What to Know About CBD Skin-Care Products
Research on this trendy skin-care ingredient is limited. Read this comprehensive guide before you buy.
Before slathering a CBD skin-care product all over your face, test it on a small area of skin, such as your forearm. iStock (2)
Few ingredients have taken skin care by storm quite like CBD. And if you look carefully, it’s everywhere: in sunscreens, masks, lip balms, moisturizers, and more. The question is: Should you really be slathering this stuff on your skin?
First, let’s talk about what CBD is. Cannabidiol (CBD) is an active ingredient in the cannabis plant, according to Harvard Health Publishing. CBD can be derived from either medical marijuana or hemp. Although marijuana contains CBD, CBD doesn’t have psychoactive effects. (THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical that causes the high.) All that said, CBD won’t lead to any mind-altering effects.
The Proposed Benefits of Skin-Care Products With CBD
Experts attribute the popularity of CBD to its “do anything” reputation. In fact, many people turn to CBD in the hope of treating various ailments, including anxiety, insomnia, pain conditions, and now — increasingly, it seems — skin problems.
In general, manufacturers add CBD to their products to give them a boost. “CBD is a very cost-effective way to enhance products,” says Austin Katz, cofounder of Sheabrand in Brooklyn, New York. CBD is in a range of products — those that claim to treat acne, dry skin, and eczema — because of its versatility. “I think we’re living in an era where people want to feel empowered to address their needs on their own,” he says.
Scientific research on the use of CBD in skin-care products is limited. If you’re interested in trying this trend, here’s what a board-certified dermatologist wants you to know.
Potentially Helps Inflammation, Eczema, and Psoriasis
One of the touted functions of CBD is controlling inflammation. “The body has two CBD receptors that we know of: CB1 and CB2,” says Robert Dellavalle, MD, PhD, adjunct professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora. When applied to skin, CBD interacts with these receptors to turn down the inflammatory response. This happens by “decreasing the interleukins, which are chemicals that are like the immune system’s fire alarm that calls the fire department in an emergency. CBD may decrease the loudness of that fire alarm,” he explains.
In short, you may see less redness overall, and in skin diseases, including eczema and psoriasis, it may also be effective in tamping down itch, possibly because CBD creams may help reduce dryness, per a review published in July 2017 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (Dr. Dellavalle was a coauthor of that report.) Keep in mind, though, that the review included only three studies: two in humans but with small sample sizes and one in mice, which doesn’t necessarily translate to human health. Therefore, more studies on the potential benefits of CBD for reducing skin redness are needed.
Additionally, a small study published in the March-April 2019 issue of the Italian journal Clinical Therapeutics looked at 20 participants with either psoriasis, eczema, or scarring and found that a specific CBD ointment improved measures of skin hydration (by moisturizing and preventing water loss), boosted elasticity in the skin, and in general bettered their quality of life. This could have been due to the fatty acids in the ointment but was also likely in part because of the anti-inflammatory effect of CBD, the researchers say. Yet more research in a larger human population is needed to know for sure.
For many skin diseases, dermatologists often prescribe topical steroid creams, which act as anti-inflammatory medicines. “These are very safe for most people, and they’re effective, but some people don’t want to use steroids in any way. CBD could be a nonsteroidal therapy to fill that gap,” says Dellavalle. Side effects of topical steroids include thinning of the skin if overused or used long term, but you can help avoid these risks when using them correctly, notes the National Eczema Association. Working with your dermatologist to ensure that you have the right medication at the right dosage can help with this.
Indeed, Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist in Hamden, Connecticut, and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, prefers to use CBD “in inflammatory skin conditions as they’re fizzling out.” She adds, “I recommend generally using a medication to put out the fire and then using CBD to clean up the carnage.”
Beyond that, though, is the potential to use CBD as a tool to delay early signs of aging. “Inflammation is the basis of all skin disease, including aging,” she says. But while there’s a lot of hype surrounding CBD in skin care — and health in general — there is no cure-all. “Everything has its advantages and disadvantages or limitations,” says Dr. Gohara.
Possibly Plays a Role in Treating Acne
Along with being a potential therapy for inflammatory skin diseases, CBD is also featured in some anti-acne products. For instance, Mantra Mask’s CBD Blemish Mask combines CBD and pimple-fighting tea tree oil. “There are CB2 receptors on sebaceous glands, which produce oil. According to research, CBD influences the sebum production of cells and has an anti-inflammatory component,” says Jeanette Jacknin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Solana Beach, California, who specializes in CBD skin care. This echoes findings outlined in articles previously published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation and Experimental Dermatology.
Dr. Jacknin also points to preliminary research presented in June 2019 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology that found topical CBD may help kill a range of gram-positive bacteria. “This bacteria is one cause of acne,” she says. (For the study, researchers collaborated with Botanix Pharmaceuticals, a company that develops products to treat skin diseases like acne and psoriasis.)
May Decrease Inflammation From Sunburns
Finally, one of the newest uses for CBD skin care is in sunscreen. Dellavalle notes that it does make sense to add CBD to sunscreen, as its anti-inflammatory properties may help reduce the effects of a sunburn, such as redness. Of course, the idea is to apply sunscreen correctly (following guidelines from the American Academy of Dermatology), but in real life, many people miss areas, and applying a CBD-infused SPF may supply more general absorption and temper the reaction of sunburned spots, he says.
What Scientific Evidence Doesn’t Yet Tell Us About CBD for Skin Care
If CBD sounds like the answer to your skin woes, it’s helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. “What we don’t have in CBD is a lot of research. [CBD has] been illegal federally for so long, and it’s been difficult to do research on something that’s previously been considered on par with cocaine or heroin,” says Dellavalle. That’s starting to change, though. The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the definition of marijuana, which meant that CBD products were no longer considered like marijuana. This has paved the way for researchers to conduct more studies on CBD, and for product manufacturers to create and sell CBD products legally, though per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is still illegal to market CBD as a supplement.
A review published in June 2018 in the Dermatology Online Journal, which Dellavalle coauthored, pointed out that while CBD may “have shown some initial promise as therapy for a variety of skin diseases,” there is a need for large, high-quality, randomized, controlled trials, a sentiment echoed in an article published in December 2020 in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. Another paper, published in the May-June 2019 issue of Clinics in Dermatology, urges people and their doctors to approach these products with the same caution. Finally, though topical CBD tends to be well tolerated and may have a role in addressing various skin issues (including acne, dryness, and irritation), there’s still ongoing research on the safety of CBD treatment, notes an article published in 2020 in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology.
Unknowns About CBD Dosage
Scientists still don’t know the ideal dose of CBD for treating skin conditions or promoting general health. Some companies, like Sheabrand, formulate with different doses depending on the area of skin the product is designed for — the body or the face, for instance — for maximum penetration. Scientists also don’t know where CBD stands in relation to proven topical therapies, like retinoids, vitamin C, or alpha hydroxy acids.
Questions About Cannabinoid Combinations
There are hundreds of other chemicals in the cannabis plant, and researchers don’t know what combinations are best. For instance, terpenes, the essential oils in plants (including cannabis), may exert synergistic benefits, suggests the Clinical Therapeutics study. “So much research needs to be done. We’ll be sorting this out for the next 25 years,” says Dellavalle. On the horizon with more research from universities and companies, says Jackin, may be more targeted and efficacious therapies for conditions like eczema and acne.
8 Steps to Take Before Trying a CBD Skin-Care Product
For now, know that CBD products are safe in general, and early research suggests that they may make a difference in how your skin looks and feels. Just don’t count on it as a cure-all for any skin condition. In other words, talk to your dermatologist before replacing products they have recommended with ones containing CBD, and don’t treat any new skin conditions with CBD products until you speak to your dermatologist. If you’re interested in venturing into CBD skin care, here’s what you need to know before you buy and try:
Confused About CBD in Skincare? Here’s Everything You Need to Know
Faith Xue has worked in digital beauty for 10 years and is currently Bustle Digital Group’s executive beauty director. She was Byrdie’s editorial director for seven years.
Rachel is a board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mount Sinai Hospital Department of Dermatology. She has contributed to Byrdie, as well as Harpers Bazaar, Marie Claire, Allure, Vogue, and the New York Times, and more
Caitlin Riley / Stocksy
In This Article
CBD is the Cady Heron of the skincare world right now—buzzy, intriguing, and full of secrets (though not as much as Gretchen Weiners’ hair). The ingredient has officially crossed over from being a wellness supplement to a beauty buzzword, but it’s not as simple as looking for “CBD” on your ingredients label and calling it a day. There’s a lot of murky marketing out there and more than a few false claims. For example, we’ve seen some major brands hop on the CBD bandwagon and blast it across their marketing channels, when in reality, their products don’t contain any actual CBD at all. We’ve enlisted Dendy Engelman, MD, board-certified dermatologist; Ava Shamban, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Five in LA and co-host of The GIST; Charlotte Palermino, co-founder of cannabis education website Nice Paper, and Ashley Lewis and Meredith Schroeder, co-founders of new online CBD retailer Fleur Marché. Your skin deserves CBD—just make sure you’re buying a product that actually contains it.
Keep scrolling for your no-BS guide to understanding CBD skincare.
Type of ingredient: Antioxidant.
Main benefits: Reduces inflammation, Regulates oil production, Neutralizes free radical damage.
Who should use it: It is recommended for those with inflamed, compromised skin as well as sensitive and dry skin types. It can also benefit those with aging skin.
How often can you use it: CBD skincare can be used daily.
Works well with: Actives that calm and nourish the skin barrier, such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, peptides, and niacinamides.
Don’t use with: Be cautious with CBD skincare. Since it is an unregulated industry, it is undetermined what actives it deactivates. It is not recommended to use CBD skin products that contain alcohol, as this might combat its beneficial effects and heighten inflammatory skin conditions.
What is CBD?
So, what exactly is CBD? Shamban explains that it is a naturally-occurring chemical compound found in cannabis plants marijuana and hemp. “It’s one of the two primary active ingredients of cannabis, the other one being THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the active psychotropic,” she says.
According to Lewis and Schroeder, (who fell in love with the ingredient during their previous jobs curating products for Goop), it’s “a potent antioxidant, highly anti-inflammatory, and has been shown in multiple studies to reduce lipid production from the sebaceous glands (overproduction of this sebum is possibly one component of what contributes to acne formation).” One such study found that CBD could prevent acne in multiple ways.
How does CBD work? Engelman says CBD interacts with our cannabinoid receptors. “We have receptors in every layer of our skin which trigger to our body when there is pain, an itch, etc.,” she explains. “Topical CBD is designed to help those with pruritic skin conditions like eczema or painful conditions like post-herpetic neuralgia when our body’s signals are going haywire. For example, it is not necessarily targeting eczema, but the hormones that are causing the eczema flare-up.”
Typically, CBD oil is used in skincare products. You can find CBD serums, creams, masks, and body and face oils. That said, hemp seed oil—which has been a common ingredient in skincare products for a long time—is not the same thing as CBD. There’s nothing wrong with hemp seed oil, but it’s not an active ingredient (though it may help with inflammation, hydration, and controlling oil production ).
When buying a CBD skincare product, look for these words in the ingredients list, which indicate there’s actual CBD in the formula: CBD, hemp CBD, full-spectrum hemp extract, phytocannabinoid-rich hemp oil, and hemp extract oil.
Benefits of CBD for Skin
- Treat Inflammatory Acne: CBD might help reduce redness, pain, and swelling associated with inflammatory acne.
- Regulate Oil Production: As previously mentioned, CBD helps regulate hormones involved in oil production, reducing excess sebum.
- Reduce Breakouts: CBD may help reduce inflammation of breakouts and, thanks to its oil production regulation, reduce breakouts in general.
- Calm Rosacea: With its ability to reduce inflammation, CBD may help calm rosacea flare-ups.
- Neutralize Free Radical Damage: CBD may work to prevent the weakening of the skin by neutralizing free radical damage.
- Soothe Eczema: CBD helps combat irritation and inflammation caused by eczema, along with chronic skin conditions such as psoriasis and dermatitis, according to Shamban.
- Decrease Hormonal Conditions: Since CBD is thought to be an adaptogen, it may work to decrease the effects of hormones and other compounds that are released into the body in times of stress (ie. kinase, nitric oxide, and cortisol).
- Hydration: CBD has moisturizing properties that can help combat dehydration and dryness.
The level of benefits for CBD effects on some skin conditions is still up for debate and is a newer science being studied, according to Shamban, and more research is needed to see if CBD or the other agents found in the cannabis plant directly improve skin quality.
Side Effects of CBD
Engelman explains that more studies need to be done to verify the efficiency of CBD oil benefits for skin. As such, topical CBD has no known side effects.
How to Use It
How you use CBD skincare is all about the product you’re using. “Most CBD products are serums or creams,” says Engelman. “Use as you normally would, layering your skincare products from thinnest to thickest. Serums should be applied before creams.” That said, you should never self-diagnose your skin conditions. “Always read packaging and ingredients and check with a board-certified dermatologist, primary care, or other medical practitioner before starting any new supplement or topical care,” adds Shamban.
The Best Products With CBD
This CBD oil can be used on your skin and hair. It promises to help soothe and calm your scalp and skin, providing deep moisture and reducing the appearance of redness and irritation. It contains 100mg of CBD.
Palermino mentions supermodel facialist Ildi Pekar’s CBD line as containing high amounts of CBD. This luxe face oil in particular contains 250mg of CBD oil, along with soothing aloe juice, brightening vitamin c, hyaluronic acid, and more.
Engelman is a fan of these bath salts from Lord Jones. “I love [them] because they combine magnesium and Himalayan salts, essential oils, arnica, and CBD, which will reduce inflammation, promote relaxation, and increase a sense of well-being.”
Palermino also swears by this soothing sleeping mask from Kana. “Even though it’s lower on the CBD dosing scale, it’s one of the nicer lightweight sleeping masks I’ve tried,” she says.
Lewis and Schroeder are also fans of Kana, citing this this all-purpose face oil (which contains 100mg of CBD) as a favorite. “It’s formulated with a ton of other powerful botanicals that help to hydrate skin and manage redness,” they explain. “It’s a great addition to both your morning and nighttime routine.”
You get a whopping 100mg of CBD in this honey-infused stick, which is why Lewis and Schroeder cite is as a favorite. “We love the format of this product,” they say. “It’s easy to apply any time of day, and you can use it for anything. From chapped lips, to under eyes that need a little brightening, this stick is soothing, calming, and easy to pop in your bag and use anywhere.” (It was also one of our editors’ picks for the month of October).
Let’s not forget that the anti-inflammatory benefits of CBD can extend to your body, too: “This serum is formulated with an array of medicinal herbs and over 80 phytocannabinoids,” Lewis and Shroeder say. “It does triple duty by soothing, relaxing and hydrating your skin and muscles. It’s a must for anyone who’s had a long day and needs some relief.”
Fans of Lord Jones’ best-selling Body Lotion ($24) will want to try this oil alternative, which contains 100mg of CBD and comes in rollerball form for easy application (not to mention built-in massage abilities). Plus, the light, floral scent is incredibly soothing.
Saint Jane, the brainchild of a former Sephora exec, is a CBD skincare line that’s not here to mess around. Its hero product, the Luxury Beauty Serum, contains a whopping 500mg of CBD, along with 18 other 100 percent natural skin-loving oils, from frankincense to sandalwood. Massage this in morning and night for a lit-from-within glow, even in the dead of winter. Trust us, your skin will thank you.
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
Baswan SM, Klosner AE, Glynn K, et al. Therapeutic potential of cannabidiol (CBD) for skin health and disorders. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2020;13:927-942. doi:10.2147/CCID.S286411
Atalay S, Jarocka-Karpowicz I, Skrzydlewska E. Antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties of cannabidiol. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;9(1):21. doi:10.3390/antiox9010021