The Science of CBD in Topicals

Posted by Flora Sophia on

You’ve probably seen our CBD topical balms, and you might be wondering why we created those and are curious about the science behind topicals. The short answer is that topical products are absorbed by your body in a different way than those that are ingested and can have a different and direct impact on certain areas of the body. As you might have guessed, the science behind topicals is a bit technical.

First, it’s important to note that topical medications are one of the most commonly compounded preparations in the United States. It’s a very popular method to introduce something into our system because it’s highly effective. You might be familiar with this application through agents like pain cream or other ointments.

Our skin is semi-permeable, which means that it keeps most things out but other things are absorbed. This is a natural property of our skin. Compounds placed on our skin that are able to be absorbed first penetrate the outer barrier of dead skin cells called the stratum corneum. These dead skin cells rest naturally on top of our live skin cells and we “shed” these regularly every day as a normal part of healthy skin regeneration. Then, the compound moves through the outer layers of the epidermis to reach the vascularized (that means it has blood vessels) bottom layer of the skin called the dermis. 


Anatomy of the skin, showing the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue

Once an ingredient has crossed stratum corneum, topicals can have effects locally (only in the exact point of contact), regionally (in the general area where placed on the skin), and systemically (everywhere throughout the body).

Local effects of an ingredient occur primarily in the viable layers of skin, including the nerve endings in the epidermis and dermis.

Regional-area effects in muscles or joints occur through subsequent diffusion of the compound through the skin and fatty layer—which also has nerve endings to nearby tissues.

Systemic effects occur throughout the body caused by uptake of the compound by blood or lymphatic vessels in the dermis. In the systemic case the ingredient ultimately travels to central circulation.

In the example of pain cream, ingredients intended to treat local or regional pain act on nerves in the skin or in underlying muscles or joints by blocking nerve signals, reducing inflammation, relaxing muscle spasms, or potentiating the effects of other substances. Most topical creams you see on the market are intended for local or regional effects.

That summarizes the general science of topicals, so let’s explore how CBD topicals work. CBD works by activating the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is involved in the sensations of pleasure and pain. It does this by binding to cell receptors in muscle tissue, skin and nerves. This, in turn, can alleviate both pain and inflammation.

Because skin is thick, CBD balm 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. For more about these receptors, see our post about the science of CBD!

There are some interesting studies that show the impact of CBD in topical form. One study demonstrated the potential of transdermal CBD to be used as an anti-inflammatory treatment. Another study showed that transdermal CBD gel significantly reduced joint swelling, limb posture scores as a rating of spontaneous pain, immune cell infiltration, and thickening of the synovial membrane in a dose-dependent manner. Data from that study indicated that topical CBD application has therapeutic potential for relief of arthritis pain-related behaviors and inflammation without evident side-effects.

A host of other studies implicate CBD topical applications supporting a variety of ailments. The American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) says that the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD may aid treatment for acne, psoriasis, and eczema. A 2016 study found that some CBD products may have long lasting therapeutic effects on inflammation and behaviors associated with arthritis. A 2020 study found CBD oil can significantly reduce pain for people with peripheral neuropathy, which is nerve damage that generally causes discomfort, numbness, and weakening in the feet and hands. A 2019 study found that people who experience temporomandibular disorder (TMD) may notice an improvement in their condition after using CBD products. TMD can cause pain and stiffening in and around a person’s jaw.

Even without clinical trials, many people use CBD topical creams and balms to counteract the discomfort brought on by chemotherapy, and to ease pain in arthritic joints. 

As you can see, there are a variety of ways in which CBD applied as a topical balm can have helpful and healing effects. Part of the mission at Flora Sophia is to ensure we are exploring all ways in which CBD can support your daily life, and then bring those benefits straight to you.

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  • I have used and still using the CBD cream for almost a year. Especially during the afternoon, evening and bedtime. It does relieve my pains I have from peripheral neuropathy and arthritis.

    Skipp Miller on

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