Cannabidiol (CBD) seems to be everywhere now. Since the Farm Bill of 2018 legalizing the cultivation of hemp was signed into law last December, many CBD-based products have hit the market. The advent of potent CBD oil concentrates, nonintoxicating CBD-rich products, and innovative smokeless delivery systems has transformed the therapeutic landscape and changed the public conversation about cannabis. That, and with the surge in legal availability, its use is more commonplace now – even in elderly populations and regions of the country where products thought to be associated with the marijuana plant would have once been considered taboo. A recent Gallup poll found that 14% of Americans say they now use CBD. As the benefits of CBD are demonstrated and perceptions change, having background knowledge of the manufacturing and available data on CBD will be helpful when patients ask about these products for skin care, to provide an evidenced-based approach.

CBD is one of over a hundred phytocannabinoids, which are naturally occurring cannabinoids found in the oily resin of the flower or “bud” (and to a lesser extent the leaves) of the cannabis plant. This is opposed to synthetic cannabinoids, as well as endocannabinoids (cannabinoid receptors found in humans and animals). Both CBD and THC (delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol), another phytocannabinoid, can provide anti-inflammatory and pain-control benefits; the main difference is that THC has psychoactive effects and CBD does not.

Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants in the Cannabaceae family, made up of three primary species: Cannabis sativaCannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. CBD can be harvested from either Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica. People often confuse hemp as equal to Cannabis sativa species and marijuana as equal to Cannabis indica, but neither hemp or marijuana are specific strains or species of cannabis plants, they are broad classifications of cannabis that do not indicate a specific strain.

Hemp, a term used to classify varieties of cannabis that contain trace amounts of THC, has generally been used to describe nonintoxicating cannabis harvested for the industrial use of its derived products, such as textiles, paper, food (hemp seeds), building materials, and skin care. While both “hemp” and “marijuana” can produce high amounts of CBD, CBD products sourced from hemp contain 0.3% THC or less (the legal allowance), while CBD products derived from “marijuana” typically contain 5%-35% THC. Since the 2018 Farm Act legalized the production of hemp in all 50 states, but not marijuana, most CBD nationwide is sourced from hemp. CBD from a marijuana source or a product containing both CBD and over 0.3% THC can only be sold in states where marijuana is legal. At this time, 11 states have legalized marijuana.

Marijuana varieties, grown to maximize the amount or quality of THC, are selectively bred in controlled environments designed to optimize the breed’s characteristics and produce female plants that yield budding flowers. In contrast, because of hemp’s diverse uses, it is grown to maximize its size and yield and is typically grown outdoors and does not require the level of control and attention needed to grow marijuana.

While there is some debate about whether CBD derived from hemp or marijuana differs, medical observations to date are that CBD derived from either source has the same mechanism of action; however, whether CBD has more therapeutic benefits in products alone or in combination with THC and other cannabis components remains to be determined. Of note, CBD is also absent in the roots or the seeds of cannabis and hemp. While hemp seeds are a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, companies that claim they derive CBD from hemp stalk, hemp seeds, or hemp seed oil are making false claims because these parts of the plants contain no CBD, no THC, and no known plant cannabinoids.

CBD binds to endocannabinoid receptor CB2, whereas THC binds to both CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the central nervous system, affecting neurotransmitters leading to CNS depression, euphoria, psychosis, impaired memory, and increased appetite and have antiemetic effects, whereas CB2 is mostly found in peripheral organs and primarily affects the immune system resulting in decreased pain and anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

The skin has the highest amount and concentration of CB2 receptors in the body. As detailed in Dr. Leslie Baumann’s column “Primer on cannabis for cosmeceuticals” in Dermatology News, June 2019, skin-specific studies indicate that, when applied topically, CBD decreases sebum production and has anti-inflammatory effects. There is also evidence that CBD has antioxidant effects. Therefore, in the correct formulation, CBD may have potential in treating common sometimes debilitating skin conditions such as acne, as well as other inflammatory skin conditions.

For acne, CBD in beauty products have the potential to help overall complexion and prevent acne scars. Because most degradation of collagen involves inflammation – whether the inflammation is secondary to excessive UV exposure, diet, poor health, or stress – the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects also have potential benefit in treating and preventing signs of aging. Of note, the CB2 receptor has also been shown to be upregulated in melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma. In a recent study of keratinocytes irradiated with UVA and UVB light, CBD demonstrated antioxidant activity through nuclear factor erythroid 2–related factor 2 (Nrf2) activation, as well as anti-inflammatory properties as an inhibitor of the nuclear factor NF-kappa-B. Whether topical CBD can effectively prevent or treat cutaneous tumorigenesis is promising, but large scale data are still needed.

So far, the benefits of CBD in beauty products and topical skin formulations for treatment of skin disease are based on preclinical information, and there is a corresponding lack of high-quality randomized, controlled trials that evaluate their effects on skin-specific issues. Now, with the 2018 Farm Act in place, large-scale, randomized, controlled trials with cannabinoids should be able to be performed more easily to demonstrate the dermatologic benefits of this promising compound.

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