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Last Updated on by Aardvark

New cannabis users are often curious about topical creams, particularly for muscle aches and arthritis, but they may wonder what, if any, intoxicating effects they should expect. It’s a fair question — how does the active ingredient work if it doesn’t also get the user high? And if it doesn’t get you high, how is it working? The answer requires some explanation of how cannabis works in the body at all, and how it works differently being absorbed through the skin (as opposed to being eaten or inhaled).

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Do cannabis topicals get you high? For years, the answer was a firm and easy “no,” but at least one cannabis manufacturer has taken this limitation as a challenge, and produced a transdermal cream that can, in fact, get you high.

In this article, we review how cannabis interacts with the body, how topicals work, and how they differ from transdermals (which do get the user high).

There are several active ingredients in cannabis, aptly called “cannabinoids,” and these cannabinoids, like THC, bind with cannabinoid receptors (CB receptors) at the cellular level. Our bodies have these receptors even if we don’t use cannabis because our bodies produce similar chemicals (endocannabinoids) like anandamide, that also bind with these receptors. CB1 receptors are localized primarily in the brain, and CB2 receptors are found in the outer nervous system, including nerve endings through the body.

When cannabis is smoked or vaporized, THC enters the bloodstream where it crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters the brain. Once THC is in your brain it finds a concentration of CB receptors to bind with, which then carry effects outward through your central nervous system.

Someone applying a topical to their skin

Topicals can be an effective relief for common skin conditions and relieving pain. photo credit

Conversely, when a cannabis topical is applied to the skin, those cannabinoids are absorbed as far as the dermis — the layer of living tissue just beneath the surface of the skin, containing small capillaries, hair cells, and most importantly, nerve endings. When these CB2 receptors receive a compound like THC, it “tells” the cell to reduce inflammation and to chill out with the pain messages it may be sending to the brain. However, a topical cream or lotion ends here, and will not be absorbed across the dermal layer and into the bloodstream.

This makes it the perfect solution for users who want localized relief with no cerebral side effects. Cannabis topicals are a natural anti-inflammatory, with a better safety profile than NSAIDS like ibuprofen, and are designed to only work at the site of application. Topicals cannot offer full-body relief because they cannot access the full body. It is possible to get high via the skin, but requires a different product: the transdermal.

Topical vs Transdermal

Where topicals are absorbed into the dermis, or the layers of living tissue just beneath the skin, a transdermal crosses the dermis and enters the bloodstream, where cannabinoids are circulated throughout the body, and will activate CB receptors in the brain and nervous system.

Transdermals are usually patches, similar to nicotine patches cigarette smokers may be familiar with. The patch contains a jelly or cream infused with a given chemical (in this case, THC) which is absorbed over time through the skin.

Medical cannabis soothing lotion

Topicals are typically found in the form of lotions or balms. photo credit

Transdermals are not meant to treat any particular site, and the effects will be the same almost regardless of where you place it. They are also designed to release THC over time, so they kick in later (up to two hours later), but last longer (up to a day, say some users).

The distinction between topical and transdermal has become more important in recent years because new innovations have led to a topical cream that can actually get you high. In 2019, the brand management company Cannabiniers patented the first transdermal lotion for recreational use. BASKiN GLOW offers a THC:CBD blend that is absorbed by the bloodstream and promises a quicker onset than edibles.

Conclusion

If the difference between “topical” and “transdermal” seems confusing, remember that the prefix “trans-” means across or beyond. Much as a transatlantic flight goes across the Atlantic Ocean, a transdermal product is designed to cross the dermal layer of skin, and enter the bloodstream. Topicals are meant for localized relief, and will not affect the whole body.

As of this publication, BASKiN GLOW is the only recreational, transdermal lotion PotGuide is aware of, so the chances of misusing a cream or lotion and accidentally getting high are very low. Anyone still concerned can simply ask their budtender to confirm the difference between a topical and a transdermal.

The current catch with transdermals is that the integrity of the phenotype can be compromised during manufacturing. Any users relying on specific strains for relief should be cautioned when switching consumption methods: the holistic “entourage effect” of terpenes and flavonoids may be lost from an isolate or concentrate, resulting in different or incomplete effects. They’ll still get you high, it just may not be the kind of high you’re looking for.

Cannabis topicals are great for athletes with muscle aches, those suffering from arthritis, and almost anyone else reaching for BENGAY, IcyHot, or similar products. They also offer a healthier alternative to NSAIDS like Advil, but don’t worry: cannabis topicals will not get you high.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are cannabis topicals used for?

Cannabis topicals are used as a localized anti-inflammatory and pain reliever for muscle and joint pain. Some people also use them for itchy bug bites.

Can all cannabis topicals get you high?

No. In fact, only a very few “transdermal creams” can get you high. The vast majority of topical cannabis creams are only absorbed as far as the flesh they’re applied to, relieving symptoms there, and never entering the blood stream.

What type of cannabis topicals are non-psychoactive?

All cannabis topicals are non-psychoactive because their active ingredients cannot be absorbed any deeper than the skin and dermis, keeping the cannabinoids out of the blood stream. However, these creams and lotions should not be confused with cannabis transdermals, which are designed to deliver THC into the bloodstream and to the brain, where they will get the user high.

How do cannabis topicals work?

Cannabis topicals carry cannabinoids like THC or CBD as far as the dermis, or layer of living tissue beneath the skin. Here, they find nerve endings with CB2 receptors, which they bind with to offer relief from pain and inflammation. Cannabinoids applied via topical cream or lotion remain at the site of application for localized relief, and cannot enter the larger bloodstream to take effect anywhere else.


Do you have a topical you recommend? Let us know what and where in the comments!

Photo Credit: WeedPornDaily (license)


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By Aardvark

How's it going fellow growers and smokers! I'm the Aardvark and have been growing and doing grow shows online for many years now. I have helped various companies launch as well as helped test grow for specific breeders trying to prove out certain strains and traits.