EducationThe current research on CBD oil for skin cancer

The current research on CBD oil for skin cancer

11 min read

Lucy MacKinnon

The current research on CBD oil for skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK, with more than 100,000 diagnoses annually. It kills over 2,500 people each year and leaves thousands more needing extensive and invasive treatments.

Contents

While one review found that cannabis oil has potential anticarcinogenic properties, including the ability to inhibit tumour growth and stop its spread, medicinal cannabis is not a cure for cancer. It has shown the potential to reduce the severity of some of the symptoms that come along with skin cancer, as well as lessening the burden placed on the body by conventional cannabis treatments. It’s early days, and although there are lots of promising individual stories, research into its possible use as a future cancer treatment is still in its infancy. 

With that said, let’s look into the potential application of medicinal cannabis in terms of skin cancer, and see what the research is saying.

Understanding skin cancer

Despite more awareness than ever before, more education and prevention, and more treatments, skin cancer is on the rise. Increased sunbathing, travelling abroad, holidaying in places with strong sun, the proliferation of tanning studios, budget airlines, and cheap package holidays have all contributed to greater sun exposure for us Brits.

In fact, the rate of malignant skin cancer has risen 550% for males and 250% for females since the 1980s, according to a study by Brighton Medical School. Around 86% of all cancers in the UK is attributable to excess exposure to sunlight, and the steeper increase in males down to poor sun-protective measures. And according to figures, the number of diagnoses is expected to increase further, up 9% by 2040.

Causes and risk factors

The two main causes of skin cancer are ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and UV from tanning beds. There are certain factors which can increase your chances of getting skin cancer:

  • Red or blond hair
  • Pale skin that burns easily
  • Lots of freckles or moles
  • Blue or green eyes
  • You’ve had lots of sun exposure, and especially sunburn, in the past
  • History of skin cancer in your family
  • Have used sunbeds a lot

People with black or brown skin have a lower chance skin cancer, but it can still occur, particularly soles of the feet, palms of the hands or under a nail.

Types of skin cancer 

There are two main types of skin cancer, which can be further categorised into subtypes:

  • Melanoma
  • Non-melanoma skin cancer, including Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

While all can have a serious impact on people’s lives, melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, with more than 16,000 diagnoses in the UK each year. 

Melanoma

Melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer, with more than 2,300 deaths each year and accounting for 1% of all cancer deaths in the UK. It starts in skin cells called melanocytes, which are a deep layer in the epidermis.

Melanocytes are the cells responsible for giving skin its pigment, called melanin. This pigment helps protect the skin from UV light. But exposure to the sun can cause sunburn, which is a sign of damage to the DNA in skin cells. Over time, and with repeated exposure, this DNA damage can cause skin cells to grow out of control and lead to cancer.

Melanomas occur at any age, but are more common in older people. In relation to other cancers, though, they are also quite common in younger people.

Melanoma skin cancer survival rates have doubled in the last 50 years, with nine out of ten people diagnosed predicted to survive ten years or more after diagnosis. Approximately one in 36 males and one in 47 females will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime. Melanoma is preventable in 86% of cases.

Symptoms:

  • Moles or lesions may be asymmetric or have an irregular shape, while normal moles are symmetrical so that both halves look the same
  • The border on ordinary moles will be well-defined, clear, and smooth while on a melanoma they may be blurred, irregular and have jagged edges
  • Colour – ordinary moles tend to be all the same colour, while cancerous ones are mottled with different shades of brown and may have a black, white, pink, or blue tint to them.
  • Diameter – On a normal mole, it won’t generally be larger than the diameter of the blunt end of a pencil. Melanomas are usually 6 mm or wider
  • Changes in appearance of a mole can signify that it is malignant

Non-melanoma skin cancer

This name is used to distinguish these types of cancer from the more serious, and there are several subtypes. Here, we explain the symptoms of the two most common types.

Basal cell carcinoma

BCC is one of the most common skin cancers in the UK, accounting for 75% of all non-melanoma cancers. It affects more men than women and is more common in the elderly. It begins in the basal cells, a type of skin cell responsible for making new cells as old ones die off.

Furthermore, it usually appears as a slightly translucent bump on the face or neck – areas most often exposed to the sun and is thought to be caused by long-term UV exposure.

Symptoms

BCC typically develops on the face or neck and starts as a sore or growth that won’t heal. Occasionally, growths may appear on other parts of the body that are more protected.

The lesion may have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • skin-coloured, shiny bump that’s a little translucent. On pink or white skin, it can look pearly white, over brown or black skin it might look dark and shiny. Tiny blood vessels may be present, and it might bleed and scab over.
  • A scaly, flat patch with a raised edge which may grow larger over time.
  • A brown, black, or blue lesion with slightly raised, translucent edges.
  • A lesion that looks like a scar, which might be a little waxy and without any defined edge

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) 

SCC is the second most common type of skin cancer in the UK and accounts for 23% of non-melanoma skin cancers. It’s mostly caused by overexposure to UV light. However, it can also develop in areas of skin damaged by other factors such as burns, chronic ulcers, forms of radiation and old scars.

It develops in the middle and outer layers of the skin, in cells called keratinocytes, and although not life-threatening it can be aggressive, growing large in some parts and leading to serious complications. 

Symptoms

Patients most commonly find lesions on parts of the body regularly exposed to the sun such as scalp, face, hands, lips, and neck. However, they can occur anywhere on the body, including inside the mouth and on the genitals.

Symptoms of SCC can include:

  • A flat sore with a scaly crust
  • A nodule that is firm and red
  • A rough or sore patch inside the mouth
  • A scar with a new sore or a raised area
  • A rough scaly patch on the lip which may become an open sore
  • A raised, wart-like sore found on the anus or genitals

Other rarer types of non-melanoma skin cancers are:

  • Merkel cell carcinoma
  • Kaposi’s sarcoma
  • T cell lymphoma of the skin
  • Sebaceous gland cancer

Treatments

Preventative skin care, and looking after our general skin health, should be part of our everyday routine. 

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, chemical peels, and immunotherapy are some of the most common treatments. However, they all carry their own risks and have some unpleasant side effects.

In the case of skin cancer, treatment will be predicated on the type of cancer and if/how far it has spread. With BCC, it rarely spreads, so excising the mole or lesion and performing a biopsy might be sufficient. If it’s a large SCC or suspected melanoma, further tests will be carried out to determine its spread, which might include medical imaging and examination of neighbouring lymph nodes and biopsy. Cancer is then graded with Roman numerals I to IV – I mean it is small and localised, while IV indicates it is advanced and has spread to other parts of the body.

Cannabis oil: What is it?

Cannabis oil, also known as cannabidiol oil or CBD oil, is a popular natural remedy that has really come to prominence in the past decade or so. Although it is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, it won’t give you a high because it doesn’t contain any of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

It does, however, contain cannabidiol (CBD) - the second most active of a group of compounds called cannabinoids and which offer many potential positive health outcomes. CBD predominantly comes from the flowers of the plant. There are many extraction methods use to create CBD oil, one of which is to soak the plant in solvents to strip out the cannabinoids. The liquid is then put through an evaporation process, which leaves the cannabinoids in a concentrated oil form. This crude oil is then refined and purified to create a pure CBD isolate or a broad-spectrum oil. 

CBD oil can be found in various health supplements and can be taken orally under the tongue, used topically on the skin, or ingested with food. Certain CBD oil products allow the use of vaporisers for inhalation. Oils available on the market come in various concentrations and are legal in the UK. They must contain less than 0.2% THC, or they will be rendered illegal.

The potential beneficial properties of cannabis oil for skin cancer

Several studies have pointed to the potential, various therapeutic benefits of cannabis oil for skin cancer patients. They have shown cannabis may have the potential to cause cancer cell death, block cancer cell growth, stop the development of blood vessels which tumours need to grow, reduce inflammation, and reduce the ability of cancers to spread. 

These are all preliminary findings, and as we stated at the beginning of this article, there is (at the time of writing) zero evidence to show that medical cannabis alone can cure cancer or stop the spread of tumours. Below, we are simply showing what the current research has concluded, but we are not making any anti-cancer claims in regard to medicinal cannabis therapy. 

Medicinal cannabis should be viewed as one small part of a holistic treatment plan. 

Cancer Cell Death

Apoptosis is the programmed death of a cell and is a necessary part of their normal life cycle. Cancer cells reproduce rapidly without dying like normal cells, which damages surrounding tissues and causes tumour growth. A 2009 study found cannabis had the potential for immunosuppressant and apoptosis abilities, allowing malignant cells to ‘die’ naturally. 

Block Cancer Cell Growth

Experimental studies have shown cannabis may have an antitumorigenic effect, meaning it could potentially stop tumour growth and kill cells. In one 2009 review, researchers noted cannabis may induce this effect in lab tests on immune-related cancers such as leukaemia, though it didn’t specifically mention non-immune-related skin cancers. Another study noted that cannabinoids were potentially able to bind to receptors on melanoma cells to reduce growth and increase cell death.

Prevent the Growth of Blood Vessels

Cannabis has been shown to have potential angiogenic properties, which means it inhibits blood vessel growth, something cancer cells need to survive.  This potential was shown both in lab tests and in animal testing and, according to one study, medical cannabis may have the prospective capacity as a future effective agent for cancer treatment. Another 2022 study, which looked at cannabis in the context of Covid-19, also found it may decrease blood vessel growth.

Anti-inflammatory

Numerous studies have found CBD to exhibit potential anti-inflammatory properties. One review paper found that it could possibly provide a skin tumour-preventative effect because inflammatory processes are associated with tumour growth, but CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties may counteract it. It also showed cannabinoids could increase antioxidant activity, which could in turn protect against skin cancer. 

All of these findings are preliminary, and should not be viewed as anything resembling definitive claims that medicinal cannabis can cure or treat skin cancer. 

The potential treatment of skin cancer

While the science is promising, there has been limited clinical study on cannabis oil to confirm its efficacy in treating skin cancer. However, it is already being used to aid cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy – Nabilone is a drug developed from cannabis and used to treat severe nausea and vomiting in patients for whom other anti-sickness medication has failed. With further research, there is a possibility that more cannabis-based medications will become available to treat the side effects of cancer.

Conclusion

So, as we can clearly see, medicinal cannabis may have the potential for a place alongside conventional therapy options as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for skin cancer sufferers. While it has shown the potential to possibly reduce certain vital aspects of cancer, these findings are preliminary and should be taken with a grain of salt. Much more in-depth study must be done before any claims are made regarding the efficacy of medicinal cannabis in cancer eduction. 

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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Authors

With five years of journalism and healthcare content creation under her belt, Lucy strives to improve medical cannabis awareness and access in the UK by producing high quality, credible content.

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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Further reading

The Continental Cannabis Guide: Medical cannabis-friendly countries

For some patients, medical cannabis really is a lifeline and is therefore a necessary component in the holiday of a lifetime. So that you don’t have to choose between your health and a holiday, we’ve put together this guide that explains which countries currently have medical cannabis policies in place.

Lucy MacKinnon

Medical cannabis on holiday: The basics

Here at Releaf we understand that holidays should be about relaxation, but travelling with medical cannabis sounds like a stressful voyage. We’re doing what we can to absorb that stress so that you can soak up the sun, and so, we’ve designed a series of articles to cover the subject: medical cannabis on holiday. 

Lucy MacKinnon

How long does it take to feel the effects of THC oil?

The time it takes for you to feel the effects of THC depends on the methods of administration as well as your own physiology. Fortunately, there are fast and slow-acting options, as well as ways to take low or high doses in order to facilitate control over the way your body reacts to your medicine.

Editorial Team