Best CBD Creams & Topicals

Written by Rory Batt, Nutritional Therapist
Last Updated
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Table of Contents


CBD has become popularised in the form of capsules and tinctures, but more recently the use of topical CBD has come to the forefront. This article will cover how CBD topicals work, what they can be used for, their benefits, evidence for their efficacy, how and where to find good quality topicals, and pricing.

CBD, also known as cannabidiol, is one of many plant compounds known as cannabinoids that are found exclusively in hemp and cannabis plants. CBD has become popular for a wide range of ailments across a wide demographic of users, due to its ability to trigger the function of the human endocannabinoid system.

Endocannabinoid System

Every mammal has an endocannabinoid system which is at the heart of ensuring that the nervous, immune and organ systems are working in perfect harmony. CBD communicates with the endocannabinoid system via specific cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid receptors, in much the same way a key fits into a lock. When CBD interacts with these receptors, it can help control many biological processes which beneficially impact health.

THC is a similar cannabinoid to CBD, but is responsible for producing the ‘high’ that is associated with smoking cannabis. Unlike THC, CBD is largely non-psychoactive, and does not produce a high. This is because CBD does not interact with cannabinoid receptors in the same way that THC does. In this way, CBD can offer relief from a wide array of ailments without producing unwanted side effects in the form of a high sensation.

It’s worth briefly noting that clinical research into the effects of CBD is in its infancy and many anecdotal claims have yet to be clarified by randomised controlled trials. Nonetheless, many people still provide testimonials to its efficacy, and its use is becoming increasingly popular.

CBD can be found in many different forms:

  • Tinctures
  • Capsules
  • Balms / Salves
  • Oils
  • Creams/ Lotions
  • Serums
  • Lubricants
  • Gummies
  • Chocolates
  • E-liquids
  • Vaping concentrates
  • Soft drinks
  • Coffee

CBD Topicals

Whilst a lot of CBD is ingested orally, smoked or vaporised, topical formulations can be applied directly to the skin. The skin is the primary barrier protecting the bodies internal world against the external environment. Only certain molecules may pass through the skin, depending on their structure and properties. CBD is a fat friendly compound, which means it can penetrate through the epidermis, the outermost layer of the three layers of skin .Once the epidermis has been penetrated, CBD can access living tissues within the dermis.Here CBD can interact with the endocannabinoid system.

Both cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2 are found in the skin. CB1 signals to the nervous system, enabling it to regulate pain. A portion of the immune system is also found in the skin. Here, CBD may interact with CB2 receptors. CB2 regulates levels of inflammation, a process which underlies a host of skin conditions, and also inflammatory pain.

Unlike ingesting or smoking CBD, applying it to the skin does not allow it to enter the bloodstream; it simply works on the outermost endocannabinoid system contained in the living layer of the skin.

Topicals Include infused:

  • Lotions/Creams
  • Salves/Balms
  • Oils, such as for massage
  • Serums
  • Lubricants
  • Roll ons

Benefits of using CBD Topicals

The reason most people use a CBD topical is to manage pain localized to a specific area, or to treat a patch of skin that is damaged or inflamed. Inflammation is a process that drives both pain and visible skin conditions, and it can be reduced by many natural substances. CBD happens to be one of them, and it has been found to be a powerful anti-inflammatory.

So far, clinical trials using CBD have only been performed on a few inflammatory conditions. Researchers have studied the response of a few well characterized inflammatory disease processes to topical CBD. The studies were performed using both animals and cells and the evidence is gathered is encouraging:

  • Arthritis – CBD gel was given to rats with arthritis, which reduced joint swelling, signs of inflammation and pain related behaviours.
  • Oedema (swelling) – topical CBD reduced inflammation and swelling in mice with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Acne – CBD reduced inflammation in skin cells and showed antibacterial activity, which may help with acne.
  • Psoriasis – CBD inhibited the spread of keratinocytes, which are cells that multiply in the epidermis of the skin to produce the visible effects of psoriasis.
  • Dermatitis – CBD may help reduce the signs of dermatitis by reducing underlying inflammation.

CBD has also been found to act as a potent antioxidant, which may help with the general maintenance of healthy, vibrant skin in particular.

Although studies in animals and cells provide clues as to the potential effects of topical CBD, no conclusions can be drawn for the effects in humans until clinical trials have been undertaken. However, two studies have been conducted in humans, using topical CBD:

Osteoarthritis – after 12 weeks of CBD gel treatment, there was no difference in pain scores between those receiving the CBD and those receiving a placebo. However, the gel was a synthetic CBD isolate formulation, and the study has not yet been reviewed and found to be watertight.

Epidermolysis bullosa (skin blistering) – 3 people were observed using topical CBD. The patients reported faster wound healing, less blistering, and reduction of pain when they applied CBD.

Although there is little data to support peoples reports concerning topical CBD’s effects, some users claim that CBD may also help with:

Muscle Pain – muscular pain is also caused by inflammation. Using CBD after exercise could help reduce muscular soreness, although there are no studies to back this up. The studies offer only anecdotal evidence.

Bruising – no evidence or mechanism known yet. CBD may exert an effect by positively impacting the rate of capillary repair

Bites – could help by reducing inflammation

Mild skin irritation – also may help by reducing inflammation and through antioxidant and antimicrobial activity

It’s worth mentioning that there’s very little clinical data to support the effects of CBD when applied to the skin. However, there is some clinical evidence for the efficacy of CBD for some medical conditions when it is given orally.

Medical conditions which improve after administration of CBD

Most studies in humans have used oral CBD. The material it enters the bloodstream and has systemic effects on the endocannabinoid system. CBD has shown to hold promise for:

Epilepsy – CBD has gained notoriety through its ability to reduce the occurrence of seizures in select patients with various forms of epilepsy. This has been shown in clinical trials using CBD.

Pain – CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system, which is a regulator of other systems, including the nervous and immune systems. Pain can have nervous and inflammatory origins, and CBD can help support endocannabinoid functions in a manner which reduces pain. A large meta-analysis of clinical studies provides a strong case for the use of CBD in managing pain.

Insomnia – CBD has relaxing and mild sedating qualities at higher doses. This makes it particularly effective at helping those affected by insomnia get a good night’s sleep. Often the bodies endocannabinoid system is either over or under ac, which may lead to sleep disturbances. CBD, as well as other cannabinoids act as adaptogens to help balance out endocannabinoid system function. CBD has proven to be efficacious in anxiety related and anxiety independent insomnia. Sleep disorders may be caused by endocannabinoid system dysfunction, and CBD has shown promise in alleviating their occurrence.

Anxiety – CBD, although non-psychoactive, is able to modulate certain aspects of mood and emotion. The endocannabinoid system, HPA axis and nervous system all play a role in depression and anxiety. CBD can help put the brakes on anxiety by reducing HPA axis activation and increasing release of the bodies natural endocannabinoid, anandamide. CBD also helps support a more positive mood through activating the 5-HT1A serotonin receptor. Clinical evidence supports a role for CBD in the management of anxiety.

Psychosis – The endocannabinoid system controls many aspects of mood, emotion and consciousness. In cases of psychosis, the endocannabinoid system can be overactive. CBD helps modify the function of the endocannabinoid system, reducing psychosis, This has been shown clinically.

When You Mustn’t use CBD Cream

While the use of cannabis is becoming more popular all over the world, some people have found that they can be allergic to the plant. It’s worth remembering this when you use topical formulations, just in case.

Although topical CBD may help with wound healing, there is a risk of infection if it is applied to open wounds. Avoid applying CBD until the wound has undergone some healing first.

Benefits of Using CBD Topicals Over Normal CBD

More targeted Relief

Compared to oral use of CBD, topical may provide more targeted relief for certain conditions.

A study of regular CBD users recently reported that CBD was most commonly used to manage chronic pain and arthritis. Pain is usually localised to a specific area, which may allow a topical to alleviate pain to a greater degree. This difference in effect between oral and topical CBD merits further study. The same can be said for treating a specific patch of damaged and inflamed skin.


Using a topical also has the advantage of avoiding first pass metabolism in the liver; a process that can typically alter the bioavailability of CBD, and thus diminish its magnitude of effect. When you buy a topical, you may get more bang for your buck, as a larger quantityof CBD is available to work for you.

Familiarity & Taste

For new users, using topical formulations could be a more familiar and approachable way to experience the benefits of CBD when compared to ingesting it. Some people don’t enjoy the taste of CBD. The use of a topical CBD preparation may allow them to experience some localised benefits without having to take it orally. However, the effects will be mostly limited to a certain area.


CBD tinctures and capsules usually carry a very specific dose (in mg). The effect of each dose will depend upon an individual’s body weight. Dosing with topicals is less accurate, as it really depends on how much is used in one application. However, it can be easier to gauge how much to use based on the level of pain in the area to which it is being applied. In this way, topicals can be used based on a subjective experience of relief.

Local Vs Global Effects & Drug Tests

Topical CBD does not enter the bloodstream to a great degree, and is therefore limited to interacting with the endocannabinoid system in the skin. This has its advantages for treating localised issues like skin irritation, pain and swelling. However, conditions such as anxiety and insomnia are unlikely to be helped by topical CBD.

A lot of CBD products use full spectrum extracts, which means there are trace amounts of THC in them (< 0.02 – 0.03%). It’s not uncommon for athletes and employees to show positive results on drug tests from using CBD products, despite their being legal. Topicals may reduce the risk of positive drug test results, as they do not allow much of the cannabinoids to enter the bloodstream and travel through the body.


A lot of topicals come in a range of prices and doses, so you may find one that is both effective and economical for you. Like most CBD products, prices may vary based on the brand you choose, the quality of their CBD and the other ingredients used in the formulations. Expect to pay anywhere between £0.043 – 0.099 ($0.054 – 0.12) per mg of CBD in creams and balms. Serums and oils may be a little pricer, exceeding £0.099 ($0.12) per mg of CBD. Tinctures and capsules typically run in the range of £0.053 – 0.133 ($0.066 – 0.17) per mg of CBD.

If a substance is psychoactive and/or addictive, then it is typically scheduled as illicit. CBD is largely non-psychoactive and non-addictive.

Many CBD products contain extracts from hemp, which naturally contains very low levels of the psychoactive and (depending on the individual) addictive cannabinoid, THC. All CBD products are required to have < 0.2% THC in Europe and < 0.3% in the USA.

Some products will be formulated using CBD extracted from cannabis (Marijana) instead of hemp. The legality of CBD from cannabis is a grey area. If it contains over 0.3% THC it is technically illegal. However, some companies will use cannabis derived CBD and filter out the THC to provide a broad spectrum extract.

Side Effects

CBD is not a panacea, despite what many people have come to recently believe. There are side effects associated with its use, although they are considered to be mild.

Some studies have indicated that the side effect profile of CBD is preferable to that of some conventional drugs. However, this doesn’t mean you should switch your medication for CBD. Always ask your doctor first before making any changes to your medications.

Studies have reported that CBD can produce:

  1. Diarrhea
  2. Reduced appetite
  3. Fatigue / sedation
  4. Lower Blood Pressure
  5. Drug interactions – CBD may inhibit enzymes in the liver which alters the metabolism rate of other drugs. This alteration could increase or decrease their effects and side effects.

If you are taking prescription medication and would like to know about how the drug interacts with CBD, consult with your doctor before using CBD.

It’s worth noting that topical CBD may not produce the same side effects experienced by those who take it orally. Topical CBD doesn’t not enter the bloodstream to a significant extent nor does it pass through the liver. However, there is no clinical data to confirm this yet.

Does CBD get you high

Although CBD is widely referred to as being non-psychoactive, it clearly has some ability to influence mood due to its effects on anxiety. However, CBD’s mechanism of action is largely via increasing the bodies natural feel good chemical, anandamide, and through activating the serotonin receptor. This is different from the mechanism by which THC acts. THC activates the CB1 receptor to produce the characteristic cannabis high.

CBD products are required by law to contain <0.2 – 0.3% THC, which is significantly below the threshold required to produce any psychoactive effects. Typically, modern strains of cannabis contain anywhere from 10 – 30% THC, just to give you an idea of what is required to produce a high.

Although topicals penetrate through the epidermis of the skin, they do not enter the bloodstream or interact with the central endocannabinoid system. The central endocannabinoid system controls the nervous system and sends messages to the brain to control mood and consciousness. So, even though topicals may contain trace amounts of THC, there is very little risk of them producing any psychoactivity or high.

How To Use CBD Topicals

It depends on what kind of product you are using, and the intended effects that product has.

Products suited for skin care and maintenance can be used in a similar manner to cosmetics which nourish skin. For example, face creams and lip balms are pretty self explanatory. There is little information on what dose is needed for skin care, as little research has been conducted in this area. Its best to follow the manufacturers guidelines on each application, and pay attention to how your skin might feel or appear in response to application of the CBD product for a week. You can always modify how you use it depending on what results you are getting.

In the case of more novel products like sex lubricants, there is no research on this mode of use of CBD. You could apply this type of product based on how long you would like it to last, and the level of effect you get from each use.

For ailments such as pain, pinpointing an exact area can facilitate the effective use of a topical like a balm or oil. You may find that pain in your leg has its origins in your lower back, so see what area(s) work best for you.

It’s worth also cleaning the area before you apply the product as well as washing your hands. It’s easy to pick up unwanted bacteria and pathogens in day to day contact with the world. It’s worth maximising the potential effect a topical has by washing your hands.

Sometimes topicals contain other ingredients such as essential oils and spices like capsaicin. These can be irritating if you were to rub your eye, so it’s best to wash your hands after applying the CBD topical as well.


CBD and the ingredients you’d find in topicals are typically sensitive to light, heat and oxygen exposure. The antioxidant potential of CBD and other essential oils can be lost when exposed to open air, bright light and too much heat.

When you store your topical, make sure the lid is tightly sealed, and it is kept in a cool, dry and dark space so you can ensure you get the most value from your product. Typically, stability tests indicate that CBD topicals last between 12-24 months, although individual products may vary.

Where can you buy CBD topicals

There are several ways to purchase topical CBD products. Here are a few:

Manufacturers – Brands that make their own products often offer them for sale on their own websites. Below are a few places from the USA and UK.

Online retailers – This is one of the easiest and most convenient ways of getting your CBD. Besides topicals, retailers often offer a broad array of other CBD products, and provide reviews to help you make the best choices. Like most other e-commerce stores, you can get your CBD shipped straight to your door.

Stores – Most commonly, CBD can be found in apothecaries, supplement stores and health food shops. Some stores may offer more specialist advice and guidance. Head shops sometimes stock stock CBD, but may not provide the same level of service as an apothecary.

Dispensaries – These are limited to the USA, in states where marijuana is legal. One might expect the best guidance and advice on the best brands and prices for CBD topicals when visiting a dispensary. However, this may come at a slightly higher cost.

Prices may vary for CBD topicals, depending on the brand, CBD source, type of topical and concentration of CBD. Typically one would expect to find 200 – 1000mg in CBD topicals, depending on the type. A cream or lip balm may run at 200mg, whereas a product designed for application to muscles run may be 1000mg, which is reflected in a higher price. When buying topicals, the prices typically run anywhere from $0.05 – $0.17 per mg.

How to find a high quality CBD topical

How the plant is grown

Always ensure the CBD is from an organic source of hemp. Hemp is a bioaccumulator, which means it takes on environmental toxins. It is important that your product specifies where the hemp is grown, and if it is organic.

Extraction method

Supercritical CO2 extraction is the industry standard for obtaining CBD from hemp and cannabis plants. This process produces a pure, clean, high quality oil that is free from residual solvents, which could be toxic.

Extra steps may be taken in the purification of CBD products, such as winterisation. This process involves soaking the CO2 extract in alcohol and then freezing it. Winterisation can be used to filter out waxes, chlorophyll and lipids to provide an exceptionally pure CBD oil.

Most CBD topicals will contain full spectrum CO2 extracts, offering a range of cannabinoids and terpenes other than just CBD.

Some topicals may contain CBD isolate, whilst it may not provide the same degree of relief as full spectrum extracts, as many of the plant compounds from hemp and cannabis work as a team.

Lab Tests

When purchasing a topical, make sure your product comes with lab results that confirm the CBD content of the product. This is the bare minimum of what be provided by the manufacturer

Some companies will have their products tested for heavy metals, pesticides and moulds. This is not yet industry standard, but some manufacturers do undertake these tests. If they don’t, then ensuring that the hemp is organic may mean that the product was not significantly exposed to heavy metals and pesticides during the growing process.


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About The Authors
Rory Batt
Rory Batt
Nutritional Therapist
Rory is a nutritional therapist, providing personalised nutrition, lifestyle and exercise solutions to individuals. He graduated from the University of Exeter with a BSc in Exercise &amp; Sports Sciences, and recently from CNELM with an MSc in Personalised Nutrition. His expertise lies in tailoring cannabis based medicines to individuals, using nutritional genomics and biochemistry. Rory has worked with CBD start-ups since 2015, advising on product formulations, quality control and education on the effects of cannabis on health and well-being.
Leonard Haberman
Leonard Haberman
Physician & Chemist
Dr. Leonard Haberman is a physician and chemist who has been involved in solving chemical and medical problems for 43 years. He graduated from New York University as a dual major in chemistry and biology and went on to obtain a PhD in chemistry from the University of Minnesota where his focus was synthetic methods. He returned to the university in 2005, graduating with an MD degree in 2009. He has published in the open literature. He holds two patents and currently works as a consultant, assisting clients with projects within the disciplines of medicine and chemistry that have potential business applications.
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