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Cannabis Topicals: What Are They and How Do They Work?

closeup cannabis topical on a small jar with cannabis leaves and cream tube in the background

Thanks to the raging popularity of CBD oil, topicals are among the hottest sellers on the cannabis product market. Though many people are only now learning about the potential healing benefits of topicals, our ancestors were in on the secret. 

Marijuana topicals can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where the Ebers papyrus documents their use for anti-inflammatory purposes. Much later, Queen Victoria of England is reputed to have used cannabis tinctures and cannabidiol (CBD) oil to relieve menstrual cramps.

Today, cannabis topicals are widely available and tapped for their potential to treat pain, inflammation, mood disorders, and much more. 

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How Cannabis Topicals Work

Cannabis topicals act as lubricants that penetrate the surface layer of the skin. But their treatment goes much deeper. Cannabis topicals work by directly entering the bloodstream via the skin.

Once in the bloodstream, they bind with different cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system. Within an hour, you’ll likely start to feel the effects of a topical. 

You may opt to use a full-spectrum cannabis product containing THC, CBD, and a range of terpenes (flavorful and aromatic compounds). You may also choose a pure CBD isolate product.  Full-spectrum products do precisely what their name implies; they offer an infusion of every possible element the plant naturally provides.

On the other hand, CBD isolate strips away other cannabinoids and loses some therapeutic properties.  

The other main difference between the two types of products is that hemp or CBD-derived topicals are legal to purchase over-the-counter. Any products containing THC require a medical marijuana card and doctor’s prescription and are not available at all in some states. 


The market for cannabis topicals has heated up in the past decade with an ever-increasing demand for CBD products. Here are some of the most common types of marijuana topicals:

Creams and Lotions

Cannabis creams and lotions are easy to apply anywhere on the body. They are handy for people seeking skin benefits and may be applied to dry body parts such as the knees and elbows. Some people even use cannabis creams on their faces as a beauty treatment


Cannabis and CBD oils are versatile. You can apply them topically or ingest them orally. A small amount of cannabis oil under the tongue or a teaspoonful may complement topical application. 


Cannabis salves or balms are similar to creams and lotions but may offer even more significant healing benefits. Salves are usually softer than lotions because they contain beeswax. People with psoriasis and other skin disorders may find relief in medicinal salves. 


Gels exert a cooling effect, which makes them an excellent option for treating headaches. Applying a few drops to the temples and forehead can help relieve sinus pressure or provide cooling relief for a tension headache. 

Transdermal Patches

Transdermal patches are the most potent form of cannabis topicals and the only type with the potential to get you high. However, pure CBD patches will not have a psychoactive effect and may be beneficial for lower back pain. Patches come with an adhesive side that you stick to the affected area, leaving in place for up to 72 hours.  

Each of these types of topicals is available in plain or scented varieties. Popular scents include lavender for relaxation and citrus for invigoration. Furthermore, you may mix CBD topicals into a carrier oil like coconut oil and infuse it with other essential oils for additional therapeutic benefits.

Dispensaries sell topical cannabis products labeled as cruelty-free with no ingredients tested on animals. 

Health Benefits

Most people turn to topical marijuana products for pain relief. There is indeed evidence that cannabis topicals effectively treat pain and accompanying inflammation. In addition, emerging research has shown that CBD oil may help treat eczema and other skin conditions. Here are a few of the potential health benefits of cannabis topicals:

Reducing Pain and Inflammation

Pain relief and inflammation reduction are two of the primary benefits of cannabis topicals, especially those containing cannabidiol (CBD). The anti-inflammatory properties of CBD may even extend to treating skin conditions like contact dermatitis.

One animal study indicated that transdermal application of CBD may ease the pain and inflammation linked to arthritis. As one in five adults globally has been diagnosed with arthritis, the study’s implications are significant. Researchers also noted that CBD oil appeared very well-tolerated and did not cause side effects in the animals tested. 

Treating Migraines

Migraine sufferers have turned to numerous topical products to treat their symptoms. The American Migraine Foundation has reported that CBD oil may help ease migraine-related neck pain and joint stiffness.  

Dr. Stephen Silberstein, director of the Headache Center at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, says that CBD oil may go further.

“It works locally, and if taken orally, it won’t produce intoxication … it may even prevent nausea and vomiting,” Silberstein told the American Migraine Foundation. 

Rather than reaching for a bottle of aspirin, medical marijuana patients can pick up a tube of cooling cannabis gel the next time a migraine strikes. Medical cannabis use in all forms, including topicals, has been shown to help relieve headaches in a majority of patients with few adverse effects.

Helping with Eczema and Psoriasis

Eczema and psoriasis are stubborn skin conditions that can be frustrating to the people dealing with them. Itchiness is one symptom that topical CBD ointment has demonstrated promise in relieving. Furthermore, CBD topicals could boost skin hydration and elasticity in people with these dermatological conditions.

Cannabinoids like CBD show particular promise for treating atopic dermatitis. CBD and other cannabinoids interact with receptors in the skin through the entourage effect

Anti-Aging Effects on Skin

Fine lines, wrinkles, and scars can all make the skin age prematurely. Cannabis topicals may be helpful anti-aging tools, especially for the reduction of scars. While topicals cannot reverse sun damage and other environmental factors, they can at least reduce the visible impact.

Reducing Acne

Acne vulgaris is another common and stubborn skin condition that topical CBD may be able to treat. As acne is strongly linked to inflammation, the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD may help battle blemishes.  

Potentially Reducing Anxiety and Depression

Mental health disorders like anxiety and depression affect tens of millions of American adults and are on the rise. A pressing need for natural remedies has emerged, and cannabis topicals may offer a solution. CBD products may be beneficial in reducing symptoms of anxiety, including restlessness and panic.

Alleviating Cancer-Related Symptoms

Severe neuropathic pain is among the most challenging cancer-related symptoms to treat. Research has indicated that THC oil capsules can help people with cancer manage their pain and experience a better quality of life.

Moisturizing the Skin

Even if you don’t have any specific skin condition, you can channel the healing properties of cannabis topicals for pure moisturizing. The supplemental ingredients in cannabis topicals, like coconut oil and lavender oil, offer moisturizing benefits of their own. But CBD hemp oil is rich in essential fatty acids that naturally make the skin more supple.

Alleviating Symptoms Related to Neurological Disorders

The phytocannabinoids in cannabis topicals have neuroprotective properties that can benefit people with Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, and other conditions that lead to memory loss. Researchers have cited CBD as especially relevant in the treatment of neurological disorders, as the cannabinoid causes very few side effects.

Increasing Sexual Pleasure

Whether smoked or smoothed onto the skin, cannabis, in general, is evidenced to enhance sexual pleasure. Cannabis topicals — notably oils — provide the added benefit of lubrication, which plays a significant role in sexual experiences.

Aided Wound Healing

Marijuana topicals have proven to help with wound healing, including associated pain. One study reported that patients consumed fewer opioids when using topical cannabis for pain relief related to wounds.

Possible Side Effects

Few side effects have been reported concerning cannabis topicals. The most common side effects are:

  • Rash
  • Itching
  • Skin allergic reaction

Unlike other marijuana ingestion methods like edibles, the side effects of CBD topicals tend to be very mild. 

How to Use Cannabis Topicals

Cannabis topicals are easier to use than other types of marijuana, especially smokable products and concentrates. Here are a few tips to get the most out of your cannabis and CBD topicals:

CBD vs. THC Topicals

The main difference between CBD and THC topicals is that any THC product is potentially psychoactive. The intoxicating effects of topical THC will likely be mild but could still be a concern for some, especially anyone with anxiety, which the cannabinoid can exacerbate.

Both CBD and THC bind to receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in full-spectrum products. Products containing only CBD do not offer the same beneficial combination of cannabinoids and terpenes that the ECS needs for optimal functioning. In this sense, topicals with both CBD and THC as ingredients may be preferable, but the choice is always individual.

What to Look For

If you want to experience the benefits of CBD, look for products with “hemp” or “CBD isolate” printed on the label. If you’re seeking a combination of terpenes and cannabinoids (including THC), look for products labeled as “full-spectrum.”

Beware of products promising a miracle cure, and always purchase cannabis from a reputable licensed dispensary. 


Read the label for information about appropriate dosing. If you’re new to cannabis topicals, try applying a drop to a small area of the skin and see if there is any adverse reaction, like a rash. Then, proceed with the indicated dose, or better yet, consult with a doctor who can customize your dosage. 

Getting the Best Results

For best results with cannabis topicals, follow the instructions on the label and be consistent. You may find immediate relief from a cannabis salve, or it may take longer. Users also report the best results from topicals in the morning and at bedtime. Make cannabis topicals a part of your everyday health regimen and experiment until you find the best one for you. 

The Bottom Line

Overall, cannabis topicals have shown to be the safest method of ingesting an already safe drug. CBD products and combination topicals containing THC offer varying levels of pain relief for many individuals. However, these effects are temporary; most people use topicals multiple times daily to achieve desired results. 

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Originally Published: November 2021

Last Updated: March 2024

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Frequently Asked Questions

Will cannabis topicals get me high?

No, cannabis topicals will generally not get you high unless they contain extremely high levels of THC. The exception is a transdermal patch containing THC, which may cause some degree of psychoactivity but not to the extent of other cannabis consumption methods.

Do cannabis topicals work for depression?

CBD has been studied for its potential antidepressant effects. Research has been encouraging about the ability of CBD to serve as an adjunct treatment for depression and anxiety. However, if you take prescription medication for depression, keep taking your antidepressants unless your doctor suggests otherwise.

Are cannabis topicals good for chronic pain?

Chronic pain is perhaps the most common reason people use cannabis topicals. More research is needed on whether topicals can help with severe forms of pain. Be aware that topicals may offer relief for a few hours, but you will likely need to reapply throughout the day to experience consistent effects.

Reach out to the physicians at Leafwell to unlock access to cannabis topicals and other therapeutic products. Our doctors are here to see you in our virtual clinic and start the online application process for a medical marijuana card.

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