If I put CBD oil on my skin will it have any effect? Will it reach the bloodstream? or is it a waste of good CBD? You questions answered by Chris Halls LCPH, DipASK, MCMA, Kinesiology & Homeopathy Topical application of CBD may be more beneficial than smoking.
Can CBD oil be absorbed by the Skin?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a chemical with low solubility in water but good solubility in oils and alcohols. In the body, water soluble nutrients and chemicals are transported easily into the bloodstream, whereas oily and fat soluble nutrients and chemicals on their own are not, since blood is essentially a ‘watery’ solution. So, when placing drops of CBD oil in a mouth coated with saliva, first of all the oil droplets don’t mix with saliva very well and then only a small proportion of the dose taken is absorbed through the mucous membrane of the mouth into the blood – common estimates are that only 5-10% of CBD oil taken by mouth is actually absorbed. Any CBD oil that’s swallowed and then absorbed from the intestines passes directly to the liver and is metabolised (broken down) before entering the general circulation, which also greatly reduces its effectiveness. Alternatively, preparing the CBD in such a way that it is in a water-soluble form allows the chemical to be easily absorbed when taken by mouth.
How does CBD interact with your Skin?
The outer layer of skin (known as the stratum corneum) is a protective barrier for the body, being primarily made of compounds known as ‘lipids’ (aka ‘fats’). Similar to CBD itself, these lipids are insoluble in water but dissolve in solvents such as alcohol, and include oils, waxes and fats naturally produced by the body (including compounds such as fatty acids and cholesterol). Due to their affinity with lipids, oily compounds are more easily absorbed into the skin than water, which is why products such as ‘baby oil’, coconut oil and olive oil help keep skin looking and feeling supple and healthy. Even though cannabidiol is soluble in oils, the compound is actually poorly absorbed through the skin but can pass through the skin pores and enter the body that way. The CBD that passes into the skin then acts locally on cannabidiol receptors in the skin layer with no detectable amounts entering the bloodstream, so rubbing oil into the skin could help in localised areas.
Does CBD oil enter the bloodstream when placed on the skin?
However, studies have shown that high doses or large quantities applied to the skin actually can result in CBD entering the blood. Although taking a water-soluble formulation by mouth is probably the most convenient way of taking CBD, this shows that a systemic (whole body) effect can potentially be achieved by applying the compound to the skin. Probably the most reliable way of achieving this is by using transdermal (meaning ‘across the skin) patches, rather than applying oil, gels or ointments. These patches contain a concentrated ‘reservoir’ of CBD that, when applied to the surface of the body, ensures the compound is directed into the skin at a steady rate, from which it then gradually passes into the blood vessels that run through the skin, transporting it throughout the body. With skin application, the rate and extent of absorption will be affected by the thickness of skin at the site of application of the product as well as blood flow to the area (which is usually dependent on temperature).
So in conclusion, for problems with a particular part of the body, it may be worth trying CBD oil rubbed into the skin over the area concerned. If that’s not effective, or for a whole body effect, a water-soluble product taken by mouth can be used.
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Do CBD Ointments Benefit Your Skin or Brain?
Topical application of CBD may be more beneficial than smoking.
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Humans have been rubbing oily extracts of the cannabis plant into our skin for a very long time. The plant is mentioned several times (as “kaneh-bosem,”) in the Old Testament (as per Yahweh’s instruction to Moses in Exodus 30:23) as an ingredient in holy anointing oil. At that time in history, the word messiah simply meant “the anointed one.” Even if this reference is not historically accurate, marijuana was an important medicinal plant to our ancestors.
Today, over-the-counter gels containing CBD are for sale everywhere. Do these products offer any health advantages for your skin? The answer, thus far, is yes. Recent studies using rats suggest that transdermal CBD has beneficial anti-inflammatory effects on the skin. If this is also true for humans, then CBD ointments should provide relief to people who suffer from dermatitis (eczema), rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, and psoriasis. The application of CBD to the skin of mice increased the proliferation and wound-repair chemicals in keratinocytes, which are the epidermal cell that produces keratin. The authors concluded that their results support the use of topical CBD for the treatment of atopic dermatitis and keratin disorders as well as for enhancing wound healing.
With regard to whether topical CBD can influence the brain, a number of factors become important. The challenge in applying any drug to the skin is that the drug must first penetrate the dead superficial layer of skin in order to become absorbed into the blood. The amount of CBD that gets into the blood is greater if the skin is abraded, burned, or inflamed; obviously, these are not ideal conditions for regular use.
So, can CBD get across the skin and into the blood? Yes. A much more important question is whether it can reach an adequate level in the blood in order to affect your brain function. Once the CBD is absorbed into the blood it will distribute first to the body fat. Thus, for the majority of big adults who carry extra body fat, the amount of CBD that gets into the blood will be quickly absorbed into the fat and not the brain. Therefore, you may need to apply a lot of gel.
A recent study examined the ability of THC to get across the skin and reported that levels of THC were undetectable after being applied via a topical cream. However, CBD is ten times more permeable in the skin than THC. If CBD is embedded in a transdermal patch, or in a transdermal gel, which is designed to enhance absorption, then it can gain access to the blood. A recent study applied the gel twice a day to the skin for 12 weeks (that’s a long exposure) and reported a significant decrease in the level of anxiety in children with Fragile X syndrome. It’s important to note that children are smaller and have less body fat and would require that less CBD reach the blood in order to affect the brain.
There is still very little human data on this topic that is reliable. When CBD was applied as a transdermal gel to the skin of guinea pigs, the level of CBD peaked at 6.3 ng/mL of plasma after about 12 hours. When CBD was applied in a transdermal gel to the skin of rats, the level of CBD reached almost 400 ng/ml of plasma and the authors reported a reduction in anxiety and impulsivity. You can easily see that the challenge is getting enough into the blood.
The application of CBD dissolved in transdermal gels offers some unique advantages. Oral absorption of CBD is not as efficient as inhalation and is associated with gastrointestinal side effects. For some people, inhalation is not an option. These preliminary studies encourage further studies of the usefulness of topical application as compared to oral or inhalation methods in humans.
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© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. is the author of Your Brain on Food, (3rd Edition, 2019; Oxford University Press) and is a member of the Governor’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee for the State of Ohio.
Casares L et al (2020) Cannabidiol induces antioxidant pathways in keratinocytes by targeting BACH1 REDOX BIOLOGY, vol 28, Article No: UNSP 101321
Gonzalez-Cuevas G et al (2018) Unique treatment potential of cannabidiol for the prevention of relapse to drug use: preclinical proof of principle. NEUROPSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY Vol 43, p 2036