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What is a cannabis topical?

When you think of cannabis, it’s likely that the first thing that comes to mind is the intoxicating effects caused by its consumption, also called “getting high.” You may have immediately thought of its two most popular means of application or consumption as well: smoking and vaping. Though the world of cannabis is ever changing, cannabis is still, oftentimes, viewed in a negative light despite the fact that products are no longer limited to smoking in order to receive the benefits that cannabis can provide. In fact, many new forms of cannabis don’t even involve “getting high” at all. Cannabis topicals for example, come in many different forms; they allow for absorption of cannabis through the skin and can be a great option for localized pain relief!


Numerous companies are releasing cannabis topicals in a variety of forms, and with the legalization of oils, you can now purchase affordable cannabis topicals in the form of lotions, sprays, salves, balms, and oils. Certain topicals work well on their own as a simple cream or rub, whereas others may be combined with other ingredients such as essential oils and herbs, like coconut, peppermint, and lavender. Due to the fact that topicals are absorbed through the skin and not inhalation or ingestion, they are typically considered one of the safest way to use cannabis as rubbing them on the skin won’t result in intoxicating effects. 

How do they work?


The two most studied and widely referred to cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The function of cannabinoids is very similar to the neurotransmitter chemicals that the body produces naturally, which is why cannabis has such a wide range of effects when consumed. Regardless of whether you use cannabis or not, all of us possess an active, functioning system within us called the Endocannabinoid System [*]  (ECS). The ECS is a biological system that uses neurotransmitters to bind to cannabinoid receptors (involved with psychological processes) that are involved with a variety of functions in the body, including the regulation of sleep, mood, appetite, memory and reproduction/fertility. THC is the compound responsible for the intoxicating effects most commonly associated with cannabis, whereas CBD doesn't produce these effects, instead potentially helping to reduce anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, loss of appetite, inflammation, and skin irritations. Experts are still researching the endocannabinoid system and the pharmacological effects that cannabis has on the ECS, as the ECS was only first discovered recently, in 1992.  


Though the means of consumption of cannabis can differ, ultimately, cannabis is absorbed by our bodies through our ECS. If you are smoking or vaping cannabis, the cannabinoids you inhale are absorbed through your lungs and enter your bloodstream. If you are consuming cannabis as an edible, the cannabinoids are absorbed through the digestive tract. These receptors are the reason that infused topicals work so well for pain and inflammation, though how well they work depends on their potency, absorbency, and the quality of the product as a whole. Receptors for our endocannabinoid system are located all over our bodies, and this includes our skin and the muscular tissue beneath. On average, the benefits of topicals will become apparent within 10-30 minutes, and the effects usually last between two to three hours. For the most part, a CBD-dominant topical can be more effective than a THC topical. That being said, even if the topical you use were to involve THC, it would be highly unlikely that you would realize any intoxicating effects; topicals only penetrate the first few layers of skin, allowing you to realize the benefit of localized pain relief without any of the intoxicating effects. 


Pro Tip: Cannabis topicals are most effective when paired with an oil or fat-soluble compound. In simpler terms: cannabis loves fatty compounds, and being a fat-soluble medicine, a topical product with a higher fat content will result in faster absorption.


What are topicals good for?


If you are experiencing pain from sore muscles, are looking for migraine relief without the use of pills, or even hoping to speed up your new tattoo’s healing time, there’s a topical for that! Creams and oils infused with CBD are great options, due to CBD’s potential anti-inflammatory properties, and its easy-to-use applications. Plus, the use of cannabis topicals, in most cases at least, also eliminates a popular drawback of cannabis: its smell! When THC and CBD are isolated, they actually become odourless, though most brands also infuse their products with appealing essential oils, other complementary terpenes, and/or floral scents. CBD topicals help reduce pain and inflammation, and the benefits achieved will increase with a product containing a higher CBD content.


    The most common application locations and a few examples on each:


    • Temples - migraines, headaches, and stress relief
    • Neck - pain caused by sleeping wrong, working on a computer, and stress relief
    • Shoulders - pain caused by sleeping wrong, 
    • Elbows, knees, and other joints - pain from exercise, old injuries and arthritis
    • Wrists - inflammation (tendonitis), and carpal tunnel syndrome
    • Feet - strains, sprains, and plantar fasciitis (heel pain)
    • Lower Abdomen - menstrual cramps, upset stomach
    • Skin - Rashes, New tattoos, acne, muscle pain and inflammation



      If you are looking for a topical to provide pain and inflammation relief, look for menthol and peppermint in the ingredients list to provide a refreshing, cooling sensation. There are countless options out there for a variety of uses; it all depends on the way they were processed, the ingredients, and the CBD and THC content. Make sure you do your research before you purchase, or ask any questions at your local, legal cannabis shops. 

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