Topical vs. Transdermal: The Many Ways to Take CBD
Written by Jamie Hadfield
CBD products come in all shapes and sizes. CBD as an oil or tincture is probably most well known form, but it's far from being the only thing on the market today.
As the industry develops, its advocates have been busy developing a nearly endless variety of products. What started with a few simple, CBD-isolate based oils around 2010 has blossomed into much more.
And that means today’s customers have plenty of options to choose from. They can easily find what they’re looking for, whether by browsing online or frequenting retail shops. There's everything from concentrates to vape pens to CBD-infused edibles. Some companies are even developing alternative delivery methods, like transdermal CBD patches or suppositories. And a growing number of hemp farmers are working hard to make cultivated hemp flower available.
This diversification is a wonderful trend, but can also cause confusion for those new to the plant!
While CBD products all have at least one thing in common - the presence of Cannabidiol as active ingredient- their pharmacological effects tend to differ. For example, taking CBD in a vape pen will have different benefits than taking it in oil form. CBD from hemp flower may be more potent than an equivalent mg content of CBD from an infused edible.
These effects can be grouped into categories called delivery methods that each contain a few product types. Learning the basics about these different delivery methods can help customers tailor their purchases to best fit their needs.
Inhalation methods include smoking and vaporizing. Up until recently, it was difficult to find a good way to smoke CBD, but that’s all changed in the past couple years. Vaporizers, CBD concentrates (also called ‘dabs’ or ‘wax’), and hemp flower are just a few of the alternatives.
The primary benefit of inhalation is its fast onset time. Because CBD is inhaled directly into the lungs, effects are noticeable and immediate. This makes inhalation products like vape pens a favorite for those with anxiety or PTSD. Vaporizers can also be a necessity for parents of epileptic children, who might not otherwise be able to self-dose with other product types.
Another benefit: vaporizing CBD is convenient. Handheld vapes can easily be stocked with glycerin-based CBD oil or terpene-rich CBD concentrates; some ‘dry’ vapes can even be used to vaporize hemp flower.
The bioavailability of this method is pretty high, too, ranging from 10 to 35% - that percentage reflects how much of the CBD is actually getting into the bloodstream intact. Vaping tends to be slightly more efficient than smoking, a trait also increased by inhaling more deeply.
Ingesting CBD is self-explanatory and entails exactly what you might think: eating. CBD is infused into food products like gummy bears, cookies, energy bars, or even honey sticks. CBD edibles are especially popular among parents who want to give their children CBD - without subjecting them to the sometimes ‘earthy’ flavor of CBD oil.
Both the speed and efficiency of CBD absorption is a little lower for edibles. They may take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2+ hours to fully kick in, and only 8-15% of the CBD will actually be available for use by the body.
Conversely, the duration of effects lasts longer for CBD edibles than it does for nearly any other delivery method. Edibles also have strong effect on the gut lining, where the CBD they contain activates localized CB1 & CB2 receptors to reduce inflammation.
These qualities may are great for some, especially those with IBS or “leaky gut”, and suboptimal for others. It all depends on what’s required for an individual to attain their own version of peak performance.
Of course, it’s good practice to make sure your CBD edibles don’t feature unhealthy ingredients that might outweigh the properties of their CBD. Products containing artificial coloring or high fructose corn syrup are more common than you might think. We at Legends would encourage you to take a more holistic approach!
Oral / Mucosal
This dosing method is the most common one, comprising CBD oils, tinctures, and lozenges. Oral / mucosal products work best when dissolved in the mouth prior to full ingestion, so be sure to allow at least 30 seconds for this to happen. As they dissolve, they saturate oral mucous membranes and go directly into the bloodstream. And that means the CBD is able to bypass the slower hepatic metabolism that occurs when other products, like CBD edibles, get processed through the liver.
When it comes to their pharmacological effects, the oral dosing method achieves a nice balance. Absorption is faster than you’d see with CBD edibles, with onset of effects occurring 15 - 60 minutes post dose. And the duration of these effects lasts up to 6 hours, longer than those obtained from vaporizing do.
There’s a reason CBD oil remains the most popular and versatile CBD product: it modulates the Endocannabinoid System 1 more fully than anything else available today.
Alternatively, people with severe gut health issues may do better to treat their CBD Oil as an ingestible by not letting it absorb into the oral lining. One can do this by simply taking the oil faster, or mixing it into food. This may allow more CBD to reach the digestive system intact, where it can fight residing inflammation head on.
The topical delivery method features CBD-rich salves, balms, and roll-ons. The applications in this area are remarkably diverse: everything from lip balms to massage oils have hit the retail market. Topicals work well primarily when it comes to relief of acute, localized pain.
Take a person with knee pain from arthritis, for example. Their ideal dosing strategy may be to take CBD oil everyday (for the arthritis and systemic inflammation), coupled with a CBD topical that they put directly on their knees during flare-ups. As they observe symptom reduction, they may be able to ease off the topical entirely, as long as they are consistent with CBD oil use.
The effects of topicals can be fairly transient: they kick in very quickly (within 15-30 minutes), and only last for between 2-4 hours, depending on how much is used. Topicals don’t quite reach the bloodstream, meaning they don’t really impact the endocannabinoid system on a whole. They do ‘hit’ its CB2 receptors, however, which we discussed in our Endocannabinoid System Receptors article:
If you’ve ever used a hemp topical and experienced pain relief, you’ve witnessed firsthand how important [CB2] receptors really are. That topical only worked because the CBD molecules in it crossed through a few dermal layers and attached themselves to CB2 receptor sites in the connective tissue and fascia. Once the CBD bonded to its receptor, it was able to send an important message to other neurotransmitters, reducing inflammation in the process.
Transdermal products are one of the newest ways to get CBD into the body, and they’re also one of the most interesting. These products come in the form of a transdermal patch or specialized gel that’s been designed to go through every layer of skin (thus the name!) and into the bloodstream.
Transdermal delivery offers an extremely high bioavailability rate: close to 100%. Transdermal products also kick in very quickly, in as little as 15 minutes. They remain pharmacologically active for between 4-12 hours, depending on the particular medium used: patches last longer than gels.
With qualities like these, the transdermal delivery method shows great therapeutic potential. It’s effective, convenient, and provides a great blend of specific and full-body effects. One study’s abstract put it this way:
“The future CBD transdermal system could also be tested in Phase II clinical trials for analgesic effect, inflammation relief, and nausea and vomiting treatment, as there is also substantial preclinical/clinical data with CBD to justify therapeutic utility for these indications.”
Promising...but also costly. Most CBD companies provide low-dose (~20 mg CBD) transdermal patches, several of which may be required daily. At those prices, it wouldn’t be atypical to spend $10 or more, every single day, to get full relief. Compare that with an equivalent amount of CBD in tincture form, which would only cost a dollar or two a day, and it’s easy to see why transdermal products can be cost-prohibitive for many people. As manufacturing processes improve and more brands start producing pain patches, these prices should hopefully drop.
Jamie Hadfield is a RN, MBA with the help of Functional Medicine and Understanding the Endocannabinoid System was able to reverse 4 autoimmune diseases. She was in the pharmaceutical space and help put 15 different drugs on the market. She was a clinical educator at Yale and other top medical institution. Today, Jamie has created her own CBD line of products where she is anti-aging specialist and CBD educator. Legends Health Wellness and Performance is committed to helping other create contagious energy and freedom so they can live out their legacy of a happier healthier life.
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