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What are cannabis topicals and how do they work?

April 30, 2015

New methods of cannabis consumption are bringing us further away from the notion that marijuana belongs solely in a bong or joint – or that it has to get you high, for that matter. Cannabis-infused topicals are an example of how new modes of consumption are revolutionizing perceptions of marijuana as their accessibility, safety, and efficacy invite even the most unlikely patrons into the world of medical cannabis.

What are topicals?

Topicals are cannabis-infused lotions, balms, and oils that are absorbed through the skin for localized relief of pain, soreness, and inflammation. Because they’re non-intoxicating, topicals are often chosen by patients who want the therapeutic benefits of marijuana without the cerebral euphoria associated with other delivery methods. Other transdermal innovations are fast arriving in the cannabis market, including long-lasting patches and tingly lubricants for patients and recreational consumers alike.


What types of pain can cannabidiol (CBD) treat?

Strain-specific topicals attempt to harness certain terpenes and cannabinoids in a chemical profile similar to that of Blackberry Kush, Permafrost, Blueberry, or whatever other strains the processor wishes to imitate. Along with THC, CBD, THCA, and other cannabinoids, topical producers may also select ingredients and essential oils for additional relief, like cayenne, wintergreen, and clove.

How do cannabis-infused topicals work?

Cannabis-infused lotions, salves, oils, sprays, and other transdermal methods of relief work by binding to cannabinoid receptors. These receptors are found throughout the body and are activated either by the body’s naturally-occurring endocannabinoids or by cannabis compounds known as cannabinoids (e.g., THC, CBD).

Even if a topical contains active THC, it still won’t induce that intense “high” you’d get from smoking or ingesting cannabis. With most topicals, cannabinoids can’t breach the bloodstream; they only penetrate for localized relief. Transdermal patches, however, do deliver cannabinoids to the bloodstream and could have intoxicating effects with a high enough THC content.


What are THC, CBD, and other cannabis-derived transdermal patches?

What symptoms do cannabis topicals treat?

Topicals are most popularly chosen for localized pain relief, muscle soreness, tension, and inflammation, but anecdotal evidence is beginning to show a widening spectrum of potential benefits, from psoriasis, dermatitis, and itching to headaches and cramping.

A THC-rich rub infused with cooling menthol and peppermint is a perfect way to wind down from a brutal workout or hike. For intense localized pain, you may try a warming balm that combines the deep painkilling properties of cannabinoids with a tingling, soothing sensation. Inflammation symptoms may require a different chemical profile, as Cannabis Basics’ CEO Ah Warner explains:

“Arthritic pain is caused by inflammation. My products have [THCA] and CBD, both of which are anti-inflammatory. Active THC is not for inflammation, but when left in its acid form and combined with CBD, the two work to get rid of inflammation and the pain that comes with it.”

Different topicals have different benefits to offer depending on the way they are processed and the ingredients that are used, so experiment with various transdermal products to see what works for you. Medical marijuana states are seeing more and more options for topical remedies as time goes on, and for sufferers of pain and inflammation, it’s worth exploring. You’d be surprised the difference that one special ingredient makes.

  • Bev Mandery

    I have been suffering from scalp pain, itching and scalp sores for more than 3 years. I have seen 6 dermatologists and 5 diagnosed me with folliculitis. The 6th dermatologist felt I did not have folliculitis, but dysesthesia. I am interested in trying a cannabis scalp cream, but know nothing about this product, and where I might get it, and if it might work for me. I have had 7/7 pain for 3.5 years and need some relief other than narcotics.

    • Kathleen M. Tripp

      Hi Bev, I am curious my husband has the exact same issues, and then ends up picking his poor head like crazy which aggravates the scalp sores. We figured out that he has extremely thick hair and the follicles are too densely packed together and his scalp cannot breathe. Since we figured that out he has been going in for hair cuts where they thin his hair out a lot as well as cut it so his scalp can breathe….. Overall he is doing much better as long as we stay on top of the hair trims and thinning cuts but if he doesn’t go in regularly he is back to the irritation. BTW topical MMJ is great but they can be very oily and have compound stuff in them that can further irritate the scalp possibly etc. so maybe not great for scalp… 🙂 I have traumatic injuries from a car accident and the MMJ topical creams have saved my life…..

      • Bev Mandery

        I have had this for 3.5 yrs, hair is thinning due to the multitude of sores and abrasions all over the scalp. They hurt something awful, and I pick at them mercilessly, trying to get the out of my head. This only makes it worse and the pain worse. I have ordered something and will see what it does. I am trying to get heat therapy treatments from a therapist. Anything I can try.

        • Kathleen M. Tripp

          Bev, I am so sorry you are suffering with this condition it is horrible…… 🙁 Here is some other info. and recommendations Hubby has also used aloe vera pure clear get(not a lot of other stuff in with the aloe), and has also put coconut oil on his scalp and let it sit at night for about 20 minutes and then uses a fine tooth comb to get rid of some of the really dry flaky sores that are healing and then takes a shower and washes the oil out before we go to bed. He also had a prescription for topical stuff(forget what it was maybe clindomyacin?)that didn’t help. So what works best for him is to do the aloe vera, do the coconut oil, and keep his hair trimmed and thinned out. Depending on your hair length and thickness even though you are thinning due to the prob. I would suggest keeping hair shorter and have them thin it out with thinning shears overall, taking a multivitamin, Vit. D3 at least 2,000mg, and 10,000-20,000mcg biotin. I have thinning hair from going into to menopause but the biotin is really helping keeping it from all falling out. My hair was literally falling out in buckets before I started taking the Biotin and I think Vit. D3 has helped some too. I found out I had Vit. D3 shortage. You can get gel capsules of 10,000mcg Biotin so for awhile I took 2 a day. Aloe Vera is a anti-inflammatory so that can help, also don’t use any shampoos that have things like peppermint, rosemary, teatree oil, etc. which are irritants….. Write back eventually and let me know how you are doing…… 🙂

          • Bev Mandery

            Awaiting my Cannabis topical to arrive. I have natural aloe vera plants in my yard, which I planted for my scalp issue, but haven’t used them lately. Need to get back to them. Thanks for information re the tea tree oil, as I use this often.

          • Kathleen M. Tripp

            Yes, the tea tree oils, peppermint, Rosemary are all very harsh for our skin(can burn it, make it red, etc.) but are good for certain other things…. You can look up on internet things that are too harsh for skin…. and yes, get back to using aloe vera but you have to do it regularly…. Good luck… 🙂

          • We are under the largest environmental assault in the history of humanity with so many toxins in our food, air water and cosmetics. Thats why I created my own line of organic skincare products. Free from pesticides, gmo’, preservatives etc. You have to take care of your self nutritionally and eat as if your life depends on it, because it does.

  • Yani Appleseed

    Having run infusion workshops in Denver for the last 3 years, I have played with several recipes. Just Add Herbals has kits that include hypoallergenic mediums that you can infuse with kief, which they give you a way to extract from cannabis. Even lower quality cannabis can be used, the key is to pay attention to the genetic you are using. Kief makes dosing easier and these kits are a simple way to infuse not just salve, but tincture, massage oil, and cooking oil as well. The salve may be ideal for folliculitis – I’d be curious to hear how it does for you.

    • Connie Bissen

      I just heard about the lotion. Where do you buy it or how do you make it? I have MS my muscles in my legs always bother me.

      • Yani Appleseed

        Connie it’s, and each kit contains instructions. Anyone can make the salve with an oven. Because you use a non solvent extraction, you have more power and control over the dosing of your carriers.

    • Bast Rose

      Hey Yani- I’m up in WA and had acquired a topical oil made by a friend that worked wonders on angry joints. I know they started from leaf to create. I’m not capable of doing that and am wondering if you have recommendations for resources how to make my own salve from concentrate. I make my own coconut oil/essential oil mixtures already… I’m just not entirely certain where to started with adding in CBD/THC.

      Are there any groups that talk about this subject? Both dilution ratios and cdb…cbda…thc mixtures found to do better as topical? Also best dilution methods?

      I wish I just had the facilities to start from leaf.

  • Ashley Pires

    My daughter suffers from really bad eczema i was wondering if the CBD topical cream would work for it … we have tried everything over the counter for eczema relief and nothing works

    • BigDIndiana

      I have a mild case of eczema and found cetaphil lotion does well for me. Might depend on where its located too, and severity. Probably varies person to person but might be worth a shot about $11 for a bottle.

    • I suffered from severe eczema as a child and, thankfully, grew out of it for the most part. Eczema is skin with a weak barrier that makes the sufferer’s skin much more open to irritants and allergens, causing a lot of discomfort. This irritation/allergic reaction leads to itching, bacterial infections, over-moisturizing which can lead to yeast overgrowth, etc. Once the chain reaction is set off, it is very difficult to stop. As a child, my parents would come in after I went to sleep, slather my legs with aquaphor and wrap them in ace bandages. It was a sticky mess but somewhat effective. To soothe my dry and easily irritated adult skin (as well as my arthritis), I make a cannabis product wth beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil, and a handful of healing herbs. Beeswax is a great barrier/protectant and has other beneficial properties. The Shea butter is very similar to sebum in our skin so acts to supplement our natural protection.

      For years I experimented with homemade, simple. plant-based solutions and now have a topicals company (Oregon dispensary and hemp-based mail order) in Oregon.

  • Teri Rodriguez

    I have fibromyalgia, and neuropathy/neuromas on my feet. They feel like nothing but painful apparitions which have severely impacted my life/living. what would you suggest to run on my feet? I do have my medical marijuana card in MI.

    • Sue W

      Teri, did you find any cream they gave you relief? I, too, have fibromyalgia and neuropathy and I need something to help relieve this horrible burning pain that I have. Can you tell me if you found relief from some cream and what it is ? Thanks!

      • Teri Rodriguez

        So far the only topical I have found that works is Icy Hot w Lidocaine. It’s over the counter and really works wonders, for a while. At least it works long enough for me to fall asleep. I’ve tried oil infused w cannabis but that didn’t help.

      • Teri Rodriguez

        Icy Hot w Lidocaine works wonders and is over the counter. Hope you find some relief.

        • Rose Grossi

          I have fibromyalgia and I also have another autoimmune disease that causes severe pain, the kind that you have to use fentanyl to really help, however with the insanity of the drug addiction spilling into the chronic pain community and causing us to b made to suffer I have been using diclofenac ointment, it’s a NSAID but since it’s applied to the skin it doesn’t have any of the effects on the GI tract or the cardiovascular system. It works well and it’s covered by Medicare, I am sure others as well. I have not found any cannabis balms that are as helpful but I do use a Dutch Farms organic tinctures and balms. I have found that using an high thc potency marijuana causes hours of gut wrenching pain! So be careful if you’re not used to it!

    • Alana Cote

      I have both these things as well. I do not have a card, but I live in Colorado. I would also like to know if you found any helpful concoction.

      • Teri Rodriguez

        So far my best relief comes from Icy Hot w Lidocaine, I buy it in the pharmacy over the counter. Works great, not greasy or oily and helps tremendously.

      • Goldie Buzzell

        I dont think you need a card to get Cannabis-infused lotions that contian [THCA] and CBD ?

        • John Hosty III

          any product containing thca is illegal in the united states unless you are in a state where recreational or medical is legal

    • Patty R

      Have you tried cbd oil? Topically, try infused coconut oil.

      • Teri Rodriguez

        Yes my dil makes it for me but sadly it hasn’t helped. I have found that Icy Hot w Lidocaine does work enough to get me some relief so I can at least fall asleep.

      • Gavina

        what is infused coconut oil?

        • Gunterito Kunolo

          mainly consists of cocnut oil (great!), and is infused with cbd or thc oil of your chice

    • Mr Charrington

      I have this issue with neuropathy in my feet and it drives me crazy. Cant’ sleep etc… I tried some high dose CBD cream (myaderm) works really well for me. It didn’t cure anything but this is the only cream I could find that where the CBD actually stopped the pain. I think it’s because of how it’s delivered (transdermally). That seems to get down to business faster then the other ones I tried. I put some on before I go to bed and it allows me to sleep painlessly and I don’t need to take any additional pain killers… my not a doctor but it’s worth a try.

      • Malkara Smith

        See my comment above. : )

      • Sanna Leigh

        I have started chiro treatment from a reputable chiropractor that believes the body is self healing and self regulating. The nervous system along with the brain and the gut are key to our optimal health. I have experience no more neuropathy in my fingers since my first visit 2 weeks ago. check out Dr John Bergman – 7 questions to ask a chiropractor – to find a good one in your area. They must take xrays to start with.

    • Malkara Smith

      1.) Look into benfotiamine for neuropathy:
      2.) Check to see if you have the MTHFR Gene, it’s a DNA test.
      3.) The lack of Methylfolate symptoms are also the same as Fibromyalgia, BUT too much Methylfolate also displays some of the same symptoms. So, get checked for the MTHFR Gene!!!
      4.) Enzyme Bromelian will also help with the repair of nerves.
      5.) CBD oil helps with the relief of pain, but doesn’t extinguish the underlying problem.

      God Speed.

    • Raven

      I recommend changing your diet. There isn’t anything topical that will help you. It must come from within. For week, follow a whole food plat based diet, oil free. not even olive oil or coconut oil. Look up, Dr Mc Dougall’s recipes. He has thousands of recipes. Also Cooking with Plants also has awesome mouth watering easy to prepare recipes. Your body will heal and your life will change.

      • Sanna Leigh

        great advice to change her diet Raven for Fm and seeking relief from chronic depression will help her as well.

  • Ben

    Is this something that I can get from local cannabis shop? I am in Vancouver Canada and it seems not available from any organic food/medical shop.

  • Dean Campbell

    My dad has incredibly bad gout in his feet. Is there a good topical he could use ? At this point he’s in so much pain he can barely walk !

    • Mary Oberschlake

      If you can get a German cheese called quark it works wonders for gout. You soak dressings in the cheese and wrap them around the gout affected extremity. This treatment is used by actual physicians in Germany. You might be able to find quark impregnated dressings on the internet.

  • Lesley James

    I LOVE my CBD pain cream. It is called “CAD” (short for Carter’s Aromatherapy Designs) cream. The downside is that it’s uber expensive ($45 to $140, for a 2 ounce jar, depending on the strength), but the little jar does seem to stretch quite a way. It smells of peppermint, not skunk. I’m currently experimenting with making my own from home-grown AC/DC. So far, I like the CAD better.

  • Vanessa Rios

    Is there a lotion that doesn’t get you high but still work with eczema-prone skin?

    • monica

      i was going to ask this same question. Id really like to use cannabis oil on my baby but dont want him to get the effects .

      • Sniglet66

        Because they’re non-psychoactive, topicals are often chosen by patients who want the therapeutic benefits of marijuana without the cerebral euphoria associated with other delivery methods.

        Do people not read anymore? Or do you not know what “NON-psychoative” means?

        • Jms Fabrication

          Sniglet66 Take a chill-pill! Have a little empathy here. Monica could have something seriously wrong with her child, and she’s only trying to help him. If you have some knowledge in this area, you should be trying to help her (and her child), not scold her!

  • Denise Mindle

    I get terrible leg cramps at night do and my lower back hurts when I walk. Do you recommend any topicals for pain?

  • Shari Hyatt

    I have postular psoriasis. What kind of topical cream would anyone recommend?

    • Elaine Williams

      Strong CBD lotions and salves are good for all kinds of skin conditions. it helps with the visible condition, and nerve pain- even left over nerve pain from things like shingles. I can refer you to my site to see some of what I have, but you can find good quality topicals in many places.

      • Chrissy

        Can you tell me where I can purchase cbd topical cream for pain for neck and shoulders suffering after 3 surgeries. Sit at a computer all day is killing me.

    • Sundance cosmetics

  • Phaedra

    My 13 year old daughter has stage 4 lymphoma. She is on on Noxafil for as stupid fungus infection that is growing in her lungs too. She has extreme feet pain. She is on 1500mg of gabapentin and its not working. We think her chemo and fungus meds are interacting. Any suggestions on what to buy?

    • Sara Morse King

      I also would look into antibiotic and antifungal treatments for her cancer I saw a special presentation from a doctor who uses gene therapy and pin points the root of the cancer perhaps you could do a search and find some info I can’t remember the link or I would most certainly give it to you

    • St Mel

      Phaedra, Higher CBD oil with some THC consumed orally is very effective for neuropathy. I am aware that many of the cancer treatments cause pain and numbness closely associated with neuropathy. Perhaps an oral CBD oil would be beneficial?

    • Seairra

      Hello- I realize your comment is old- prayers and blessings that your daughter is doing well-
      I wanted to mention to you that I used to take ganapentin and kept going up- it did next to nothing so I discontinued.
      I did a lot of my own research and found a drug ( I HATE drugs and am a huge advocate for naturopathic and holistic treatment which I do myself)
      that I have to use due to severe neuropathy and nerve damage.
      I’m sadly allergic to
      Cannibus and all derivatives.
      Anyway- I’m taking Topamax.
      It’s a seizure medication, so off label use for neuropathy, at least back when I requested it from my physician about 10 years ago, but it is the only thing I have ever found that will even put a dent in my pain.
      Perhaps your daughter could try it?
      I also wanted to mention- I am a huge advocate for cannibus even though I cannot use it- CBD in particular, it has been proven to kill certain cancer cells.
      The FDA doesn’t want the general public to know this of course, because BIG PHARMA, physicians and government have a LOT to loose if everyone become fully aware of this.
      I can probably find you a great article on this particular cancer study I’m referencing if you would like to read it.
      I also wanted to pass on information to you regarding colloidal silver and cancer. If you don’t know about the incredible benefits of this- PLEASE research it- I have been using it for YEARS, and also healing my animals with it ( I am a retired licensed vet tech) and though I have many health problems, I have not been sick
      ( cold, flu etc..) in about 25 years.
      It has cancer healing properties as well, and is nature’s antibiotic, a little miracle in a bottle- 100% safe 😊

      Again, blessings for your daughter and I hope my information was of some help to you both 💜🌸

    • Seairra

      Please excuse the typos
      * gabapentin ( not ganapentin)
      * cannabis ( not cannibus)
      * becomes ( not become)

      UGGGG! 😩 LOL!
      I truly do know how to spell – I’m sorry ! 😛

  • Gavina

    i would like to know if anyone has used the cbd oil for glaucoma and which kind as a balm (cream)

    • Billie Chamberlain

      You would take a sublingual CBD drops.

  • Julia

    can this product(s) help with severe knee pain in an elderly person? Is it safe to use if person is on other medications?

  • Linda Alosh

    Do you have a cream for a itchy scalp

  • Karen

    How long does cannabis infused topical oils stay in your system? I have 4Play, an Empower body care product. It contains 121 mg of THC, Will it show up in a drug test?

  • William Cardinal

    I have MRSA from a prior surgery that antibiotics can not control.Can someone suggest a topical or salve or anything to cure this condition?

    • j Jane

      Take Bleach Bath/Vinegar spray or buy Dakin’s solution to get rid of MRSA. extremely effective.

  • Addams Liz

    Where can I get the pain relieving topical from really wanna try some have been in lots of pain with my arthritis as well as a few other medical conditions

  • Estelle Walker

    How to sensibly buy LEGAL and best quality cbd oil cream? Because I got a letter saying customs has confiscated my package two times already and I’m pissed.

  • Debbie Oliver Churchill

    My husband has extreme pain in his feet from neuropathy. Which CBD would he benefit from for pain relief?

  • Billie Chamberlain


  • Anna Sani Marshment

    This is a whole new idea to me and I can use any help you can offer. I suffer from post stroke pain in my thigh which sounds similar to the pain diabetics feel in their feet (sort of electric shocks shooting through my skin). I’ve had this 24/7 for about 5 years now. The 600 mg Gabapentin 3 times a day is no longer helping. A friend just suggested marijuana topicals which I had never heard of! Any recommendations?

  • Truthface

    I’m wondering if this topical would be effective for a lump just under the nipple.
    I ask in full knowledge of that fact that NO ONE can officially claim cures for things that havent been approved for political reasons.
    Myself?/ I won’t take as much as an aspirin for pain ,do NOT trust “doctors” and believe we have the power to cure ourselves.

  • Karen Franke

    Since hip surgery two years ago, I have had hip pain that doesnt go away. It gets worse, naturally after golfing. Any suggestions?

    • Billie Chamberlain

      CBD Full-spectrum should work. Also stretching before and afterwards is key, as well as staying hydrated. I would use a cannabinoid infused pain balm beforehand to loosen up and prevent injury. Plus, your diet that day should be as fresh and raw as possible.

  • Andy

    Do I need a medical marijuana card to buy topicals?

    • Topicals made with hemp cbd are legal federally because hemp has less than .3% thc. Organic, full spectrum is the way to go like this one from Sundance Cosmetics.

  • Westword 70

    I wonder if Cannabis salves act as a drawing agent. Any thoughts?


    Anyone have information on CBD for enlarged prostate and ED

  • B Campillo

    Can you recommend something for the pain of getting dialysis? Getting stuck with big needles three times a week is very painful and sometimes after the treatment I have headaches. The worst is getting stuck with needles. I currently use Lidocaine 5% which is somewhat dulling the pain, I was wondering if there is something more I can use to make it easier?

  • Rebecca Savastio

    I agree. I find great relief with both the Breathe cream and with topicals I make myself with the cannabis oils I get from the dispensary combined with cocoa butter to form a salve. Totally agree these work within minutes and dissolve pain effectively.

  • MsNooneinparticular

    I wonder if taking a nice warm bath & exfoliating before applying a topical or transdermal patch would help with absorption? Or maybe rubbing some alcohol (isopropyl) on the area.

    I know sweat, dead skin cells & oils can build up on the skin & clog pores which might make it harder for the product to reach its desired targets. Where I’m at the patches & topicals are pretty pricey. Getting your capillaries open & circulation flowing first seems like an intuitively good way to get the most out of these products, but I might just be high.

    I imagine that vaginal & rectal suppositories are going to be more directly effective than skin applications of cannabis, as these mucous membranes actually absorb the substance into the bloodstream to some degree (but likely without causing a full-on THC high). If you’re in severe pain or something but don’t wanna get stoned, that might be the best route to explore.