Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About CBD (But Were Too Afraid To Ask)

The beauty industry is mad for CBD — but when it comes to the controversial ingredient, there are still more questions than answers.

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Somewhere between the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness stoking the fears of pearl-clutching parents all over America and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s categorization of marijuana as a Schedule I drug in 1970, an inconspicuous plant with psychoactive effects became an enemy of the state. Fast forward to 2019, and the conversation has taken a different turn — and cannabis has come to a mass beauty retailer near you.
Of course, the kind of cannabis once condemned as “the devil’s harvest” is not the same kind listed as an ingredient on the back of your body cream. That’s still illegal at the federal level. What you’re seeing everywhere, from Sephora to the drugstore, isn’t marijuana — it’s hemp, or rather a hemp-derived compound called cannabidiol, or CBD.
Unlike its more controversial sibling, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD is a non-psychoactive molecule of the cannabis sativa plant. The component was first extracted from the plant in 1940, but didn’t hit its mainstream stride until last year, when it started popping up on the labels of bath bombs, lotions, serums, acne treatments, and even sunscreens. That would have been illegal five years ago — but, in January, the 2018 Farm Bill officially went into law, effectively changing the way the U.S. market treats CBD.
The Farm Bill, also known as the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, authorized other policies and provisions, like funding programs that address the rising levels of mental-health concerns in farm country and improving crop insurance programs, but its most newsworthy accomplishment was the federal legalization of industrial hemp. For some brands, that meant proper funding for clinical research; for others, it was a green light for launch, or for evolving away from a strict straight-to-consumer model. For all of them, it meant that the topical CBD industry could at long last be taken seriously.
The Farm Bill states that hemp is legal, but it doesn’t explicitly mention anything about the regulation of its most popular phytocompound, leaving consumers, especially in the beauty industry, vulnerable to misleading labels and a variety of unsubstantiated claims. With more and more CBD-specific products and brands emerging, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the nuances and options on shelves. If you’re not sure where to begin or the right questions to ask, here’s your journey to the starting line.

Is CBD legal?

Well, that depends. The legality of CBD itself is in a bit of a gray area because it’s reliant on which individual cannabis sativa plant it comes from. If it’s hemp-derived — which means it comes from a strain that’s high in CBD with 0.3% THC or less — it’s legal. Cannabinoids derived from marijuana, on the other hand, are classified as Schedule 1 drugs, which means they have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. (In some cannabis communities, the word marijuana is being phased out due to its pejorative and racist history, but is still widely used when referring to the legality of the plant.) As it stands, the DEA has no official stance on CBD as a controlled substance.

What’s the difference between hemp and marijuana?

Marijuana and hemp are of the same classification of cannabis, but produce different amounts of THC, the phytocompound with psychoactive side effects. Hemp is naturally low in THC — only 0.3% or less — and marijuana is naturally high. It’s the presence of THC, or lack thereof, that determines the legality of each plant.

What are the benefits of CBD skin care?

Even after the 2018 Farm Bill, it’s still difficult to study CBD, so there isn’t a definitive answer to how the molecule works, besides that it has purported anti-inflammatory properties. “Unfortunately, the research has been stymied because it's been caught up in the war on cannabis,” explains Peter Grinspoon, MD, a primary care physician and board member for the advocacy group Doctors For Cannabis Regulation.
With that said, a few studies do exist. Research and anecdotal evidence has indicated that consumers use topical CBD for muscle soreness, acne, eczema, and psoriasis; some people even use it to relieve sunburns. One of the most recent studies, conducted in 2014 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, shows evidence that CBD may regulate the skin’s oil production, thus effectively controlling potential breakouts. Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says that the only readily available drugs with similar abilities are oral isotretinoin (a.k.a. Accutane), hormonal treatments (birth control pills), and spironolactone.
Anecdotally, people have claimed to see a difference in their eczema and psoriasis flare-ups when they use a CBD-infused product vs. one that’s without. However, most of the studies out there aren’t conducted on humans and what works in the lab on a rat won’t always work on a human in real life, Dr. Grinspoon explains.

Research has been stymied because it's been caught up in the war on cannabis.

Peter Grinspoon, MD
As exciting as the CBD beauty trend is, it isn’t without its “weed-washing” red flags. One of the most notable is the misconception that hemp seed oil and CBD yield the same results. Both may be beneficial for certain skin concerns, but aren’t one in the same. “There is not enough CBD in the seeds of cannabis,” explains Kate Miller, cofounder of Miss Grass. “Anything that says ‘cannabis sativa seed’ or ‘hemp seed oil’ probably means it’s more similar to a rosehip oil.” Like rosehip, hemp seed oil’s hero purpose is to moisturize and condition — not offer anti-inflammatory relief.
Lord Jones cofounder Cindy Capobianco urges consumers to read ingredient lists carefully. “If you’re looking for CBD, read the labels,” she says. “Do not rely on the name of the product or images on the product.” In many cases, those images will be a cannabis reference, even if the formula housed inside contains little to no cannabinoids.

Is CBD regulated by the FDA?

The FDA has nothing to say about the legality of CBD — which has yet to be evaluated by the agency — but it has cracked down on the claims CBD brands are able to make about the effects and benefits of cannabidiol, particularly those that imply it is medicinal or a drug. For example, on July 23, the FDA issued a warning to the CBD brand Curaleaf for selling unapproved products containing CBD with “unsubstantiated claims” that the products could treat certain conditions and diseases, like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as pain and anxiety.
“If a product is intended to affect the structure or function of the body, or to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat or prevent disease, it is a drug, or possibly both a cosmetic and a drug, even if it affects the appearance,” wrote the FDA in a statement. “In this circumstance, the product is subject to both drug and cosmetic regulatory requirements, which are different.”
While egregious claims are subject to FDA judgement, brands and consumers alike are looking for something more: standardized rules. According to Miss Grass co-founder Anna Duckworth, the hope is that regulatory bodies step in to make it difficult for exploitative brands to saturate the market. “It’s hard to even point the finger some of the time or give people the glossary of terms to live by because so many brands aren't just knowingly misleading consumers,” she says. “That is the problem we’re trying to solve, a lack of info in a confused space.”
One regulatory body that’s stepped up to the plate: the U.S. Hemp Authority, a certification program founded by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable. Its initiative is to set higher standards for hemp products, instill confidence in consumers, and guarantee that the pricey products you’re purchasing aren’t just legal, but safe. The certification process for each company is conducted by a third-party certifying agency, which will audit everything from growing, processing, manufacturing, packaging, and labeling. Right now, the U.S. Hemp Authority has awarded only 20 growers, manufacturers, and brand owners with the certified seal, including Charlotte’s Web and Medterra CBD.

What’s the difference between broad-spectrum CBD and full-spectrum CBD?

The biggest difference is that broad-spectrum does not contain THC, whereas full-spectrum does — that's the reason many CBD beauty products (outside of states where cannabis is legal) are broad-spectrum. But without labeling regulation, some brands claim that their formulas are full-spectrum even if they don’t contain THC. For the most part, the implication is the same: The formula doesn’t include just CBD, as some products do, but a combination of hundreds of other cannabinoids, terpenes, proteins, and fatty acids.
The jury is still out on whether CBD is more effective when extracted and isolated in its purest form or used in a broad- or full-spectrum composition, but both formula options exist on the market.

Where can you buy CBD beauty products?

The market for CBD sales is projected to surpass $20 billion by 2024 in the U.S., and statistics suggest that a healthy portion of that money will likely come from topicals. Naturally, the growing interest has inspired mass retailers to get in on it, offering an in-store and online assortment of CBD products.

If you’re looking for CBD, read the labels. Do not rely on the name of the product or the images.

Cindy Capobianco, co-founder of Lord Jones
In January 2019, Sephora started carrying its first CBD-formulated body lotion from Lord Jones, albeit only online (the brand wouldn’t be sold in stores until July). Now, the retailer carries five other CBD products from popular brands like Josie Maran, Herbivore, and Farmacy online, as well as newcomer Saint Jane. In March, America’s largest drugstore retailer CVS began selling CBD products in eight states: Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee. Walgreens also announced in March 2019 that it would carry cannabis beauty products to nearly 1,500 stores in select states, although an exact roll-out date has yet to be confirmed.
The jury is still out on whether or not other major retailers, like Walmart and Target, will join the pack, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth in the future. “Like many companies, we know there is consumer interest in CBD products and the conversation is evolving quickly,” a Target spokesperson told Refinery29. “We’re following the discussion, and we’ll continue to monitor as this conversation evolves to determine the right approach for Target and our guests.”
Just two years ago — before the most recent Farm Bill was ratified — Target briefly sold products from the CBD brand CW Hemp, now known as Charlotte’s Web, but the products were pulled from shelves shortly thereafter. The retailer has never confirmed why it stopped stocking the brand, and declined to comment for this story.
If you can’t find CBD topicals in a store near you, there’s always the internet. There are even e-commerce sites dedicated to vetting the best and highest quality products on the market right now, like Miss Grass and Eaze Wellness. The latter is essentially an Amazon for cannabis — selling everything from capsules to tincture drops to topicals — that offers two separate websites: one for marijuana (in the states that it’s legal) and one for CBD products.
Miss Grass is also an online retailer for all things cannabis, only selling products that have passed the team’s extensive vetting process, with the helpful addition of an online magazine. (It doesn’t hurt that the products sold on the site are some of the chicest-looking ones in the business, either.) After the product passes internal and third-party tests, Duckworth and Miller meet with the brand founders to confirm that they’re socially responsible and conduct business ethically. By doing so, they’re actively dismantling the social issues that plague the market — namely, the politically loaded and racist history of the cannabis industry.

How can we fix the inclusivity problem in the CBD industry?

The cannabis market will undoubtedly continue to evolve, but it’s up to consumers exactly how far, and in which direction. Miller and Duckworth agree that as important as it is for consumers to do their due diligence and inquire about a brand’s sourcing and a product’s ingredients, it’s even more crucial for the industry to acknowledge and challenge the social equity of the space.
On a macro level, cannabis’ history is a complicated one, glued together by flagrant racism stemming from the “war on drugs” declared in 1971 by the Nixon administration. As new as the CBD market is, systemic privilege and prejudice still apply. Mass retailers may be comfortable selling CBD, but someone standing a few feet away could be arrested for having less than an ounce of marijuana. (And that person is very likely to be a minority.) Even with the federal legalization of industrialized hemp, states struggle to solve marijuana possession laws that are enforced with racial bias that targets and criminalizes Black and Latinx communities.
Cannabis is a social justice issue, says Mary Pryor, co-founder of Cannaclusive, a collective focused on diversifying the cannabis market from all angles, including. The gaps in the existing market, she explains, include a lack of education, capital, knowledge on how to launch businesses on the ancillary side, and full awareness of how municipal, state, and federal regulations will impact growth opportunities in cannabis for women of color.

Cannabis is a social justice issue.

Mary Pryor, co-founder of Cannaclusive
“Overall, this industry is built off of the legacies of a market that is targeted and heavily policed due to the war on drugs,” Pryor says. “We need to be clear on this during times like these and make changes while this space is still young and coming into the forefront of a political conversation.” How do we do this? Pryor suggests we start by employing, consulting, and listening to people of color about product development, while producing diverse photo shoots on all fronts, including the staff and models.
Pryor says that not only do consumers have to hold brands responsible, but the brands themselves must be conscious about the painful narrative that has brought cannabis to where it is today. “Brands should consider their place in being mindful of the racist history that drives disparity within Black and brown communities,” Pryor says. “I also think it's important to not support any brand or personality that ignores this. Consumers have more power than they think. We need to be vocal and firm with our dollars.”
Pryor adds that social equity also extends to protecting small businesses, which includes fair and negotiable pricing — something Tonic CBD, which Pryor is the Chief Marketing Officer of, focuses on as a trusted cultivator and small-batch CBD topical brand in upstate New York. “Sourcing can be expensive, and finding quality product is a big issue in the hemp world,” she explains. “Small businesses require care and consideration when it comes to starting out. It’s helpful to support farmers in cannabis and hemp who are willing to work with others when it comes to fair and equitable pricing.”
We may not have been asking the right questions in 1936, but we’re too smart to buy into the propaganda now. Ask questions, hold the brands you love accountable, and put in the work. The history of cannabis is complicated, but CBD’s future in the beauty industry looks bright — and, with the right products, so will your skin.

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