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How Cannabis
Topicals Work

Unlike other forms of cannabis, smoking dried flower, ingesting edibles, or vaporizing cannabis concentrates to name a few, most topicals do not produce a psychoactive response or enter the bloodstream.

This means that they don’t produce the "high" associated with other forms of cannabis, making them a convenient and safe option for those looking for the therapeutic benefits of cannabis without the potential for impairment.

Learn some cannabis topical facts, like the various types of cannabis topicals, their potential health benefits, and how to choose a high-quality product.

Table of Content

What Are Cannabis Topicals?

Cannabis topicals are products that are infused with cannabis extracts and designed to be applied to the skin. These products are designed for local, external use rather than being ingested or inhaled like other common cannabis forms. Topicals can come in a variety of forms, including creams, lotions, balms, oils, and salves. They are often used to help manage pain, inflammation, and other skin conditions. Some people also use topicals for relaxation and to help with stress and anxiety.

Cannabis topicals are typically made by infusing a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or olive oil, with cannabis extracts. The infused oil is then used as the base for a variety of topical products, where the cannabinoids dissipate in the upper layers of your skin for localized relief.

Common Forms of Cannabis Topicals

Common Forms of Cannabis Topicals

When you think “topical,” lotions and balms probably come to mind. Really, though, cannabis topicals encompass so much more. Let’s take a closer look at some of the topical products you might find at your local dispensary:


Creams are one of the most popular forms of cannabis topicals thanks to their low-viscosity consistency and ease of application. Creams can be made from either oil or water bases and typically contain other active ingredients such as menthol, camphor and capsaicin which can help enhance the effects of the cannabis itself. Cannabis creams are usually applied directly onto the skin in order to relieve localized pain, inflammation and soreness.


Lotions are another type of topical that differ from both creams and gels because they use an emulsion base which combines both oil and water along with a surfactant like sodium lauryl sulfate or cetyl alcohol which helps evenly disperse the lotion over the skin when applied. Lotions are great for those who want a higher concentration of cannabinoids in their topical product as they can pack up to triple what cream products provide in terms of cannabinoid content.


Cannabis balms are topical products made from a combination of cannabis extracts, essential oils, and other beneficial herbs and ingredients. These balms are designed to provide lasting relief from muscle pain, joint stiffness, inflammation and other skin disorders. Not only do they provide relief for tired muscles and joints, but they can also be used as a rich moisturizer for dry  skin.


Cannabis oils are also becoming increasingly popular for topical use due to their versatility in being able to combine different types of oils with different types of cannabinoids depending on how strong a person wants their product. Oils typically do not contain any added active ingredients like menthol or camphor but instead rely solely on pure cannabis extracts suspended within a carrier oil like coconut or hemp seed oil which helps deliver more potent doses with each application.


Gels are similar to creams but tend to have a higher viscosity than creams due to their combination of oil and water bases. Gels can also contain other active ingredients such as menthol and camphor which can further enhance the effects of the cannabis itself. The gel form is ideal for larger areas of skin that need treatment because it is easier to spread over large areas.

Bath Soaks

Bath soaks typically take advantage of two key components: absorption via dermal contact from soaking in hot water combined with inhalation from volatile terpenes released through steam during a hot bath soak session, providing additional lifestyle experiences beyond just localized relief from pain or inflammation associated with topical applications alone. Bath soaks come in various formulations consisting mostly of Epsom salts combined with various essential oils along with THC or CBD extract derived from hemp plants for optimal synergistic entourage effect benefits across multiple pathways within our bodies natural endocannabinoid system response network.

What Is the Difference Between Topicals and Transdermals?

Cannabis topicals and transdermals are both types of products that are applied to the skin and absorbed into the body to provide relief from various symptoms. However, there are some differences between the two.

Mechanism of Action

Cannabis topicals are designed to be absorbed through the skin and into the underlying tissues, but they do not enter the bloodstream. Cannabis transdermals, on the other hand, are designed to be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream, where they can have a more systemic effect. This is possible because transdermals utilize what’s known as encapsulation technology, which allows the cannabinoids to pass through the lipid-rich barrier of the skin and into the bloodstream.

Active Ingredients

Cannabis topicals and transdermals may contain different types of active ingredients. Cannabis topicals are typically made with CBD, THC, or a combination of the two and may also contain other plant-based ingredients, such as essential oils or herbs. Cannabis transdermals may contain CBD, THC, or other cannabinoids, as well as other encapsulation ingredients that are designed to help the product penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. These compounds are referred to as transdermal carriers.


The effectiveness of cannabis topicals and transdermals may vary depending on the specific product and the condition being treated. Some people may find relief from using cannabis topicals for certain conditions, while others may find that transdermals are more effective. Both have shown potential, so it is likely that you will need to experiment to find the right product for your needs.

What Are the Benefits of Using Cannabis Topicals?

There are many different cannabis topical benefits you can achieve, which may include the following:

Pain Management

There is some evidence to suggest that cannabis topicals may be effective at reducing inflammation and pain.  A study published in the Journal of Dermatological Science found that a topical cream containing CBD and THC was effective at reducing pain and improving sleep in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Another study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a topical cream containing CBD was effective at reducing chronic pain in people with multiple sclerosis.

Cannabis Topicals for Pain Management

Improved Skin

Cannabis topicals may also be helpful for managing skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Some people find that the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD and other cannabis compounds may help reduce redness and irritation associated with these conditions.

Limited Risk of THC Detection

Cannabis topicals can be a beneficial option for athletes and individuals who get drug tested regularly because they offer localized relief without the psychoactive effects associated with other forms of cannabis. Because topicals do not produce a psychoactive response or enter the bloodstream, there is a very low risk of THC showing up on drug tests and can be used without the risk of THC detection. This makes them a convenient and safe option for many. 

Note: the same is not true for transdermal cannabis products.

How Do I Use Cannabis Topicals?

To use a cannabis topical, follow these steps:

  1. Start by washing and drying the area of your skin where you plan to apply the topical.
  2. If the topical is a cream or lotion, apply a small amount to the affected area and massage it in until it is fully absorbed. If the topical is an oil or balm, apply a small amount to your fingertips and massage it into the affected area.
  3. Depending on the specific product you are using, you may need to wait 10-30 minutes for the topical to take effect. Follow the instructions on the product label for guidance.
  4. Reapply as needed but avoid applying too much topical at once to ensure you maximize the product’s benefits.

Always remember that topicals are meant for topical use as directed on the packaging, and never ingested.

Cannabis Topicals FAQs

Cannabis topicals are on the rise and they are gaining in popularity as people discover the variety of potential benefits they offer. Common questions abound, so let's have a look at some of the top FAQs.

Where Can You Buy Cannabis Topicals from Zen?

If you're considering using cannabis topicals to address a specific health concern or to support your overall wellness, be sure to speak with one of our certified cannabis professionals to determine if they are right for you.

Zen Leaf dispensaries span multiple states, including:

Whether you’re seeking cannabis topicals, concentrates, flower, edibles, or vapes, you can be certain you will find your zen. Visit your local Zen Leaf Dispensary to chat with one of our educated Cannabis Advisors to see what suits your needs best.