The Complete Guide to Cannabis Topicals and How They Work

Cannabis consumption is often associated with puffing on a joint or eating an infused treat, and for good reason—smokables and edibles are two of the most common ways people enjoy cannabis. But cannabis topicals are an even more accessible way to reap many of the benefits of cannabis, and that’s why they have become increasingly popular in legal medical and recreational markets. 

If you’re not looking to get high, don’t want to smoke or vape for health reasons, have dietary restrictions or simply want to consume cannabis in a different way, you might enjoy cannabis topicals. In the modern era, there’s something for everyone when it comes to cannabis. 

But what is a cannabis topical, exactly—and how does it work? 

Simply put, topicals refer to any substance that is applied to the skin, such as bath oils, lotions, balms, salves, ointments and creams—even stick-on patches. Some over-the-counter (OTC) topicals contain pharmaceutical compounds or antiseptics, other topicals are infused with cannabis and other plant-based ingredients like lavender, menthol or camphor. Depending on how they’re formulated and applied, cannabis topicals achieve different effects, from soothing skin irritations to localized pain relief, reduced muscle tension, overall relaxation, aromatherapy and more. 

Who can use cannabis topicals? Just about anyone over the age of 21. They’re widely available these days (for the purposes of this discussion, we’re focusing on state-regulated cannabis, not hemp). If you’re wondering where cannabis topicals are legal, they can be found in most states with regulated medical cannabis and/or recreational adult-use programs, from well-established markets like Colorado to states that have more recently legalized, like Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma and elsewhere. 

There are different types of cannabis topicals for all sorts of uses, whether you’re looking to unwind at the end of a long day or feel like you overdid it on your last workout or weekend adventure. And thanks to the stable shelf life of many cannabis topicals, you don’t have to worry about using the whole container right away.

A Brief History of Cannabis Topicals

What are the benefits of cannabis topicals? There are plenty, if we could ask the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans. There’s evidence that humans have been using cannabis topicals since at least 1500 BCE. Cannabis was used by cultures based in Asia to the Middle East for a variety of conditions, including muscle soreness, eye infections and even as an antiseptic. There are written records that tout cannabis for its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties as well as euphoric effects. 

Even in the early 20th century, cannabis was often incorporated into remedies from tonics and tinctures to balms and poultices. However, decades of prohibition in the United States and beyond stymied scientific research that only more recently has confirmed that long anecdotal history of cannabis as an efficacious treatment option. 

With the advent of the medical cannabis movement during the 1980s AIDS epidemic came a renewed interest in understanding how the compounds found in cannabis interact with and affect the human body. As more countries around the world and states legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use, companies like Escape Artists have been able to apply the latest research into not only cannabis, but also dermatology, advanced drug delivery methods and molecular pharmaceutical technologies to create a new generation of cannabis topicals.

It’s never been a better time to reach for the jar of cannabis-infused cream in your medicine cabinet or nightstand.

How Do Cannabis Topicals Work?

To understand how cannabis topicals work, it’s important to understand how cannabis functions in the human body in general. 

Human anatomy is full of distinct networks such as the circulatory, nervous, and endocrine systems that co-regulate complex processes. And then there’s the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which 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.

The Endocannabinoid System and Cannabis Effects

The body naturally produces chemical compounds called endocannabinoids (“endo” is Latin for internal or within) as needed that help maintain homeostasis through feedback by increasing or decreasing their production. (Interesting fact: Endocannabinoids can additionally be found in breast milk.) 

For millennia, humans have co-evolved with the cannabis plant, which contains more than 100 distinct compounds called phytocannabinoids (“phyto” = plant) that interact with the cannabinoid receptors of the ECS. When phytocannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and others are introduced to the body through cannabis consumption, these compounds bind to ECS receptors to produce various effects. Research indicates phytocannabinoids have a number of properties, including analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic and anticonvulsant, among others.  

How is Topical Cannabis Different From Smokable or Edible Products?

Cannabis topicals work differently than taking a hit off a vape pen or eating an infused gummy. Topicals depend on transdermal absorption, that is, on cannabis compounds reaching the local ECS receptors through your skin. When you apply an infused lotion or cream to sore leg muscles, for example, it delivers topical cannabinoids directly to the parts of the body that are injured or inflamed. 

Think about it this way—the topical and oral pain relievers you might pick up at the pharmacy are both effective options that work on your body in different ways. A topical treatment, whether it’s an FDA-approved pharmaceutical cream or a cannabis-infused lotion, provides localized relief specific to where it’s applied. An OTC anti-inflammatory oral drug like ibuprofen, however, must be processed by the liver and distributed throughout the body—even to the parts that feel just fine. The same idea holds true for cannabis edibles, which are also processed primarily by the liver, before you begin to feel the effects.

As with traditional OTC medications, it’s certainly possible to use both a topical treatment and an oral one as needed. It’s perfectly fine to smoke cannabis and use cannabis topicals simultaneously, for example, if you want additional relaxation and euphoria from a smokable product like a live resin joint in addition to the focused, localized relief of a topical. It’s also fine to use cannabis tinctures, dissolvables, or edibles in conjunction with cannabis topicals—it all depends on what kind of healing you’re after, and to what extent you want to experience more “cerebral effects”—aka a “high” feeling.

Will Cannabis Topicals Get Me High?

Speaking of getting high, that intoxicating, psychotropic experience is the best-known and most recognizable effect attributed to the cannabinoid THC. But there are numerous non-intoxicating effects produced by a wide range of cannabis compounds that scientists are still working to fully understand. How pronounced those effects are and how they are felt in the body can also depend on the method of consumption.

For example, numerous studies and anecdotal reports indicate that smokable or edible CBD has powerful anti-seizure properties. Other studies show THC has the ability to improve appetite and reduce nausea. One of the effects scientists are studying with great interest is whether topical cannabinoids can be used to provide relief for chronic pain symptoms or as a potential alternative to opioids

“CBD and THC molecules have the same number and types of atoms but they differ in how the atoms are arranged,” Escape Artists Chief Science Office Kyle Hammerick explained to Food52. “It is this slight difference that causes delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta9-THC) to have different psychoactive properties from CBD. The different conformation of THC allows it to engage receptors in the brain called cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptors while CBD does not bind to these receptors.”

The current body of evidence suggests that because of how cannabis topicals work when applied to skin they are less likely to create a pronounced psychoactive effect. Because fewer cannabinoids reach the bloodstream, it’s thought that less THC reaches endocannabinoid receptors in the brain and central nervous system. Instead, the cannabis compounds bind to on-site receptors in the area where the cream or lotion was applied. That’s another perk of creating a skincare routine with cannabis topicals or incorporating it into your self-care practices—topicals have all the benefits of cannabis in a discreet format, minus the pronounced intoxication produced by cannabis flower, concentrate vape cartridges or high-THC edibles.

Will Cannabis Topicals Make Me Fail a Drug Test?

If you’re searching for answers to questions like “do cannabis topicals show up on a drug test?” or perhaps, “do cannabis topicals smell like marijuana?” you’re certainly not alone. Topicals are favored by many not only for their efficacy and ease of use, but also because they are one of the more discreet ways to consume cannabis. 

Several new scientific studies and reviews of existing research suggest that even extensive application of cannabis topicals on a variety of body parts, such as using cannabis topicals for massage, is unlikely to result in a positive test result.

While there is no 100% certainty, topicals are thought to carry less risk of detection by most drug panels for the same reason it’s thought they don’t create a high. Depending on application frequency and usage, because smaller amounts of cannabinoids reach the bloodstream, the amount of THC that appears in the test subject’s urine or blood may be low enough to come in under the threshold of most lab work. However, if an absence of THC on a drug test is an absolute necessity, abstaining from consuming THC in any form is advisable.

How Do I Know How Much of a Cannabis Topical to Use?

As with other forms of cannabis consumption, dosage has a direct impact on how pronounced the effects of topical cannabinoids might be. For example, soaking in an infused bath for an hour might leave you feeling significantly more relaxed all over than dabbing a dime-sized amount of infused cream on a tender tennis elbow. It can take time and experience to learn what’s most effective for your body, particularly when you’re acquainting yourself with cannabis effects beyond getting high.

A good strategy for beginners is to start with a smaller amount of a topical product than you might typically use when applying a non-infused lotion. Wait to observe whether the initial dose was sufficient, similar to the conservative approach you might take with edibles. Slowly increase the dosage as needed (it’s perfectly fine to experiment with layering cannabis topicals and combining cannabis products inside and out). Incorporating cannabis topicals into your yoga practice or another exercise regimen is a way to explore how cannabis topicals will affect your workout and recovery, and also figure out how much is needed to address different degrees of muscle soreness versus achieving general relaxation.

How to Choose the Right Cannabis Topical for You

Wondering what to look for in a cannabis topical? To choose the right cannabis topical for your needs, or to help others find the perfect cannabis products for their own wellness goals, you want to understand CBD-to-THC ratios. You also want to learn how other cannabis compounds such as terpenes and different cannabinoids can work together to aid relaxation and workout recovery with cannabis topicals, for example.

It’s common for shoppers to pick the product with the highest percentage of THC, but that’s not always the best way to guarantee efficacy. Far from simply watering down THC, including CBD or other cannabinoids such as cannabigerol (CBG), cannabichromene CBC and cannabinol (CBN) can create what is known in scientific circles as the “entourage effect.” The entourage effect is what happens when multiple cannabis compounds work together synergistically with the ECS. Think about it like a sports team—each player has different abilities, enabling the group to work more efficiently and effectively than any one individual could alone, even if that individual is incredibly strong.

Topical Cannabinoids and the Entourage Effect

In addition to hundreds of unique cannabinoids, cannabis contains other compounds such as terpenes, which give different strains unique scents, tastes and effects. Terpenes are found throughout the plant kingdom—think aromatic pine trees, rosemary, lavender and hops. How do terpenes affect cannabis topicals? They contribute to the entourage effect in ways large and small. For example, some terpenes like those found in lavender and certain strains of cannabis appear to have anxiolytic and mood-lifting properties

There is some disagreement as to whether different cannabis strains matter in cannabis topicals to the extent they contribute to pronounced variations in effects seen in smokables or concentrates. That said, different terpene profiles can contribute to different effects in topicals, too, and not just the terpenes found in various cannabis strains, either. 

For example, a product such as Escape Artists 1:1 Relief Cream with Lavender isn’t just cannabinoids at work—it’s an ensemble cast of THC, CBD and lavender terpenes, which are thought to work together to address stress, soreness and tension. Meanwhile, a formula such as Escape Artists Menthol 1:1 Relief Cream incorporates the power of terpenes found in mint (menthol) and cinnamon (camphor) that have been traditionally used to deeply penetrate stiff muscles and create a pleasant cooling or warming sensation.

This isn’t to say that topicals with higher THC content like our 20:1 Relief Creams are more or less effective than those designed to create an entourage effect. It’s all about your wellness goals, and which product best addresses your body’s needs. 

Leave a Comment