July 25, 2022 – Cannabidiol (CBD) products made from hemp have become more popular in recent years. But how much can you trust what the label says, versus what’s actually in CBD patches, creams, and lotions?
A team of investigators decided to find out. They purchased 105 hemp-derived CBD topicals — products designed to be applied to the skin — from physical stores and online sites.
Of the 89 labels showing the amount of CBD, for example, 24% matched what was inside; 58% of products contained more CBD; and the remaining 18% contained less.
Additionally, more than a third – 35% – of topicals tested contained delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), some of which claimed to be THC-free.
THC is the compound in marijuana associated with “getting high”. But hemp products are allowed to contain 0.3% or less THC, and all of the products in this study met the regulations.
People should “be wary of cannabinoid products available at retail stores. Products may not contain the amounts of CBD or THC advertised,” says study lead author Tory R. Spindle, PhD.
The study was published in Open JAMA Network July 20.
can be misleading
CBD topicals are over-the-counter (OTC) products, so the FDA does not regulate them the same way as prescription drugs. But at the same time, the agency does not allow over-the-counter products to make health benefit claims.
“Health claims made on products, which are often very expensive, may not be supported by clinical research,” says Spindle, a research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Cannabis Science Laboratory in Baltimore.
He and his colleagues found that 28% of the 105 products had a therapeutic claim, primarily to help relieve pain and inflammation. And 14% said they helped improve skin quality or appearance.
“This study really highlights that the current regulatory oversight of cannabinoid products is not enough,” says Spindle, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
More and more hemp-derived CBD products are appearing on store shelves and online due to the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. This law, better known as the Farm Bill, removed hemp and hemp-based products from the US list of controlled substances.
Take heart, consumer
Despite the concerns revealed in the study, the topical CBD industry appears to be improving, says Adam Friedman, MD.
“The good news is that over the past two years, with this incredible explosion of CBD-rich or CBD-only products hitting the market thanks to the Farm Bill, there seems to be better quality assurance,” says Friedman. , professor and chair of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC.
“Labelling is improving, but there is still a lot of work to do given that there is still under- and over-labelling,” he says.
The study authors cite concerns about the ingredients in these products absorbing through the skin, entering the body and causing other effects, such as liver toxicity. But Friedman says most of these CBD topicals are unlikely to go deeper than the top layers of the skin.
“They are reputable investigators who have published many papers in this space including on this topic. It is a reputable journal. The design is solid and the limitations are few,” says Jamie Corroon, ND.
He found it interesting that the products were mislabeled whether they were sold in physical stores or online. Also, regarding the finding that the THC-containing products were all within the 0.3% legal limit, “it’s surprising – and it shows good manufacturing practice,” he says.
Since these THC-containing CBD products are applied to the skin, the risk of impairment “is exceptionally low,” says Corroon, a licensed naturopathic physician and founder and medical director of the Center for Medical Cannabis Education in Del Mar, Calif.
“The case for topical hemp-derived CBD products is that they are generally safe, accessible, relatively affordable, and many people report positive experiences using them,” he says.
A few rotten apples?
Friedman agreed with Spindle and his colleagues that the incorrect labeling and health benefit claims of some CBD products are of concern.
“Companies that mislabel and make inappropriate claims … harm the entire field.”
“There’s huge potential in this area, especially in dermatology, where we’re looking at specific topical agents to use CBD,” Friedman says. When manufacturers mislead CBD products, it “undermines the credibility of this field.”
Researchers purchased about half of CBD products from physical stores in Baltimore and the other half online in July and August 2020.
To find the exact amounts of CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids in each product, investigators detected chemical signals for each ingredient of interest using a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry testing.
Apply more research
Spindle and her colleagues examine the short- and long-term effects of cannabinoid lotions, creams, patches, and other topical products.
“We need to understand what these products do,” he says, “and whether there are factors such as product formulation that may influence their effects on the user.”
An unanswered question is whether topical CBD products could alter the results of drug tests required for employment or for other reasons.