EducationA beginner’s guide to topical cannabinoids and CBD cream

A beginner’s guide to topical cannabinoids and CBD cream

12 min read

Sam North

A beginner’s guide to topical cannabinoids and CBD cream
In the past decade or so, we have seen a rise in the popularity of cannabidiol (CBD) topical creams, and for a good reason. Cannabis topicals contain robust properties that have shown potential in not only revitalizing skin, but also reducing inflammation, pain, and the symptomatic distress that comes with a huge range of skin health issues.


Here in the UK, medical cannabis became a legal reality back in November 2018. And while CBD topicals can be easily sourced over the counter, we always suggest seeking the advice of a doctor who is both registered and qualified to prescribe medicinal cannabis options before beginning any treatment involving cannabinoids.

Topical CBD cream has been a prime target for many patients reporting skin irritations, muscle and joint soreness, and more serious issues such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne. 

Most CBD topical products contain a diverse range of cannabinoids. Recent research has hypothesised that medicinal cannabis applications are more effective when they contain not only the target cannabinoid (in this, CBD) but also a selection of supportive compounds – secondary cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. This theory is referred to as the “entourage effect”.

In this guide, we’ll explain what form CBD topicals take in-depth to help you understand all about it and give you the best course of action to take.

Key Points


What is CBD Cream?

A lotion-type product infused with cannabinoids (primarily CBD) and other beneficial ingredients, targeting external body applications for skin and muscle support.

Why Apply CBD Cream?

Patients may apply CBD cream for its potential benefits, non-psychoactive effects, and ease of application. It may help relieve muscle and joint aches, discomfort from the symptoms of skin health issues, reduce skin redness and boost skin vitality.

How Does it Work?

CBD creams interact with the human endocannabinoid system (ECS), interacting with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, providing relief in targeted areas when applied to the skin.


Apply a small amount of CBD cream to the affected area of the skin, allowing it to penetrate the epidermal layer and reach the receptors. The amount needed may vary based on potency and individual needs.

Choosing a Cream

Look for quality standards, testing procedures, and adherence to regulations. Check for a certificate of analysis (COA) to ensure purity and safety. Consider the concentration, ingredients, and whether the cream is full-spectrum, broad-spectrum, or isolate.

Potential Side Effects

Some potential side effects include rash, irritation, or skin reaction. It's recommended to apply a small amount to your skin first to test for any adverse effects. Always seek the advice of a health-care professional before applying.

What is CBD cream?

CBD cream comes in a vast array of product types. It is most often a thick lotion that contains CBD, secondary cannabinoids, terpenes, and other desirable ingredients.

Depending on the individual product, CBD creams come in various potency strengths, and it’s important to find the ideal one that’s tested with a certificate of analysis (COA). Before beginning any medicinal cannabis treatment regime, it is heavily recommended that you first consult with a doctor that is registered to prescribe medicinal cannabis. They will be able to provide the most up-to-date information, and prescribe the most suitable treatment option for your specific needs.

Why apply CBD topicals?

Patients may look to apply CBD topicals for a wide range of skin issues. From general soreness to more serious health concerns, the currently available research is pointing to the fact that CBD-infused creams may help bring relief to various areas of the skin, and for a variety of skin-related health conditions.

In addition, CBD creams are non-psychoactive – meaning they won’t get you 'high' from any dosage size, and are easy to apply. This is highly beneficial for anyone looking to benefit from the potential therapeutic effects of cannabinoids without having to worry about any psychoactive properties.

How does CBD cream work?

CBD creams have the potential to provide relief from a range of skin-related issues due to the cannabinoid’s ability to interact with the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). 

The system exists throughout our entire body, with the skin (our largest organ) containing a huge number of ECS receptors. It consists of our own endocannabinoids, the CB1 and CB2 receptors that cannabinoids have the ability to interact with, and enzymes that break down the cannabinoids once their role has been played out.

When topical creams are applied to the skin, they are absorbed into the epidermal layer. Once absorbed, the contained active ingredient (in this case, CBD) has the ability to interact with the receptors. It is through these interactions that CBD topicals are thought to affect the body, and potentially relieve the target issue or symptom.

How is CBD cream applied?

CBD cream can be applied straight to the affected areas of the skin, where it will be absorbed into the epidermal layer and make its way to the receptors. 

While exact application sizes and doses are best discussed with a healthcare professional, it is good to keep in mind that the skin does have a cannabinoid saturation point, so applying large amounts of CBD cream is not always needed, or effective. 

The vast majority of patients find that applying just a small amount of CBD cream, and then carefully and slowly massaging it into the affected area in a circular motion, is the most effective mode of application.

What are the benefits of CBD cream?

While there is an ever-present need for further research into the full benefits of medicinal cannabis, there is research to suggest that the potential benefits of CBD cream include the following:

  • Relief from body aches and discomfort
  • Reduced skin redness
  • Anti-microbial effects
  • Skin barrier repairing properties
  • Anti-itching properties
  • Wound healing properties
  • Anti-inflammatory properties

CBD topical options may also help alleviate the symptoms of more serious skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema by reducing the inflammation associated with these diseases

There is also research pointing to the fact that CBD topicals have the potential to help reduce the inflammation and pain associated with arthritis.

We highly recommend you consult with a professional before you begin the topical application of CBD cream, as they will be able to best guide you towards an effective dosage size and product type.

How long do CBD topicals take to start working?

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to this question, but we can look at some guidelines, 

Depending on the potency, and the amount applied, you can expect to experience the potential therapeutic effects of CBD topicals within anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes. 

The base ingredients within a particular CBD lotion can have an influence on the duration that the effects may be felt, as can the potency of the CBD contained in a particular product. Individual factors, such as your rate of skin absorption, your cannabinoid tolerance, and your own perception of effects can also play a role in the duration and intensity of the effects felt. 

How to choose the right CBD topical?

In the past five or so years, we have seen a true explosion in CBD cream options on offer to the UK public. And while this is usually seen as a positive thing, it does come with its own set of challenges.

This seemingly endless supply of over-the-counter CBD topicals has, in some cases, come with examples where the claims made on the packaging don’t line up with what is contained in the package. 

If you are truly interested in the therapeutic potential of medicinal cannabis solutions, the very first thing you should do is reach out to a doctor that is registered to prescribe medicinal cannabis. Doing so will guarantee that you not only receive the best advice, but also ensures that the CBD topical you receive has passed stringent regulation protocols. 

That’s not to say that all over the counter options are below par, just that the medicinal sector is subject to more rigorous testing and regulatory oversight.

When it comes to selecting the right cannabis topical for you, take time to consider your own individual needs and do your due diligence. Being honest and open with your prescribing doctor will help with the prescription process, and will also help you to make sure that the product you are using is the one best suited for your needs.

Having said this, there are some basic tips on choosing an over the counter CBD option, should you choose to go down that route:

  • Look for third-party lab results – Make sure that the product you are buying has been tested by a third-party laboratory and that the COA is available on request.
  • Check the packaging info lines up with the COA – Make sure that the information on the packaging lines up is in line with the details one the COA
  • Check for added ingredients – If you are allergic to certain ingredients, make sure that you take the time to check what else has been added to the CBD topicals.
  • Check for dosage guidelines – Make sure that any CBD topical you buy comes with suggested dosage guidelines. This will help to ensure that you don’t over or underdose the product.
  • One red flag that you should be aware of is any company making sweeping medical claims. Cannabis research is still in its infancy, and while there is emerging science backing up the idea that CBD may be an effective therapeutic option for a range of health-related issues, it is still illegal to make any definitive claims.

How much CBD cream can you put on your skin?

Specific dosage guidelines are difficult to offer in an article like this, as the amount of cream required is subject to many factors. The health issues that you are battling, the potency of the cream, the class of topical, and your own personal tolerance to CBD will all come into play. 

This is a question that will be fully answered by your prescribing doctor.

But, a general rule of thumb is that ‘less is more’ when it comes to CBD topicals. The endocannabinoid receptors have a saturation point, where they will no longer be able to process the CBD. This can actually reverse the desired effect, and stop the body’s uptake of CBD.

What’s the concentration of topical creams?

This is a bit of a “how long is a piece of string?” kind of question.

The concentration strength varies wildly from product to product. Some options may contain 100 mg, while others might offer 3000 mg per container of a topical cream.

Should you take full-spectrum, broad-spectrum or isolate CBD topicals?

Let’s quickly explain the difference between the three options

  • Full-spectrum topical creams contain the entire chemical makeup of the plant that the CBD was extracted from, including any THC (and other secondary cannabinoids), terpenes, and flavonoids. 
  • Broad-spectrum topical creams contain the entire chemical makeup of the plant, with the exception of THC.
  • Topicals containing CBD isolate will have just that, only the CBD, isolated from the rest of the plant’s chemical makeup.

While all three options come with CBD, the current state of cannabis research points to the “entourage effect” theory being correct.  The entourage effect theory suggests that a combination of all of the chemical compounds found within the cannabis plant work together to offer greater therapeutic effects than when administered separately.

This points to the fact that either full or broad-spectrum options are the best options.

What are the ingredients in CBD cream?

Again, that is a hard question to fully answer. CBD topicals come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the product. Generally, though, almost all CBD topicals will contain some combination of moisturizing agents (e.g. shea butter, cocoa butter, coconut oil), with the base CBD extract mixed in.

Always check the list of ingredients before purchasing CBD cream, as some products may contain added preservatives, chemicals, and fragrances.

What are the side effects of CBD cream?

While CBD cream offers a range of potential therapeutic benefits to the skin, there are also some possible side effects you should consider.

According to the American Academy Of Dermatology, potential CBD topical side effects can include:

  • Rash
  • Irritation
  • Skin reaction

It’s recommended you apply a small amount to a patch of your skin to be sure that you are not showing any signs of allergic reaction, before slathering it on the affected area.

CBD has been shown to be well tolerated in all of its forms, with patients rarely displaying any signs of negative side effects.

Final thoughts on CBD lotion

CBD topicals can be a great addition to your skincare regime and have shown the potential in offering a range of therapeutic effects. These effects may help with the reduction of symptoms for a variety of skin-related issues, and also may help reduce muscle soreness and inflammation. 

Before deciding on one, make sure you do your research and get a good understanding of what you’re looking to get out of the product. Additionally, be sure to read up on dosage information and any potential side effects, and always seek the advice of a medical professional before using CBD. 

At Releaf, we believe that access to medical cannabis is important. That's why we offer tailored monthly packages based on your cannabis prescription, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

Our articles are written by experts and reviewed by medical professionals or compliance specialists. Adhering to stringent sourcing guidelines, we reference peer-reviewed studies and scholarly research. View our editorial policy.

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