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What To Know About CBD Before Putting It On Your Skin, According To Experts

The Zoe Report’s Chemistry Lesson is an ongoing series where leading cosmetic chemists break down the science behind how your favorite beauty products work. For this installment, we're exploring the benefits of CBD — and what experts want you to know before adding it to your beauty routine.

The argument could be made that CBD has effectively replaced THC as the most famous three-letter acronym associated with cannabis at the moment. It’s everywhere: body lotion, bath salts, supplements, sleep aids, even dog food (seriously). And don't get me started on CBD in skincare. It seems every other email in my inbox is a press release announcing “something dank is about to drop” or telling me to “take a hit” of a new serum. Anyone else feeling a little, uh, “burnt out” on the whole thing?

With all that said, you probably don’t need another article touting the purported benefits of CBD for your skin (though, sure, I’ll cover the basics). Instead, here's the stuff about CBD that no one else is telling you — from sourcing to social impact to shady financial practices — straight from industry insiders. If you're thinking of working CBD into your beauty routine, read this first.

The Basics

CBD is short for cannabidiol, one of the compounds found in cannabis plants. Hemp and marijuana both belong to the cannabis plant family, and while they have their differences (more on that later!), CBD can be derived from either. The other compound found in cannabis plants is THC. THC gets you high, CBD doesn't. Not even close.

Although more research needs to be done around how CBD works and its ability to manage specific issues (like anxiety and insomnia, for instance), there are a few key points many industry experts seem to agree on. “CBD acts as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory,” Cindy Capobianco, the co-founder and president of CBD company Lord Jones, tells The Zoe Report. “CBD has been used for centuries to successfully relieve pain and treat skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea — even sunburn and bug bites — when used topically.” Studies suggest that, when ingested, those same properties can have a slightly different effect. “It has the additional benefits of mood stabilization, relief from anxiety, and promoting a calm sense of well-being,” Capobianco says.

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How, exactly, does it do this? Experts say that comes down to the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. “The ECS is a network of receptors found throughout every mammal,” a representative from Dosist, a company known for its CBD dose pens, tells TZR. “This system is responsible for maintaining the body’s homeostasis, or balance, and helps regulate everything from sleep, to pain, to appetite, to immune function, to stress.” Studies seem to indicate that the body is pretty much primed to thrive on CBD — it naturally produces endocannabinoids, and CBD is a related phytocannabinoid. Both apparently affect the ECS in similar ways. “It’s often described as a lock and key system, where the cannabinoid is the key ‘unlocking’ a receptor, causing a series of reactions throughout the body,” Dosist explains. There's evidence to suggest this can lead to less anxiety, better sleep, reduced inflammation, calm skin, et al.

“Some studies have shown that topical CBD can also help reduce oil production in addition to reducing inflammation in the skin, which are two main players in the generation of acne,” Dr. Jennifer Vickers, a dermatologist with Sanova Dermatology in Texas, tells TZR; adding that the anti-inflammatory effects can help calm skin and reduce redness, too. “It also has antioxidant and regenerative qualities to help offset damage from the sun, pollution, and aging.” Basically, it seems everyone’s complexion can stand to benefit from an application of cannabidiol.

CBD maintains these properties whether it’s sourced from hemp (scientific name: cannabis sativa) or marijuana (scientific name: cannabis sativa indica).

The Properties

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When it comes to skincare, you’re more likely to find hemp-derived CBD than marijuana-derived CBD in all those #shelfie-worthy bottles, for one main reason: legality. “It’s not that the compound is different when it comes from one plant or the other — it’s just the amount of CBD versus THC that makes a difference,” Dr. Josh Axe, the founder of Ancient Nutrition, tells TZR. “CBD from hemp contains 0.3% THC or less [the legal allowance], while CBD from marijuana can contain 5% to 35% THC.” Hemp-derived CBD is legal in all 50 states thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, but THC is only fully legal in 11 states (as of publishing).

This is also where some confusion between hemp seed oil and hemp-derived CBD comes in to play. “Comparing hemp seed oil and hemp-derived CBD is like comparing potatoes with vodka,” Dr. Ben Talei, a plastic surgeon and founder of AuraSilk skincare, tells TZR. In other words: They come from the same plant, but have vastly different properties.

"Products with CBD have more significant regenerative, anti-aging, and anti-inflammatory effects than those products made with hemp oil."

“Hemp seed oil is produced by cold pressing the seeds of the cannabis plant,” Vickers says. “Products with hemp seed oil are rich in several vitamins, as well as Omega fatty acids.” It's nice for your skin — Omegas have a plumping, hydrating effect — but hemp seed oil doesn’t contain CBD. (Plenty of beauty brands would love for you to think it does, though. This practice is referred to as “weed-washing,” or making it seem as if there’s CBD in a product, when really, it's just hemp seed oil.)

“On the other hand, CBD is an extract from the leaves, flowers, and stalks of the cannabis plant,” Vickers says. “Products with CBD have more significant regenerative, anti-aging, and anti-inflammatory effects than those products made with hemp oil.” This is known as “the entourage effect,” according to Axe: The different parts of the plant (leaves, flowers, stalks) are thought to work together in a compounding manner, amplifying the overall benefits.

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With this in mind, experts suggest choosing CBD skincare products that boast “full spectrum CBD” or “whole plant CBD” on the label. Without either of those, you probably won’t see the results you want. “My advice to customers looking to try CBD skincare is to look at the labels like you would something you eat,” Scott Campbell, co-founder of Beboe Therapies (the first CBD skincare line born out of an actual cannabis company), tells TZR. “Look for full spectrum CBD, the right amount of potency, and if you can, a certificate of authenticity, like we are giving our customers.”

It should be noted that “the right amount of potency” is kind of a guessing game at this point. “[There’s limited] information about dosing, particularly in beauty products,” Vickers says. “This would be difficult to characterize and would require research that isn't being done.” But seeing as topical CBD isn’t something you can overdose on (“It has very few risks,” per Vickers), there’s no need to start small. Beboe Therapies' High-Potency CBD Serum is one of the strongest offerings on the market, with 300 milligrams of hemp-derived, full spectrum CBD per ounce.

To recap: Hemp seed oil contains no CBD. Hemp-derived CBD contains no THC. CBD skincare products are non-psychoactive and will not get you high. Which begs the question: Why are beauty brands marketing them as if they will?

The Social Impact

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There’s no denying that, although CBD can be a lovely skincare ingredient, its popularity has much (read: everything) to do with its proximity to drug culture. Proof: The endless puns about “getting higher,” “taking a hit,” or looking “dope.” The cheeky leaf-print packaging. The branded “coke baggies” recently used to promote a 4/20 product launch. CBD companies capitalize on the controversial (and thus, headline-generating) stigma surrounding cannabis.

It can’t be ignored that the people cashing in on the controversy are largely white, largely male, and largely not doing anything to actually change the perception of marijuana usage, which is inextricably tied to race. As reported by The Stranger, President Richard Nixon's War on Drugs in the 1960s specifically targeted communities of color. John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic advisor, later claimed to Harper’s magazine: “The Nixon White House ... had two enemies: The antiwar left and Black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

That’s heavy stuff, but it is necessary to note in any discussion of CBD — especially considering weed-related charges still land people in jail today, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. “Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana,” the American Civil Liberties Union reports.

"Saying you’re ‘elevating cannabis’ feels a bit out of touch. For many people, cannabis has already been a special and ‘elevated’ plant, even without the rose gold smokeware and fancy packaging."

One CBD brand is on a mission to put a dent in those numbers. “As U.S. companies, led by mainly white men, get billion-dollar valuations on the stock market, and our fellow community members simultaneously sit in jail for simple possession, we feel we have a moral obligation to bring awareness and justice to the inherent racism and oppression that still exists in our criminal justice system,” Kati Holland, the founder and CEO of Not Pot, tells TZR. To this point, Not Pot pays for one person’s bail per month via The Bail Project, using proceeds from sales of its CBD gummies. “We believe that paying someone’s bail is an act of resistance against a system that criminalizes race and poverty, and we’re committed to doing our part,” she says.

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Holland’s social justice work stands out in a sea of — let’s be honest — lukewarm attempts at activism. The majority of the brands I spoke to for this story didn’t have much to say about tackling the stigma that surrounds cannabis, save for airy claims like “elevated branding” and “CBD education.” “Saying you’re ‘elevating cannabis’ feels a bit out of touch,” Holland says. “For many people, cannabis has already been a special and ‘elevated’ plant, even without the rose gold smokeware and fancy packaging.”

Love Wellness, a women’s health brand founded by Lauren Bosworth (you may know her as Lo of MTV's Laguna Beach), recently launched a line of CBD personal care products that leans out of the drug-themed marketing altogether. “We follow a ‘Healthy, Not High’ mantra when it comes to CBD,” Bosworth tells TZR. The company’s Timeout Collection promotes stress relief supplements and luxe-feeling bath salts in a way that’s refreshingly free from “clever” cannabis references.

Undefined Beauty, a CBD beauty brand founded by Dorian Morris, is taking social justice a step further. In lieu of donating proceeds from its CBD elixirs to a related charity or cause, the company makes it a priority to employ formerly incarcerated women, as reported by Allure. Others that give back include Herbivore Botanicals, which donates $1 of every sale of its hemp seed oil and CBD products to Americans for Safe Access; Hora Skincare, which works closely with the Fcancer organization to dispel myths around medical marijuana usage; and Beboe Therapies, which raises money for the UCLA Cannabis Research Center “to help move the industry forward, but also society as a whole,” Clement Kwan, the company’s co-founder, tells TZR.

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Despite the awareness, research, and even the legalization of CBD, there is still a lot of work to be done to move the industry forward. Today, CBD is technically classified as a Schedule 1 drug, as reported by Forbes, since it’s a cannabis byproduct — and as a result, CBD startups are labeled “high risk” by the U.S. Department of Justice. This makes it really hard for new CBD companies to obtain business bank accounts (it’s even harder for minority founders); and when they do, the associated fees and charges are typically much higher than average. A source tells TZR that this Schedule 1 classification gives banks the power to shut down CBD sellers’ sites and freeze their accounts, prompting many CBD brands to “bank hop” between financial institutions.

Clearly, there’s still a lot to learn about CBD — research has only scratched the surface of its power, and the cannabis industry is evolving every day — but judging by my inbox, the trend is one that's bound to stick around awhile.

Ahead, shop the 22 CBD products experts hold in high regard — absolutely no pun intended.

Shop CBD

Readers should note that the regulations and data surrounding marijuana, CBD, and other related products are still developing. As such, the information contained in this post should not be construed as medical or legal advice. Always consult with your doctor before trying any substance or supplement.