How Do Cannabis Topicals Work, Exactly?
Consuming Cannabis

How Do Cannabis Topicals Work, Exactly?

When cannabis 2.0 products hit the market in 2019, they all pretty much made sense. You drink it, you eat it, you vape it. But with cannabis topicals, the waters were a little more muddied. How do cannabis topicals work, exactly? You’re not ingesting or inhaling the product, so the THC and CBD aren’t being absorbed in a way we’re used to seeing. Will they get you high, or will they just affect the area that you rub the topical on? Great questions. Let’s see if we can figure it out. 

The first thing you need to remember is that information about cannabis topicals, specifically in relation to the effects they might have, is somewhat limited. These products are still new, so there is a lot of research to be done. However, there are some things we DO know about cannabis topicals. 

How does your body absorb cannabis topicals?

Cannabis topicals are absorbed through your skin and interact directly with your endocannabinoid system, or the ECS. The ECS is a biological system that interacts with the active chemical compounds of cannabis to create the effect you feel after consuming. It’s responsible for the way our immune system functions, appetite and digestion, cardiovascular function, bone development, pain, memory, and many other features in our body. When you apply a cannabis topical, the active compounds are absorbed into your skin. They bind to CB2 receptors, which are in your immune system. 

Since the cannabinoids don’t actually enter your bloodstream, the effects you feel from a cannabis topical will be localized to where the product was applied. This means if you apply the product to your knee, you probably won’t feel anything in your elbow. 

How soon do you feel the effects?

In terms of onset of effects or duration of effects, that’s still pretty unclear. It’s going to depend on the potency of the product, how much you use, and where it’s being applied. It will also depend on your cannabis tolerance, body type, and other factors that generally affect your high. According to the Ontario Cannabis Store, “there are no general guidelines for how much topical cannabis should be applied, so read the manufacturer’s information that comes with the specific product.” 

According to Project CBD, the onset time of topicals may be faster than an edible product because the cannabinoids have been made water-soluble. 

“The processes that make cannabinoids soluble in water may also make it easier for your body to absorb THC and CBD,” wrote Adrian Devitt-Lee, Project CBD’s chief science writer. “This means that [topicals] will have a quicker onset compared to an edible […] and the dose may be stronger over a shorter period of time.”

What do you use cannabis topicals for?

As mentioned earlier, the exact efficacy and specifics about cannabis topicals remains to be seen. Anecdotally there are a lot of people who use them and say they work for aches and pains. Really, we won’t know for sure until more research is done. Most cannabis topicals are designed to be applied around your muscles and joints. There are also cannabis topicals designed for your lips, hair, and nails.

Even though you’re not ingesting or inhaling cannabis topicals (seriously…don’t do that), you should still start low and go slow. You never know how cannabis topicals will affect you. 


Photo: Hand care cream by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

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