Five or so years ago, at the beginning of its popularity, CBD (aka cannabidiol) was something you could buy in a tincture, maybe at your local yoga studio or health food store. And CBD skin care? That was even more shadowy. It all had a hush-hush quality to it — not weed, but not not weed. Was it totally legal? Who knew! But in the past couple of years, thanks in great part to 2018’s Farm Bill, CBD has completely taken over the wellness and beauty space. The legislation established that hemp — defined as cannabis and derivatives of cannabis with less than 0.3% THC — was removed from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act. That means that you can now find it in skin care products ranging from eye creams to serums and everything in between.
In New York, where cannabis was legalized recently, the newly formed Office of Cannabis Management is also kicking off “a nation-leading regulatory and licensing structure for the State’s cannabinoid hemp (CBD) industry,” according to a spokesperson. This program will “implement basic consumer protections and ensure cannabinoid hemp products sold in New York State are properly manufactured, laboratory tested and accurately labeled.”
However, at this point, there are so many companies shilling CBD skin care that it’s hard to tell whether you have the real deal or some bargain basement knockoff that, while it technically contains CBD, it’s in such a small amount or inferior quality that it won’t actually do anything for your skin.
These days, you can find CBD in skin care products at big box stores like Target and Sephora, which in theory is a good thing from an accessibility standpoint, but according to insiders in the skin care space, some CBD is high quality — and some probably won’t do that much. Here’s everything you need to know before you make your next CBD skin care purchase.
CBD In Skin Care: Why It’s Notable
First, a little crash course in CBD, for all who haven’t already slathered CBD in one form or another on their skin. “CBD — also known as cannabidiol — is a natural compound found in cannabis,” says Gabe Kennedy, co-founder of Plant People. “Cannabis contains 113 different cannabinoids, and the most notable ones are THC and CBD.”
You’ve probably heard of THC — that’s the one that’ll get you high. CBD and THC both come from the same plant species. THC is sourced from marijuana (a cannabis plant with more than 0.3% THC), and CBD can be sourced from marijuana or hemp (a cannabis plant with 0.3% or less THC).
“THC and CBD share a nearly exact formula, but one critical difference in their molecular structure gives each compound unique medicinal properties,” Kennedy says. “For instance, unlike THC, CBD isn’t psychoactive and won’t make you high.” CBD is also the compound getting the most attention in the skin care space (although with cannabis regulations relaxing across the country, that might not always be the case).
So why all the beauty hype surrounding the compound? Well, it has to do with CBD’s ability to calm inflammation, which is notable since inflammation is the root of many skin concerns, such as acne and eczema. “Inflammation is the number-one cause of aging,” says dermatological nurse and celebrity facialist Natalie Aguilar. “So when an ingredient is known to have anti-inflammatory properties, it can definitely benefit the skin. For acne, CBD oil may suppress the overactivity of the oil gland, decreasing breakouts, and excessive oiliness.”
Kennedy elaborates, stating that, “when it comes to skin care, cannabinoids are packed with antioxidants and can be helpful in supporting a response to inflammation and soothing the skin. There’s some early research indicating that CBD is helpful for oil production, breakouts, eczema, and psoriasis as well,” he adds, though there aren’t enough studies yet to be sure.
With more research (hopefully) a few months or years away, it’s important to note that while the buzz seems recent, hemp, cannabis, and CBD have been around for centuries, and anything that manages to outlast the trend cycle usually has a good reason for doing so. Says Jenni Ewing, head formulator at Herbivore, “We have a lot of faith in hemp and CBD, based on its long history rooted in plant medicine and how research is catching up to validate what many have known for so long.”
CBD In Skin Care: Not All CBD Is Created Equal
On the side of the packaging, you might notice your new CBD serum contains full-spectrum, isolate, or broad spectrum CBD, which brands are required to include, just like for tinctures and edibles. Cool — but what does that mean?
Kennedy explains that CBD isolate is 99% CBD. “The downside to this is that it lacks the other parts of the plant that contribute to the entourage effect,” he says, meaning that cannabinoids are more effective when delivered as a group, or an entourage. “Although this is known as one of the purest forms of CBD, this processed product — generally extracted from hemp — leaves an individual CBD molecule that may nullify a range of benefits the CBD and whole plant extracts are most well-known for.” In the extraction process, all compounds are removed except for CBD, so there’s no THC, terpenes, or other cannabinoids left. Some retailers, like Sephora, won’t even sell products that only contain CBD isolate. Not ideal. OK, next.
Broad spectrum CBD “has a few more minor cannabinoids, but doesn’t contain THC,” Kennedy says. He says it’s still “way better” and more effective than isolate, “but still lacks the small — and legal — amount of THC which acts as an agonist to the rest of the cannabinoids.” It would still contain other common cannabinoids, such as cannabichromene and cannabigerol.
And then there’s full-spectrum CBD, the Rolls Royce of CBD formulations, according to Kennedy and Ewing. “When CBD gets extracted from the hemp plant, it’s considered full-spectrum and will produce an end product with a full range of compounds such as cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other phytonutrients still intact, each with their own unique effects.”
In other words, as the name suggests, full-spectrum has it all, including that tiny amount of THC that adds a *chef’s kiss* to the extract. “Isolate is like a lonely violinist, broad spectrum has a bass added in there, and a full-spectrum extract is like the entire orchestra playing,” Kennedy says. Though full-spectrum products can contain 0.3% THC, they can be sold legally thanks to the Farm Bill.
CBD In Skin Care: How To Pick A Quality Product — In 3 Steps
Determine The Type
So what’s your next move when you’re curious to try out topical CBD for the first time, or replenish your current skin care lineup? Ewing stresses that research is key. Search for “a clear, labeled amount of CBD on the package,” she says. “A brand should also disclose what type of CBD — is it full-spectrum, is it isolate?” Kennedy seconds that — since full-spectrum is the entire orchestra, why settle for less? Of course, it’s always a good idea to test out different forms and potencies of CBD and see which works best for your skin.
Determine The Potency
After you identify the type of CBD, then it’s time to identify how much is actually in the product. “Potency is critical,” Kennedy says. “I would encourage shoppers to look for cannabinoid content that is over 100 mg per ounce for beauty and over 200 mg per ounce for more recovery-based products,” like muscle-soothing balms. This is just a baseline, though — Plant People’s one-ounce Revive face serum and two-ounce Restore face mask contain 300 mg each.
Ewing agrees, adding that though new data on this topic is constantly coming in, they’ve found that 100 mg of full-spectrum CBD in an ounce of product “delivers those soothing, calming benefits that we were looking for.”
Kennedy adds, rather diplomatically: “If you see a lotion that is four ounces and only has 50 mg of CBD, it may not be having the effect you want it to have.” But you can experiment to find your ideal amount. “Everyone's endocannabinoid system is different, so I always encourage customers to try out using more or less to find that sweet spot that works for them,” Ewing says.
“There's not really any data to support that more equals better when it comes to how much CBD is effective in a product, so we took the ‘low and slow’ approach,” she continues. “It's best to find the minimum amount that gives you results and stay at that level, and that will be different for every person.”
Determine The Source
Lastly, where and how your product’s cannabis plant was grown can greatly affect the overall quality. Says Ewing, “Hemp has the amazing ability to absorb impurities from the soil, which makes it a great regenerative plant that has even been used to clean up nuclear waste — but that means we need to be extra careful about making sure the practices used to cultivate it are responsible because this is going onto our bodies.”
Ewing adds that it’s also wise to find out if the brand you’re considering “is releasing their COAs [certificates of analysis] for each batch, so that you can verify for yourself that the product tests at label claim for CBD and adheres to acceptable and safe limits for traces of heavy metals, pesticides, and solvents, which are inevitable in ingredients that grow out of the ground.” You can look up a product’s COA here.
Kennedy suggests validating your product by looking at COAs, which Plant People includes with all products. He also adds that non-toxic is key, so look for a “label with ingredients that you can understand.” But because of a problematic lack of cosmetic labeling laws in the United States, “many ingredients can read more complicated or foreign than they actually are,” he cautions. (This ingredients dictionary can help.)
“Looking for a product that utilizes a full-spectrum extract will at the very least ensure there is an array of cannabinoids rather than only CBD,” like CBD isolate, Kennedy says. And why settle for anything less? As industry leaders continue to go in the direction of embracing or even requiring products to contain full-spectrum or broad spectrum CBD (like Sephora), it’s likely you’ll see more of that in skin care as time goes on. That means the options that you’re faced with are not only growing, but a more universal standard of quality is expanding right along with it.
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