The facts (and fiction) of cannabinoid skincare.
CHARLOTTE PALERMINO | ART ADA SOKÓŁ
“What do you think about this CBD cream?” is my trigger.
For a plant that calms you down, cannabis in skincare really stresses me out. Until recently, I answered that question by bemoaning everything that’s wrong with CBD. I would rant about clear packaging, how certain ingredients deactivate each other, and lament how companies have rendered the term “full spectrum” meaningless. Now, to preserve my sanity, instead of giving my opinion, I’ll ask my own question right back: “What is the company promising?”
The most toxic thing about beauty has never been the ingredients, but the claims. In early 2011, I had a brief love affair with clean beauty. Working for a blogger platform on their lifestyle and beauty verticals, I spent a lot of time reading content from our wellness clients. I “learned” that my body was raging with toxins from traditional skincare. The first time I saw a “free from” list, I overdrafted my account. Turns out, fear is an excellent motivation to buy.
“The most toxic thing about beauty has never been the ingredients, but the claims.”
Within a few months, I’d developed a rash. Thinking it was proof that my skin was expelling years of chemical buildup, I persisted even as it got worse. It took a chance encounter with my friend's mom, a dermatologist, to diagnose the real problem: my rash was a form of rosacea called perioral dermatitis. When I told her that I could only use natural products because they were safer on my sensitive skin, she explained what we all know to be true: nature isn’t always safe, and it has a lot of irritants. As she rattled off a list of “natural” things that make you itch, sneeze, or, in some cases, die—poison ivy, flowers, lead, and bacteria, to name a few—I realized I’d been duped.
Since then, I’ve turned to science, and scientists, to help decode the Rosetta Stone that is ingredient listings—and found myself with far fewer face rashes.
The beauty industry is barely regulated when it comes to claims—and CBD even less so
The thing most people don’t realize about beauty is that there is no government body paying close attention. Not to clean beauty, and not to larger corporations. Beauty operates largely off the regulatory radar. And when has self-regulation ever generated good results for consumers?
Unless beauty products claim to cure a disease or act like a drug, they operate with impunity. Unless an ingredient has been approved by the FDA to do so, brands cannot claim their botanicals or random concoctions cure acne, but they do it anyway. Why? Their chances of getting caught and facing consequences are low.
The FDA has never been well-equipped to deal with beauty, and the modern development of direct-to-consumer selling and proliferation of Instagram-specific brands has made it worse, as regulators cannot keep up with the volume, let alone start combing through the ones that list CBD specifically.
In late 2019, the FDA ruled on CBD cosmetics the way it ruled on all cosmetics: fend for yourselves. Per their website, “Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to premarket approval by FDA ... [including] cannabis or cannabis-derived ingredients.” While the FDA can serve brands with a warning if they make a drug claim, there are far too many out there for the organization to meaningfully track.
In other words: it’s not hard for a brand to legally bend the truth around science, dosing, and formulations. And with CBD being shoved into every cream, serum, and oil, consumers need to work harder than ever to protect themselves from predatory marketing and bad packaging.
“With CBD being shoved into every cream, serum, and oil, consumers need to work harder than ever to protect themselves from predatory marketing and bad packaging.“
What CBD and retinols have in common
Retinol, or Vitamin A, is considered one of a handful of hallowed ingredients in skincare simply because it’s been proven to work. It boosts cell turnover while increasing collagen and epidermal thickness, which means it smooths wrinkles, evens out texture, and minimizes acne.
According to Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical researcher with over 40 years of experience, retinol is so efficacious because our skin has retinoid-specific receptors. Retinol speaks directly to these receptors and regulates their function.
Our skin also has cannabinoid receptors, which are part of your larger Endocannabinoid System (ECS). (As a refresher, the ECS is a molecular system responsible for balancing different functions, such as immune and stress responses in the body.)
In the same way retinol communicates with retinoid receptors, spurring them into action, there is potential for CBD and other cannabinoids to talk to the endocannabinoid receptors that help balance our skin. And if cannabinoids can talk to your skin’s receptors, it’s possible that they could regulate myriad functions, from oil production to inflammation. Some papers theorize that it’s a disruption in your skin’s ECS balance that leads to forms of acne, dermatitis, itching, and pain.
But here’s the catch: we know a lot more about retinol than we do about CBD. We know that retinol doesn’t work unless it’s both stabilized and at an active level. We also know that opaque packaging with stabilized ingredients is key, and that different variations of retinol require different doses.
With CBD, we don’t know the levels at which a dose becomes active, and most products are still delivered in clear dropper bottles, which are harmful to the product’s stability. “There isn’t a great sense of how much you need or the best way to deliver cannabinoids to receptors,” explains Dr. Ciraldo.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that most brands list CBD in milligrams versus active percent, forcing consumers to do volumetric math while in a checkout aisle. Until there is more research and clarity on active dosing, nobody knows how much CBD you need for the skincare to hit.
What CBD, and other minor cannabinoids, might do
Based on the research we have now, Dr. Ciraldo notes that CBD most likely helps with inflammation and immune imbalances, making it a contender for rosacea, acne, and dermatitis. Redness and oil production are also a possibility.
Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu are the duo behind the beauty myth-busting Instagram account and skincare line Chemist Confessions, and both take a more skeptical approach. As the formulators behind some of your favorite brands, they know what goes into a clinical trial and what has promise to work.
“Until there is more research and clarity on active dosing, nobody knows how much CBD you need for the skincare to hit.”
According to Lu, “Because there are no real clinicals testing on human subjects completed yet [that evaluate CBD or cannabinoids], it’s hard to draw any real conclusions on the actual benefits for skincare.” This lack of data leads them to believe most products on the market don’t have the necessary research backing them up to make any real claims, from the best way to deliver cannabinoids to the dose.
As for the other cannabinoids? Dr. Tamás Bíró from the University of Debrecen in Hungary has co-authored one of the only preclinical explorations of minor cannabinoids, published in 2016 in Experimental Dermatology. Evaluating CBG, CBGV, CBC, and THCV, the report found that—unlike retinols which, remember, only target one receptor—individual cannabinoids potentially target different receptors, which in turn can have different functions. This is an exciting discovery, and also why the implications of “full spectrum” are decidedly more complex when it comes to skincare.
Hemp flowers are made up of a wide range of plant material, including cannabinoids beyond CBD, terpenes, and other “plant matter.” Full-spectrum is shorthand for hemp flower extract that includes this full range of material, not just CBD in isolate.
The idea here is that individual cannabinoids are less effective on their own than when they act together. Also known as the “entourage effect,” this phenomenon is not specific to hemp. To use another skincare example, we know L-ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) is more effective when combined with other antioxidants like Vitamin E and ferulic acid.
Dr. Biró’s preclinical lends credence to the idea that the sum of cannabinoids is greater than its individual parts. But here’s where things get complicated: while the preclinical found that, in vitro, all cannabinoids were beneficial for inflammation, Cannabigerol (CBG) and Cannabigerovarin (CBGV) increased oil production, while Cannabichromene (CBC) and Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) suppressed it.
With this knowledge, brands that claim full-spectrum CBD face a conundrum. While, in theory, a “full spectrum” label should denote a more effective product, in practice, it offers a blanket term for a cocktail of unspecified ingredients, all of which could have different—and in some cases, conflicting—benefits.
Why percentages matter
Just like you want to know your retinol percentage to make sure it’s both effective and the right level for you, con- sumers should know how much CBD, CBG, or CBC—or any of the other cannabinoids, for that matter—are in their product. Many brands labeled “full spectrum” don’t list minor cannabinoids in their ingredients, and that’s often because their products don’t have them.
When it comes to skincare, the difference between 1 percent and 0.1 percent of an active ingredient is vast. Evaluating the test results from a list of brands claiming full-spectrum CBD as an ingredient and sold at a popular national beauty retailer, only one actually featured meaningful amounts from a range of cannabinoids—the rest were 100 percent CBD. Moreover, none of them listed a percentage value of terpenes, which are a hemp plant’s fragrance or essential oils, and can be irritating to those with sensitive skin.
If this weren’t complicated enough,full-spectrum hemp oil offers one last challenge: it’s an agricultural crop. Every season, the crop will yield variable amounts of cannabinoids, terpenes, and plant matter—meaning what you bought last year is likely to be different from this year. When ingested or absorbed sublingually, as in a tincture, our bodies can process and appreciate different vintages. But with skincare, precision matters.
Does anything actually work?
One thing both Dr. Ciraldo and the duo at Chemist Confessions agreed on was the importance of the added ingredients in a given CBD skincare product. Recently, I saw a brand claim their CBD-infused moisturizer would repair your acid mantle. I was intrigued.
Our acid mantle is what main- tains our skin-barrier function and wards off infection. (For what it’s worth, when your acid mantle is damaged, it’s most likely because you over-exfoliated.) In this case, the product in question also contained ceramides, a lipid found in your moisture barrier and known to repair your acid mantle. This product may in fact do what it claims—but that’s not because of the CBD.
It’s at this point that you might be thinking of trashing all your CBD products. Don’t. Back to my original question: what were you expecting? If you expected to wake up looking 20 years younger or that an oil would cure your cystic acne, it probably won’t happen. But if the product is in your budget and you aren’t waiting on a miracle, why not? Beauty is fun—you should be able to play around. And at the end of the day, not knowing how or when something works doesn’t mean it won’t. It just means we have to go in eyes wide open.
“While CBD may be the ingredient du jour, my philosophy on buying it extends to anything I invest in: How transparent is the brand?”
I started my research into cannabinoid beauty self-righteous—and still am, but less so. I was certain that the FDA would catch up, and that brands would be more honest if they saw the science. Now, I don’t hold my breath. It’s been years. I’m still waiting for a brand to pony up and test what cannabinoids can actually do.
While CBD may be the ingredient du jour, my philosophy on buying it extends to anything I invest in: How transparent is the brand? What testing have they done? And does the price reflect that?
One last thing: beauty in all its forms is a luxury, and being able to participate in the “skincare self-care” industry is a privilege. Using the cachet of an illicit substance to sell products using, to quote one brand, “the natural healing power of cannabis” feels like a weird white loophole into selling weed.
People, predominantly Black and brown ones, are still in jail, and still being arrested and serving sentences for what is ostensibly the “white-approved” cousin of the plant. Scrolling through the Instagrams of a few of these brands, while they post quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., none appear to have initiatives to help people who have been hurt by the plant they’re now benefiting from. Science matters, but so does social justice.
Since 2016, every year has felt like a decade. In a world that’s becoming increasingly stressful and overwhelming, I’ll take respite where I can get it. But whenever I find myself looking for an overnight miracle, I remind myself to stick to the companies that tell me there are none.