A cannabis topical is a lotion, gel, salve, or ointment that is applied directly to the skin. Topicals can provide fast-acting, localized relief of inflammation, stiffness, and pain. Cannabis topicals are typically non-intoxicating, which allows patients to enjoy the plant's potential therapeutic effects without THC's attendant psychoactivity. This growing category of cannabis treatments has expanded to include transdermal solutions, as well as lubricants, often including essential oils such as clove and wintergreen for additional relief.

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cannabis topicals Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

More about topicals

Cannabis used in topicals allows cannabinoids to be absorbed into the bloodstream at a slower rate than smokable or edible cannabis, so the effects of topicals are typically felt only where they're used so there's no THC-related intoxication. In addition to lotions, cannabis topicals are available as oils, patches, sprays, soaps, lubricants, bath salts, and cool or warm balms and are often made with essential oils and other organic materials. You might find tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) in topicals, but whether they have an intoxicating effect depends on the cannabinoids used and where on your body they are applied.

What does topically mean when it comes to cannabis creams? Your body's natural endocannabinoid system (ECS) regulates your appetite, mood, and pain and pleasure receptors, among other functions. Cannabinoids THC and CBD, the active compounds in cannabis plants, are chemicals that activate that system. Your body also makes its own natural versions of these compounds, called endocannabinoids.  

THC and endocannabinoids are also similar in that they both bind to cannabinoid receptors called CB1 and CB2 receptors. These receptors, and the molecules that bind to them, are responsible for a wide range of biological functions, such as anti-inflammation and pain relief. 

Can you absorb THC through your skin?

When you use cannabis-infused topicals, THC can bind directly to CB1 receptors present in skin, muscle tissues, and nerves, and that brings relief to the affected area. It also makes its way into the bloodstream, where it interacts with CB2 receptors. Topical cannabis can get distributed to the rest of the body via the blood, but this happens so slowly that most people don't detect any mental effect.

What are the side effects of CBD or THC cream?

As a prospective topical consumer, you may wonder, do topicals get you high? Based on anecdotal reports, if the cream you're using is CBD- or THCA-based, there will be no intoxicating side effects. THC-based cannabis cream may cause the euphoric effects typically associated with THC, but the effects are typically mild. 

Since there's usually little to no high, topicals can be a great choice for people who want the relief without the full intoxicating side effects.

What do THC and CBD creams do? Potential benefits

Because every body, and ECS, is different, people experience cannabis differently and topicals are no exception. While your friend may swear by her favorite CBD cream for rheumatoid arthritis relief, it may not be effective for your minor aches. 

Pain and inflammation 

Topicals may be helpful in treating pain and inflammation, according to a 2019 review of existing studies. The review, conducted by doctors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment, found that cannabinoids are “a promising alternative to traditional treatments.”

cbd topical lotion Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Skin conditions

The same literature reviewed showed that topical cannabinoids reduced itching, signs of aging, and skin cancer growth. 

facial cannabis topical Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

Topical cannabinoids have antioxidant properties that can protect against skin damage, and may also be the new frontier for those who want to look younger.  


Cannabis cream or lotion can be rubbed directly onto your temples. There are even some preliminary studies showing that cannabis cream and other topicals could be effective for migraine relief.

Sexual pleasure

From lube to suppositories, topicals can bring more pleasure and comfort to the bedroom (or wherever you get busy). It should be noted that these types of products are capable of causing euphoric effects if they are THC-based. This method of consumption can be compared to dosing with a sublingual tincture. The kind of skin and mucosa we have in the oral cavity and on the genitals are very similar, both high in blood vessels that take up cannabinoids immediately.

What to expect when using topicals

The effects of some topicals can be felt right away, while others can take hours. And keep in mind that while most topicals will not get you high, some transdermal patches will because they allow THC to enter the bloodstream. Similarly, while many cannabis creams won't cause you to fail a drug test, there are no guarantees, so proceed accordingly.

How to shop for cannabis topicals

One size doesn't fit all when it comes to cannabis, whether it's in bud or balm form. So you'll need to explore the most well-known cannabinoids and possibly try a few formulations to see what works for your body and your particular skin issue. (New cannabinoids are being discovered all the time so it might be helpful to do some research.) 

When shopping for cannabis topicals, look for products with certified testing and a certificate of analysis (COA). Read the label for product potency and a complete list of ingredients. Ideally, topicals have cannabis, a carrier oil (like coconut or aloe), and perhaps an essential oil or two for scent. 

It's best to research the product and manufacturer before purchasing anything. Check for good customer reviews and whether the company received a letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for making medical claims. Even if the company hasn't been warned by the FDA, be sure the products don't have any health claims on the label or in advertising. 

Topical dosage and duration

what is CBD balm? Photo by: Gina Coleman/Weedmaps

The dosage and duration of topical cannabis preparations vary. It's important to read the labels on these products, as many topicals contain other natural ingredients. People with allergies should be vigilant about reading labels to avoid an allergic reaction.

Onset time for topicals can be almost instantaneous with some, while for others it can take up to an hour for a person to feel the effects. Some manufacturers have developed technology for enhanced bioavailability of cannabinoids — how quickly the body can absorb and feel the resulting effects. Products created with this type of technology have faster uptake times for immediate relief to the localized area. When in doubt, read the label. Duration of effects can vary depending on the ingredients, but in general, most people report four to six hours of relief with topical use.

Keep in mind that while most topicals will not get you high, some transdermal patches will because they allow THC to enter the bloodstream. Similarly, while many cannabis creams won't cause you to fail a drug test, there are no guarantees, so proceed accordingly. If THC is a concern, a CBD balm may be the way to go. 

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The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice. This page was last updated on August 5, 2022.