the fetus or breast milk.

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Just as an example of what I mean when talking about how hard it is to get these things through the skin (i.e. dissolving CBD in your Nivea isn’t going to cut it), here is a snippet from a publication using transdermal CBD to treat arthritis pain. This is from the Methods section:“All gels, including vehicle controls, were prepared by weighing the desired amount of CBD (gift from NIDA) and dissolving it in ethanol (72.5% w/w). Once dissolved, nanopure water (Barntead NANOpure® Diamond™ ultrapure filtration system, Dubuque, IA, USA) was added followed by isopropyl myristate (Fisher Scientific, Fairlawn, NJ, USA). Carbopol® 980 polymere (Noveon Inc., Cleveland, OH, USA) was added (0.9% w/w) and the solution sonicated for 10 min to ensure complete incorporation of the Carbopol® 980. Polymerization of Carbopol ® 980 to form the hydroalcoholic gel was initiated by adding sodium hydroxide (0.1 N). Gels were then sonicated for 10 min, loaded into 1 mL syringes and sealed. Gels made just prior to the initial dosing were used for the entire week since no degradation was observed and plasma CBD concentration remained constant.”
On the other hand you have the very pricey Lord Jones lotion which is literally the ingredients list of normal lotion + CBD.”

Dr. Ethan Russo:“This is one of the most common misconceptions. Cannabis is great for treating skin conditions such as acne and inflammatory conditions. However, our best evidence is that it just isn’t absorbed well. We hear lots of stories of people rubbing Cannabis Salve on their joints and feeling like they have instant relief of the pain. If so, that’s great, but it’s unclear how it’s working. It may be acting on pain receptors in the skin above the joint rather than in the joint itself.

Fresh Fruits and VegetablesReplace starchy foods such as bread, rice, cereal, pasta, beans and chips with vegetables. Avoid juice and excess fruit. Combine fruit snacks with some fat and protein such as organic cheese or almond butter.

We know very well at this point that the levels in the blood of the cannabinoids [when used on the skin] are inadequate to treat an internal condition. There was a study done with a topical trying to treat epilepsy and it was a failure, which I think any scientists would have predicted”

There you have it folks! Sounds like CBD, THC, or any form of Cannabis topical is basically useless for pain and a huge waste of money.

This is good news for those of you who were wondering if that CBD salve is going to make you fail your drug test – if it doesn’t make it to the bloodstream I think you’ll be just fine.

Stick to cannabis for skincare. Go crazy on those CBD face masks, mists, and butt cream, but topical cannabis is not the magic bullet for pain.

But hey – do your thing, believe in magic, talk to the universe, trust your intuition, we sure as hell do. We just have a contractual obligation to share scientific facts and research.

Tell us your experience – we want to know. We are 100% up for changing our minds if you have great evidence!