How Do Cannabis Topicals Work On Your Skin?

When you rub a cannabis topical into your skin, a variety of effects can be experienced, from a reduction in tension or muscle tenderness to a quicker recovery from an intense workout. But what’s going on under the surface? How do THC- and CBD-infused creams work, and why are they so effective? 

At Escape Artists, we’re utilizing the latest findings from the pharmaceutical sector to dial in delivery methods through which cannabinoids interact with receptors deep in your skin, possibly providing relief from stress, bodily discomfort, or overexertion.

Cannabis Topicals and Your Endocannabinoid System

To understand the ways different types of cannabis topicals work, you need to understand the human endocannabinoid system. 

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) consists of chemical compounds and receptors located in the brain, the central nervous system and throughout the body that help to regulate various systems influencing everything from immune function and mood to inflammation, temperature, appetite, energy levels and more.

While the body produces its own natural cannabinoids (known as endocannabinoids), the ECS receptors also interact with compounds produced by the cannabis plant such as THC, CBD, cannabigerol (CBG) and others (these are phytocannabinoids—“phyto” is Latin for plant). 

There are myriad ways cannabis topicals work on your skin. Your skin’s epidermal layers include cells that produce the protein keratin—which is the structural component of the top layer of skin—as well as sebaceous glands that produce oils, immune cells that respond to injury, and sensory neurons that help you feel cold, heat and pressure (touch). 

Amidst all the cells and glands that make up your skin, the body’s largest organ, are endocannabinoid receptors. When THC, CBD and other cannabis compounds interact with those receptors, they can create signals that cause changes locally in the skin as well as beyond in other systems. For example, those signals might affect how your nervous system interprets sensory feedback from your latest workout, or to counter immune responses like swelling.

What Happens When You Apply Cannabinoids to the Skin?

When you rub a lotion or cream infused with cannabinoids on your skin, it initially works like any other moisturizer. The product is absorbed into the epidermis—that’s the outermost layer of skin made up of keratin and lipids. From there, topical ingredients begin to interact with the numerous endocrine, nervous, sensory and immune system sensors within the epidermis. 

When a topical contains THC, CBD and other cannabis compounds, those active ingredients bind to the ECS receptors found throughout the epidermis. Sometimes they antagonize those receptors, meaning they block certain biological responses, such as physical discomfort from an overworked muscle. Other times they act as inverse antagonists, meaning they enhance the biological response triggered by those receptors—like a recovery workout calming soreness and decreasing recovery time. 

Instead of a cannabinoid delivery method like smoking or eating an edible, where cannabinoids enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body, topical cannabinoids are delivered directly to local receptors in the area of skin where you’ve applied the cream or lotion. That’s why infused creams and lotions allow consumers to enjoy the benefits of cannabis topicals without creating intoxicating effects. 

Cannabis Topicals and Terpenes

Because of decades of prohibition, the clinical body of evidence on how cannabis topicals work is still being developed. That said, anecdotal evidence suggests that a topical infused with cannabinoids and other plant compounds such as menthol, camphor or lavender can be an effective tool for self-care.

If some of those ingredients sound familiar, it’s because they’re frequently included in over-the-counter products for soothing sore muscles. Camphor and menthol have long been used to produce warming and cooling sensations that can help knots in the fascia release. 

Like cannabis, these plant-based substances also feature terpenes—the chemical compounds that give plants like mint, cinnamon and pine their distinctive scents and herbs like lavender their unique calming properties.

That’s another reason cannabis topicals can be very effective for soothing everything from stress to stiffness. Topical ingredients target numerous receptors in your skin, both endocannabinoid receptors and those related to other systems, to produce a range of effects. Whether you prefer a cannabis topical with THC, a CBD-only cannabis cream, or different ratios of THC to CBD in your topicals, or additional terpene-rich ingredients, there’s a product for you and your unique endocannabinoid system.

Learn more about modern cannabis products and how they work in the Escape Artists blog. You may also enjoy our post Can Anyone Use Cannabis Topicals?

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