BY JESSICA CASTILLO | Illustration for Ember by Jordan Bogash
It’s impossible to understate the popularity of cannabidiol, or CBD, one of the many cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Put it this way: If CBD was a high school student, she’d be prom queen three years running… at a school she doesn’t even go to. And because CBD doesn’t get you high the way THC does, she’d get straight A's and be super nice to you in the lunchroom. You know, basically the perfect student all around. So it’s no wonder that plenty of companies are finding ways to put CBD in their products in hopes that you’ll buy what they’re selling.
One of those fields is beauty. You can barely walk into your local makeup shop or drugstore without spotting at least one or two products loaded up with CBD oil. From serums to mascara, companies are finding ways to add some element of the hemp plant to their formulas, and it seems to be paying off… big time. A 2018 report estimated that the CBD industry would be worth $22 billion by 2022.
“CBD is perhaps the hottest skin care ingredient right now,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, previously told Ember. “Many consumers are looking for natural ingredients like CBD oil to treat their skin.”
But while beauty companies have a vested interest in selling you their CBD-infused wares—after all, that’s how they make money—is it worth your hard-earned green to give in? Here’s what you need to know about CBD beauty, and whether it’s worth the hype or is simply marketing buzz.
Let’s get the biggest question out of the way first: Do CBD beauty and skincare products work? Well, that depends on what you want them to do—and what promises you might hear from savvy brands looking to increase hype for their products. Even the beauty magazine Allure would want you to take claims with a grain of salt: “Just because CBD might not be able to live up to every company's current claim (and frankly, what could?), doesn't mean to write it off or stop watching the space,” they explained in 2019.
The short answer is that researchers don’t yet know definitively how beneficial CBD can be in beauty and skincare topicals—those are the products you put on or rub into your skin, rather than ingesting them—but initial research is showing “a lot of potential,” Dr. Dustin Sulak, an integrative medical physician and the founder of Healer, tells Ember.
“Based on what I've seen in my practice and based on what we do know from the limited human evidence and certainly from the animal evidence, CBD has the potential to reduce inflammation, to prevent scarring, and to speed the healing process of the skin,” he explains. “Maybe some other parameters too, like, improving elasticity [and] improving hydration. A lot of these effects are desirable in the treatment of a wide variety of skin conditions and also for preventing skin conditions or keeping skin looking healthy.” That includes everything from scarring to acne—both of which are entirely normal skin conditions—which is why you’ll see plenty of skincare products with CBD oil in them especially.
Much the same way that ingested or inhaled CBD unlocks endocannabinoid receptors in your brain, CBD-infused products affect similar receptors in your skin… but only where you apply the product. As Dr. Bonni Goldstein, the medical director for Canna-Centers, told Allure, topically-applied CBD is “unlikely to penetrate deep enough to get into the bloodstream, and it tends to accumulate in the upper skin layers.”
Of course, there are ways to feel the effects more deeply. Think about the difference between coating your eyelashes in a hemp-infused mascara, and rubbing a lotion loaded with CBD oil into your skin to relieve elbow pain. Given that your eyelashes are made from keratin, you might not feel anything, but a CBD-infused lip balm may help your lips stay more hydrated than a formula without the cannabinoid.
“There are a lot of products that have CBD in it that are really designed more for affecting the joints and they'll contain things like menthol and other essential oils, and those could be really irritating for skin conditions,” Dr. Sulak warns, speaking to the cooling or warming ingredients commonly found in CBD balms. “So it's important to get a product that's made for skin, not designed for deeper penetration of the joints.”
Absolutely. Not only is transparency in the CBD industry vital to the fight for restorative justice, but the limited regulation by the FDA means that the ways in which brands label their products can vary greatly.
“There's a lot of mislabeling in the CBD industry—this is well-known,” Dr. Sulak says. “Many investigative reports have suggested that around half of the CBD products out there in the market are inaccurately labeled. So I think anyone shopping for a CBD product should know how to navigate that, which includes looking at the company's website and seeing if there's a certificate of analysis with a batch number that can really prove the label is what it says it is.”
It’s also worth looking into what kind of CBD is in your products; a 2018 deep-dive by the New York Times noted that CBD tends to work best when combined with other cannabinoids. In other words, the entourage effect is real. “We’ve found CBD isolate, or crystals of pure CBD, to not work,” Cindy Capobianco, a co-founder of CBD skincare brand Lord Jones, told the paper. It may be worth seeking out products that use “full spectrum” or “broad spectrum” CBD, which utilizes the full plant.
“I think very few people take the time to read the ingredients of products that they put on their skin, that stuff does get absorbed,” Dr. Sulak says. “If it has an ingredient list that makes you not want to put it in your mouth and eat it, then don't put it on your skin either. That's a simple piece of advice.”
He recommends consulting the Environmental Working Group to define any confusing or complex cosmetic ingredients, and to do your due diligence by researching the company you’re buying CBD-boosted products from. “If there is a company that's willing to take the time to have their product tested by a third-party laboratory and to publish those test results on their website, that's evidence that it's a higher-integrity company. And I encourage people not only to buy those products because they're likely safer and more effective, but also to support those companies because they're doing what's best for their customers,” he says.
Just as buying a certain strain of cannabis can create an “expectancy effect,” you might worry that you’re tricking yourself into feeling relief by using a CBD skincare or beauty product. Don’t discount that either, Dr. Sulak says.
“I love the placebo effect,” he tells Ember. “A lot of times it's seen as something that in clinical trials that we want to control for or exclude, but really it's a sign of the individual or the setting that they're in somehow stimulating the inner pharmacy to produce a healing effect. I think that's beautiful, so it shouldn't be avoided, necessarily.” He notes that there aren’t yet enough clinical trials to fully understand how common the placebo effect is with regard to CBD topicals, but it is something to keep in mind.
Overall, however, the potential reward for CBD beauty products likely outweighs the risk, which Dr. Sulak says “is more related to other ingredients or other compounds that are coming along with the CBD that are undesirable, like pesticides or something like that. But I don't think when applied topically, there's a lot of risks, and there’s a high potential for therapeutic effects.”
“There’s a lot to learn, so let’s learn it,” he adds. That means that your CBD-infused faves will likely only get more targeted and more effective in the years to come.