Soothing Salves: How Topical CBD Treatments Work

By Chris Bond
Published: October 27, 2017 | Last updated: April 9, 2021 08:31:04
Key Takeaways

When it comes to treating inflammation, cannabis doesn’t always have to be ingested or smoked. Instead, it can be put on the skin. Here’s how it works.

The anti-inflammatory effects of Cannabis sativa have been known for centuries. Though its use dwindled in the early 20th century, we are now rediscovering the ways that cannabis can be used as a prescribed pain killer.


One particular cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), has been studied repeatedly of late. In their paper “Topical and Systemic Cannabidiol Improves Trinitrobenzene Sulfonic Acid Colitis in Mice,” Schicho and Storr found CBD to have a “favorable side effect profile.”

The Whys and How of Topical CBD

Cannabidiol can ameliorate many chronic disease symptoms related to pain and swelling. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, Giacoppo et al. found in their study, “A new formulation of cannabidiol in cream shows therapeutic effects in a mouse model of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis,” that CBD can also suppress a wide range of pro-inflammatory cytokines.


For sufferers of degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), CBD has been shown to positively alter how the disease progresses.

The efficacy of CBD to alleviate or reduce pain from swelling is many times greater when applied as a topical solution as opposed to an oral one. When ingested, the human liver metabolizes cannabinoids and reduces their effectiveness to our bodies.

After the liver has done its job, there is only a 13-19 per cent bioavailability of the CBD and a low aqueous solubility. As Giacoppo et al. wrote, this means that what CBD is left for the body to use is still not in a very “user-friendly” format as compared to the greater effectiveness of CBD as a systemic (injected) or topical application.


Case Studies

The potential of topical CBD to treat these pain and inflammation is being tested on a wide range of maladies. In Giacoppo et al.’s particularly profound Italian study, mice afflicted with MS were daily anointed with topical creams containing CBD.

According to this study, the application of a topical cream containing as little as one per cent CBD could exert “neuroprotective” effects against autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a commonly used model for MS, and could go as far as helping sufferers to recover some lost feeling in their limbs or extremities. In their trial, some of the mice recovered sensitivity in their hind limbs.


Schicho and Storr’s study, which was also conducted on mice, considered the use of CBD to address symptoms of colitis, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The Canadian and Austrian researchers compared oral, systemic and topical CBD formulations.

Mice given intra-rectal applications of CBD had significantly higher rates of symptom mitigation and control. The application of the topical CBD protected against the possibility of intestinal inflammation, and researchers deemed it an easy method of drug administration.

A third study by Thapa et al., which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, looked at the ability of topical CBD to address ocular pain caused by damaged corneal tissue. The corneas of mice were anointed with capsaicin, the agent found within hot peppers that make them spicy.

A percentage of the mice received a topical CBD treatment, while others received different or no treatment. Those that received the CBD treatment were found to blink far less, an indication that their eyes were bothering them less than those not provided with the CBD alternative.

This study stated at the outset that current treatment for corneal pain sufferers are “frequently ineffective” and concluded that topical CBD formulations “could offer a novel therapy for ocular pain and inflammation.”

And while not exactly life-threatening but relevant to millions of people worldwide, an in-depth, recent European study by Oláh et al. showed great promise and success in the trials of using CBD on human cells to disrupt the formation of acne.

The CBD prevents the formation of excessive fat that is caused by pro-acne agents. Furthermore, the study found that cannabidiol demonstrated “remarkable anti-bacterial activity.”

Whether life-threatening or superficial, CBD topical treatments seem to hold some of the greatest potential for curing—or at least mitigating—the numerous negative and often painful effects of dozens of common to rare conditions.

With continued research, topical CBD could be available as a pain relief for many who suffer even the most banal of aches and pains, without risk of side effects or potential for abuse or misuse that is so common with opiate-derived prescription pain killers.


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Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional

Profile Picture of Chris Bond

Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.


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