Ever since the Ancient Egyptians first smeared kohl on their eyelids, beauty products have evolved to great lengths, thanks to the discovery of new ingredients and technological innovations. One of the more recent discoveries, cannabis, entered the market with both excitement and skepticism after the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill. The legislation allowed products containing less than 0.3 percent CBD (or cannabidiol, the naturally-occurring non-psychotropic compounds found in cannabis plants) to be sold in the United States, causing a massive window of opportunity in the industry. Suddenly a slew of products containing this mysterious albeit confusing ingredient was in everything from moisturizers, to hair care, to nail polish, and more. The market became flooded fast, so much, in fact, that “CBD fatigue” was a common complaint both among beauty insiders and consumers.
According to Data Bridge Market research, the CBD skincare market is expected to reach 7583.91 million by 2029. But while the “green wave” continues to grow, many beauty consumers still have questions about cannabis in beauty — and whether or not it is truly legit. There have been claims that CBD can bring moisture to dehydrated hair, treat acne and rosacea, and relieve sunburned skin, among numerous others. “Benefits in [cannabis] skincare become a complex question,” says Dr. Ava Shamban, a board-certified dermatologist based in Beverly Hills. “As an ingredient, we know it is a potent antioxidant and we have some clinical evidence and plenty of anecdotal evidence that it reduces inflammation and helps with pain management (alone and in tandem), regulates oil production and fights off environmental damage by neutralizing free radical damage.”
Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City and Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, says that one of the most promising potential roles for cannabinoids in dermatology is for the treatment of itch, pointing to a study of patients who suffer from uremic pruritus, a type of body itch that commonly affects people with advanced chronic kidney disease, where a cannabinoid cream completely eliminated it in 8 of 21 patients. “Cannabinoids may also have anti-inflammatory properties useful for treating eczema and allergic contact dermatitis,” she says. Other studies that King references show the potential of cannabinoids in treating psoriasis and keratinocyte carcinoma and melanoma. While some of these studies have only been tested in mice and in vitro, there are also human studies that have shown great promise. “In a study of 11 humans, a topical cannabinoid was applied for acne and seborrheic dermatitis and the treated patients were found to have lower levels of skin sebum and redness,” says King.
The difference between CBD and Cannabis Sativa beauty products
To understand the benefits of cannabis in beauty products, you should know the difference between CBD and cannabis sativa oil. “Both are beautiful ingredients, but yes, there is a significant difference in their key benefits. Hemp Seed Oil is derived from seeds while CBD is found in the flower, stem, and leaves of the hemp plant,” explains Casey Georgeson, the founder of Saint Jane Beauty. She says they are different compounds with different extraction processes and different benefits for the skin. “While both CBD and Hemp Seed Oil include skin-loving micronutrients, the key difference is that CBD is an adaptogen with an ability to balance skin stress triggers.” This all goes down in the body’s endocannabinoid system which is responsible for regulating our overall health and wellness. “CBD works like a lock and key to keep our skin from being overwhelmed by environmental and inflammatory stressors. Hemp Oil does not have the calming properties that CBD has, but it's certainly a highly effective moisturizer and skin softener...much like sunflower, avocado or grapeseed oil,” she says.
Aside from the actual cannabinoid compounds, a major part of how cannabis works has to do with how it interacts with other plant compounds. If you’re looking at a CBD beauty product label and notice other plant ingredients along with it, don’t assume it’s only for filler or marketing — there may be an important purpose. “Look for formulas that have potent botanical oils that work synergistically with CBD. There are particular essential oil combinations that are natural penetration enhancers that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin, including CBD compounds,” says Dr. June Chin, an osteopathic physician and Syracuse University professor who specializes in cannabis health. “This ensures the active ingredients penetrate deeply and enhance skin bioavailability.” Terpenes, which are aromatic compounds found in every plant, have benefits of their own. When they come together with cannabinoids and interact synergistically, the results are more amplified than if these compounds were acting solo. (This is a very cool phenomenon known as the Entourage Effect.
The problem with CBD and the beauty industry
One major problem with cannabis beauty has to do with the lack of regulation in the industry. In a July 2022 study published by Johns Hopkins Medicine, researchers tested more than 100 topical CBD products and found significant evidence of mislabeling. Tory Spindle, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that when it came to the beauty products his team tested, he found that most were inaccurately labeled for CBD and some of the products also contained THC, but did not mention this on the label. “The other thing that stood out was the fact that some products made beauty-related claims (e.g., de-aging, reduce wrinkles, etc.). There isn't much research on CBD beauty products to support that they would necessarily be better in these regards than the same products without CBD.”
Findings like this undoubtedly contribute to the problem that CBD beauty brands face when it comes to consumers thinking that it might all be a gimmick or doesn’t work. “Ultimately most cannabinoids are anti-inflammatory and your skin is your biggest organ so it really does have a purpose,” says Olivia Alexander, founder of Kush Queen and author of The Essential Guide to Cannabis for Women: How to Buy, Use, and Enjoy Cannabis for Recreation and Wellness. “The molecules have been exploited for capitalism and put in a lot of things that wouldn’t interact with your endocannabinoid system, so it makes sense why so many people don’t trust it,” she says. “But there are so many applications for cannabis in beauty, from actual skin care to social anxiety (in transdermal products), people just don’t understand it.”
Spindle says that there currently is no framework in place to regulate commercial CBD products, but thinks that improved regulatory oversight would result in better quality control of the products. Until then, the responsibility of knowing which CBD beauty products are worth trying out is left to the consumer. Chin suggests finding third party-tested brands from labs that are reputable and licensed. “I recommend using CBD-rich products that are made using only organic, CBD rich, whole plant extract because this offers the best safety profile and superior medicinal benefits,” she adds.
But even with the issues that CBD has faced, for some, cannabis beauty products have become the holy grail. Brooke Burgstahler, an actor, podcast host, and founder of the cannabis wellness blog, Budding Mind, initially thought a “17-step process,” was necessary for a successful skin-care routine, but she ended up exchanging it for something more minimal and less costly. She now uses cannabis-infused face wash, serum, and body oil. “When I use cannabis-infused beauty products, I genuinely notice the texture of my skin being smoother,” she says.
Bottom line, you shouldn’t knock cannabis beauty until you try it, you just have to watch out for questionable products and may have to do some of research yourself — but isn’t that the deal with any product we use? “It actually has potential. Great potential,” says Shamban. “More study, data and endpoints are needed before the jury is in with the verdict here.” As long as research into cannabis continues, there may even be a chance for CBD to be as popular a skin-care ingredient as some of the heavy hitters out there. We may not be that close, but Shamban says we are getting there. “If the promises ring true, we may find [cannabis] to be as important of an active as either hyaluronic acid or niacinamide,” she says. “But right now we are not able to be definitive on that yet.”