Consumers looking to reap the potential benefits of cannabidiol (CBD), the wildly popular non-intoxicating cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant, will likely run into not only CBD oil, but also a variety of CBD creams and other topicals. 


In fact, since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp-derived CBD products on a federal level in the U.S., placing them under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the health and wellness market has been inundated with an array of CBD-infused topicals. 


While medical marijuana remains inaccessible in many states, the emergence of CBD has given people from all walks of life a legal way to seek therapeutic relief. Consumers unfamiliar with the purported medical benefits of CBD, though, may wonder as they pore over the many infused topical products at their local pharmacy: What does CBD cream do? How can it help my condition or ailment better than CBD oil? 

Photo by Gina Coleman

CBD-infused topicals include lotions, salves, creams, or transdermal patches that are applied on the skin for relief on the surface or even deeper in muscle tissue. CBD cream, as the name implies, is a cream-based topical that contains CBD. Most beauty creams are generally made up of about half oil and half water.


“CBD cream is a topical cream infused with the phytocannabinoid CBD,” said Emma Chasen, co-founder of Eminent Consulting Firm, a cannabis education and consultancy firm. “It may contain the isolated compound CBD, a distillate that contains CBD as well as some other minor cannabinoids, or a broad spectrum oil that contains CBD, minor cannabinoids and terpenes. It can be used to reduce pain and inflammation and/or help in the management of skin disorders when applied topically.”

CBD Creams, Salves, and Lotions

The difference among CBD topicals such as creams, salves, and lotions really lies in the consistency of the product. 


“The primary difference between creams, salves, and lotions is the base product and its consistency, just as is the case with non-CBD infused creams, salves and lotions,” Chasen said. “As a consumer, you should be making your purchasing choice based on what consistency you want the product, what you want to use it for, and the source [or] extraction method of the CBD infused within.”


Since creams are thicker, they may be more beneficial for very dry skin. Salves, on the other hand, are made with oil and wax, and without water. Creams may absorb faster than salves, so they may work better for muscle pain. 

What is CBD Cream Used For?

When topicals are applied to the skin, they can potentially benefit not only the surface of the skin, but also below the skin. When CBD is applied topically to the skin, the permeability is tenfold higher than THC, allowing it to penetrate both the dermal and subdermal layers of the skin.

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The human body has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) that regulates appetite, mood, and pain and pleasure sensations. Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD can activate our body’s endocannabinoid system by binding to cell receptors in the skin, muscle tissues, and nerves. This interaction explains why the most common CBD cream uses are for chronic pain or inflammation.


“There is research to support that phytocannabinoids, like CBD, interact with receptors and other enzymatic factors within our skin that modulate pain and inflammation,” Chasen said. “Because the skin is actually quite thick, when you apply CBD cream, the CBD soaks into the skin but does not make it to the bloodstream. It interacts with CB1 receptors — if THC is also present — and other receptor families such as the TRPV receptors and factors such as PPAR-gamma and COX-½ and TNF-alpha. With these interactions, CBD can modulate the pain and inflammatory response.” 

How to Use CBD Cream

Generally speaking, using CBD-infused creams and other topicals is extremely easy. After identifying where the pain or discomfort lies, the consumer can simply apply the topical around that area for local treatment. 


The process of applying CBD topicals are similar to putting on a moisturizing lotion. However, administering the proper dosage of CBD to the skin is not as straightforward. It’s important to find out how many milligrams of CBD are in the topical, allowing consumers to gauge whether there’s enough of this cannabinoid to provide the therapeutic relief they seek. A topical with a low amount of CBD will likely be less effective than one with higher concentrations. 


Start with a low viable dosage and gradually increase the amount of CBD cream until finding optimal therapeutic relief. When it comes to applying a topical infused with hemp-derived CBD, there are no known side effects to worry about. 

Benefits of CBD Cream

The key potential benefits of topicals include reducing pain and inflammation, soothing skin problems, and helping to heal wounds.


The Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network posted an article on its website discussing the possible benefits of CBD oil for arthritis pain sufferers. One December 2017 study published in the journal Pain, published by the International Association for the Study of Pain, found that acute joint inflammation was reduced by local CBD treatment in rats. University of Colorado researchers found that cannabis topicals can treat skin conditions including psoriasis, severe itching, and atopic and contact dermatitis. 

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In a case report published in the January 2017 issue of Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, research showed that CBD and THC applied topically could offer effective pain and symptom management in healing malignant wounds.


“Much of the scientific evidence points to CBD’s ability to modulate pain, inflammation and the histamine response when applied topically,” Chasen said. “It has been shown to diminish redness, help with painful arthritic joints and quicken the healing process.”


Though Chasen said there are studies that support CBD’s ability to interact with the receptors and factors that are found in the skin, many more are necessary.


“We need much more research to elucidate the physiological mechanisms at play, especially in humans,” she said.  

Picking a CBD Cream

Chasen said when it comes to picking a specific CBD muscle and joint pain topical or cream, research is essential. 


“Not all CBD products are created equal,” she said. “Therefore, make sure the product has been tested and that there is a measurable amount of CBD within the product.”


With no regulation of CBD oil and related products in place, consumers must make sure manufacturers are doing what they say on the bottle’s label. In one November 2017 study, researchers tested 84 CBD products from 31 companies and found only 31% accurately labeled with the correct amount of CBD. One way to make sure a CBD oil’s manufacturer is reputable is by purchasing a product that includes a certificate of analysis from a third-party testing lab. 


Another way to help assure a particular CBD oil’s quality is by finding a product that was manufactured in a Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP)-compliant facility, which must follow certain FDA standards to qualify


Many experts prefer full-spectrum products because of the potential entourage effect, which is the idea that components of the cannabis plant work better together than in isolation. 


“Typically products infused with a broad spectrum CBD extract are more effective than products containing isolate or distillate,” Chasen said. 

How to Make CBD Cream

Concocting your own CBD-infused cream can offer more precise dosing and control over the CBD that is used. 


For instance, if you have a 30 milliliter bottle with 1,500 milligrams of CBD, that equals out to 50 milligrams per milliliter. Using these dosing parameters, you can figure out how much CBD oil you should drop into the non-infused cream or topical, depending on the amount you plan to whip up. 

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Finding the most effective mixing ingredients that will properly mingle with CBD oil or CBD isolate is also important. A carrier oil, such as coconut oil, shea butter, CBD tincture, or isolate can also be mixed to create a therapeutic homemade topical. 


There are several recipes that will allow you to create your topical of choice. 


The most common method involves taking coconut oil or shea butter and melting it at a temperature between 89 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (32 to 38 degrees Celsius) before adding your preferred dosage of CBD oil. Next, take a separate cooking pot and melt 2 ounces, or 54.5 grams, of beeswax, adding the CBD-infused oil once the wax base starts melting at a temperature around 144 to 147 degrees Fahrenheit (62 to 64 degrees Celsius). Continue to stir and test the consistency until the desired cream is formed. 


You can also add essential oils into the mix once you find the right creamy consistency. Finally, let the mixture cool in a jar or container before applying the homemade CBD cream directly onto skin.