What Are Cannabis Topicals and How Do They Work?

Article by Bailey Rahn, Leafly

CANNABIS 101 What Are Cannabis Topicals and How Do They Work? BAILEY RAHN

New methods of cannabis consumption are bringing us further away from the notion that marijuana belongs solely in a bong or joint – or that it has to get you high, for that matter. Cannabis-infused topicals are an example of how new modes of consumption are revolutionizing perceptions of marijuana as their accessibility, safety, and efficacy invite even the most unlikely patrons into the world of medical cannabis.

What are Topicals?

Topicals are cannabis-infused lotions, balms, and oils that are absorbed through the skin for localized relief of pain, soreness, and inflammation. Because they’re non-psychoactive, topicals are often chosen by patients who want the therapeutic benefits of marijuana without the cerebral euphoria associated with other delivery methods. Other transdermal innovations are fast arriving in the cannabis market, including long-lasting patches and tingly lubricants for patients and recreational consumers alike.

Strain-specific topicals attempt to harness certain terpenes and cannabinoids in a chemical profile similar to that of Blackberry KushPermafrostBlueberry, or whatever other strains the processor wishes to imitate. Along with THC, CBDTHCA, and other cannabinoids, topical producers may also select ingredients and essential oils for additional relief, like cayenne, wintergreen, and clove.

How Do Marijuana-Infused Topicals Work?

Cannabis-infused lotions, salves, oils, sprays, and other transdermal methods of relief work by binding to a network of receptors called CB2. These CB2 receptors are found throughout the body and are activated either by the body’s naturally-occurring endocannabinoids or by cannabis compounds known as “phytocannabinoids” (e.g., THC, CBD).

Even if a topical contains active THC, it still won’t induce that intense “high” you’d get from smoking or ingesting cannabis. With most topicals, cannabinoids can’t breach the bloodstream; they only penetrate to the system of CB2 receptors. Transdermal patches, however, do deliver cannabinoids to the bloodstream and could have psychoactive effects with a high enough THC content.

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