Right around the time everyone from my parents to John Legend started suggesting CBD as a cure-all, my inbox filled with emails from beauty brands about how the same elixir people were ingesting to sleep better at night could be put into a cream to make my skin look better, too.
CBD is short for cannabidiol, and it’s most often derived from hemp plants. Unlike its counterpart THC, it won’t get you high. Instead, it’s marketed as a non-psychoactive alternative that can, among many things, calm the mind. The benefits of CBD when taken internally are fairly well studied ― in 2018 the Food and Drug Administration approved the first cannabis-derived drug, Epidiolex, which uses CBD for the treatment of epilepsy. And anecdotally, the benefits of CBD could range from better sleep to reduced anxiety.
In skin care, CBD most often claims to be a calming ingredient, with oils, serums and creams touting it as a way to reduce redness and soothe skin. On its own, CBD doesn’t sell for cheap, with prices ranging from about $50 to over $200 for a 1-ounce bottle, depending on the formula and strength. And when added to skin care, that cost carries over: At Sephora, prices for CBD skin care products range from $38 to $125.
But while beauty brands are marketing their CBD-based skin care products as a useful addition to your beauty routine, there’s no clear research that proves these products are worth your money. Many of the current studies on CBD and skin are preclinical, meaning they’ve been tested on cells and animals as opposed to humans.
“I would be cautiously optimistic about adding CBD to a skin care routine,” said Michele Farber, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York. “Although there is definite evidence that CBD has beneficial effects, studies are preliminary and CBD typically is not the strongest option available.”
Jordan Wang, a dermatologist at Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York, echoes Farber’s sentiment that more research is needed to understand CBD’s role in skin care. “Claims for anti-aging benefits deserve the most scrutiny, but consumers should know that current research is still exploring the benefits of CBD,” Wang said.
There is, however, potential. When applied topically, CBD “has been shown to reduce inflammation, aid in pain relief, improve hydration and reduce oil production,” Farber said. “The anti-inflammatory and oil-reducing effects make it potentially helpful for acne.”
CBD’s anti-inflammatory ability seems to be where the most promising application lies. All of the experts we spoke to specifically called out skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis as potentially benefiting the most from CBD products.
“Cannabinoids, like CBD, are heavily involved in managing the immune response to infection and injury,” said Adam Friedman, professor and interim chair of dermatology at George Washington University and science adviser for TruPotency. He explained that our body’s endocannabinoid system regulates inflammation, and scientists have discovered that cannabinoids are an important factor in actually clearing up inflammation. This is a big deal because many current treatments simply block inflammation signals themselves or their receptor site. CBD can actually fix the underlying problem rather than just managing symptoms, whether it’s applied topically or ingested, he said.
CBD has potential for acne treatment because of another role it can play in regulating oil gland cells. “In a single-blinded, split-face study, 3% cannabis seed extract cream decreased skin sebum and erythema content, demonstrating a potential treatment for acne vulgaris and seborrhea,” Friedman said. In other words, when applied topically, CBD could calm down oily skin and therefore reduce the potential for clogged pores and breakouts.
With all this potential, there’s still a need to be cautious. The unregulated world of CBD means the efficacy of each individual product can vary depending on the source of ingredients, additives, manufacturing process and formulation strength.
“The cosmetic world has witnessed a rise in topical CBD products,” said Wang, who co-authored a paper on CBD trends. “A lot of this is the result of large marketing campaigns and the push toward more natural ingredients, which makes it difficult for consumers to separate hype from fact. Much about CBD is still unknown, but it certainly has the potential to be a major player in the skin care industry.”
Even with the lack of studies available, CBD is relatively safe when applied topically. Farber warns that although skin irritation or an allergic reaction is possible, it’s more likely to occur due to another ingredient in the product rather than CBD itself.
So if your favorite new moisturizer contains CBD, don’t let the skepticism around the ingredient keep you from enjoying it if you don’t experience any adverse effects.