Question the Cannasseur: How Do Cannabis Topicals Work?

cannabis topicals with marijuana leaf next to them

Maybe some of the most amazing products in the cannabis industry right now are cannabis topicals. Products like lotions, salves, transdermal gels, and even sexual enhancement products are common in most legal cannabis dispensaries. But do they work? If so, how? This week's question from Quora gives us the opportunity to talk all about topicals!

What interaction is going on in muscles treated with topical CBD that causes pain relief?

To answer this question, we have to get a little technical and talk about the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Although the science is starting to catch up, the general public has not been educated about the far reach of this newfound system, leading many to believe the benefits of cannabinoids have been exploited and exaggerated. Fortunately for modern-day cannabis consumers, science is starting to provide us the answers as to why cannabis seems to work so well for a plethora of ailments. Clinical studies are showing promising results for everything from appetite to infections to neurological disorders, and even cancer treatments.

A Quick Review of the Endocannabinoid System

rocks balancing evenly on more rocks

The ECS is one of modern medicine's most recent discoveries. A team of Israeli scientists, led by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, first realized the existence of this complex system just over three decades ago. Before that, no one understood how THC produced its intoxicating, cerebral effects. Now, with 30 years of research from dozens of countries, we know and understand several things about the endocannabinoid system:

  • Every vertebrate on the planet has an endocannabinoid system – even fish.
  • The primary purpose of the ECS is to maintain homeostasis, or balance, in all bodily systems. In other words, it looks for what is wrong and tries to fix it.
  • There are at least two receptors in the ECS; we call them CB1 and CB2.
    • CB1 receptors are located in the central nervous system (brain, nerves, spinal cord), as well as in muscle tissue.
    • CB2 receptors are a part of our immune system and are found in white blood cells, tonsils, spleen, and just below the epidermis, or skin. This receptor does not create any cerebral effect.
    • CB2 receptors control the release of cytokines, which cause the inflammation reaction within the body.

Cannabinoids and Other Receptors in the Body

woman about to apply cannabis topical lotion to her skin

Before we move on to talk about topicals specifically, there's one other receptor in the body that we need to be aware of when talking about the impact of cannabinoid therapies. The vanilloid receptors, or TRPV receptors, are found throughout the body in the peripheral nervous system and are well known for creating the pain sensations we feel when we are hurt, burned, or scalded. When you bite into a ghost pepper and feel the burning sensation caused by the heat of the pepper – it's your TRPV receptors that are being activated to let you know that pepper is HOT!

Studies show cannabidiol, or CBD binds with these receptors to quiet the pain sensation from an injury or infection.

All About the Topicals

cannabis topical lotion container and marijuana flower on a table

While the skin is a sponge on the outside of your body, it takes a little effort to penetrate the many layers of the epidermis to get to the pain point. Different formulas contain different "carriers" which help the cannabinoids penetrate the skin layers, but few include a carrier that allows the cannabinoids to penetrate the blood-brain barrier to create a cerebral effect. This is why many people prefer topical applications.

Lotions & Salves

woman rubbing cannabis topicals into the skin on her hand

Cannabis-infused creams and salves generally have very light carriers, which make them great for activating the endocannabinoid receptors and the TRPV receptors just below the skin. As the cannabinoids in these products soak into the skin, they bind with the nearest receptors and create localized relief for pain, inflammation, and itching.

For example, I had a regular customer when I worked as budtender in a dispensary in Colorado who came in to buy Apothecanna Extra Strength lotion. After talking with him for a while, the retired man informed me he had been fighting plantar fasciitis for years – a horrifically painful foot disorder. He started using Apothecanna lotion before bed, and he said he was finally able to sleep through the night without waking up in pain.

Additionally, companies like Foria are using topical application of cannabinoids to help stimulate female sexual enhancement. Studies suggest the cannabinoid receptors found in the sexual organs of women may stimulated with cannabinoids. Voted best sex product of the year by GQ, Foria may be onto something.

Transdermal Gels & Patches

transdermal cannabis patch applied on the skin near the shoulder

Many companies are starting to release new topicals that are specifically designed to carry further into the body, and even cross through the blood-brain barrier. Brands like Mary's Medicinals and Evolve Nanoserum offer such gels and patches. With these products, rather than applying them where it hurts, you apply them to your inner wrists, ankles, or feet where the veins are closer to the surface.

Evolve is an incredible leap in cannabis medicine and nanotechnology. By using ultrasonic technology, the company breaks apart CBD and THC into tiny molecules allowing for greater bioavailability and faster onset. Be aware though, unlike other topicals, transdermal products like these can, and likely will, cause a psychoactive effect.

So, long story short – cannabis topicals work because you have endocannabinoid receptors throughout your body, even in your skin, which respond to the wide variety of cannabinoids found in cannabis.

Thanks for a great, educational question about cannabis topicals. If you'd like to see your cannabis question on Leafbuyer, ask me on Quora, and you might find the answer here!