As Walgreens, CVS, and Kroger Get Set to Stock CBD Beauty Products, Here’s What You Need to Know

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CBD-laced personal care products are about to go mainstream. From drugstores (Walgreens, CVS) to grocers (Kroger) and mall stores (Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters), expect to see the letters CBD on plenty of packaging.

The basics: Cannabidiol—or CBD for short—is a non-intoxicating extract of the hemp plant. Hemp, which was legalized as an agricultural crop in 2018, is a cousin of the marijuana plant and both are part of the cannabis family. But hemp plants contain no more than .3% THC—the psychoactive ingredient that gets people high. If a cannabis plant’s THC level is higher than .3%, it’s a marijuana plant.

Enthusiasm for CBD, an inflammation-reducing ingredient is in full flower, but hard facts? In short supply. Here’s what you need to know before you stock up on CBD lotions and other cannabidiol beauty balms.

We don’t know what CBD does for (or to) the skin.

“Cannabidiol, or CBD, has been shown in very small studies to reduce inflammation on a cellular level, reduce sebum production clinically, reduce redness, and suppress itch,” said Manhattan dermatologist Daniel Belkin, of the Laser & Skin Center of New York. He believes CBD skincare products are “worth trying” with the caveat that a lot is unknown. “Many claims for CBD [products] still lack any evidence at all, such as that they can reduce wrinkles.” Because there have been no longterm clinical trials for CBD skincare, it’s also unclear how much CBD a product should contain to deliver real benefits. 

The label is probably wrong.

Odds are there’s either a lot more or a lot less CBD than the product label says. A 2017 Penn Medicine study found that 70% of the CBD products tested didn’t match the claim on the label.

And studies show there’s a decent likelihood you’ll also get a tiny bit of THC in your beauty balm. CBD products are legally allowed to contain only trace amounts of THC, no more than 0.3%. “Consumers are essentially being misled to believe their CBD products are free of THC,” said Sean Callan, MD, senior vice president of innovation and operations at Ellipse Analytics, a Denver-based lab which found that 45% of the 250 top-selling CBD products contained THC. Although skin absorption of THC is generally slow and low, it’s something to keep in mind.

The CBD world runs rampant with gimmicks.

“Let’s face it: adding CBD to beauty products is a gimmick in most cases,” said Aliza Sherman, CEO of Ellementa, a website focusing on cannabis education. “There are very few beauty products that need CBD in them based on what CBD is currently known to do, namely reduce inflammation on the skin’s surface. Skin care products could be enhanced with CBD. That’s a logical fit. CBD in mascara? Not necessary.” Why? Hair, brows, beards, and eyelashes have no cannabinoid receptors, so they can’t do anything with that compound. It’s not likely the CBD is doing any harm, but what’s making your brows look great is something else—possibly another cannabinoid, like hemp seed oil. In the rush for dollars (CBD sales rose to $2 billion in 2018 and are expected to continue on an upward trajectory), there’s a lot of hastily made stuff out there, Callan noted. “We saw instances of brands improperly emulsifying the CBD, resulting in a ‘water soluable’ CBD that would stick to the sides of the container,’ he said “No CBD remained in the actual product!”

Even the industry wants regulation and more science.

There is a collective marketing high going on. CBD is being infused into leggings, ground into pet food, swirled into shampoos, serums, jelly beans, seltzers, lube—you name it. 

“CBD is being marketed for everything under the sun,” said Alex Lickerman, a Chicago-based primary care physician and author of The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness. “There is no one compound that can do all of those things.”

Reputable players would like to see the bubble burst, or at least deflated. “The CBD industry would like to see the FDA flex its enforcement muscle and start to rid the industry of bad actors,” wrote Cowen research analyst Vivien Azer in a June research note. “With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, there has been a proliferation of products on the market with unsubstantiated claims. Industry representatives were in clear alignment that this is an area where the FDA needs to step in immediately.”

Still, CBD and skincare may be a good match. The human body naturally produces cannabinoids to regulate pain, inflammation, sleep, appetite, and other functions. The brain has the highest concentration of these cannabinoid receptors, but they’re also present in the skin.

“There are some really interesting findings on CBD oil,” observed Lickerman.“But the unsexy truth is that hope leaps ahead while scientific knowledge about what is truly beneficial advances very slowly. Right now, CBD is the poster child for this.”

So, what to buy?

There’s no perfect answer, but if you’re curious to try CBD to clear up blemishes or to reduce inflammation, here’s what to consider:

Choose products that are meant to be left on and interact with the skin. So buy a serum instead of a face wash. 

Look for companies that have third party lab testing—and are willing to send you the results. “There are a lot of companies trying to sprinkle CBD in for a label claim,” said Samantha Czubiak, founder of Hora Skin Care (pronounced Or-ah). “We test every batch, and share the results.” Hora’s Super Serum lists 250 milligrams of CBD while an overnight mask has 422 milligrams. 

Ron Robinson, an independent cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat Cosmetics, a skincare line which does not use CBD, said the documentation piece is complicated because hemp crops can vary widely, with plants that contain different levels of THC and CBD.

“Until we know more, it makes sense that if you’re going to spend a lot on a product to try CBD, give it some really good back-up singers,” Robinson said, citing proven ingredients such as vitamin C, retinol, and hyaluronic acid.

And keep up on your reading.

“CBD research is exploding, so stay tuned as this will likely change quickly,” noted Callan. “Quickly by science standards, anyway!”

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