The lesser known of cannabis’s two major compounds, CBD has gone under the radar for decades, used mostly by true enthusiasts and medical marijuana patients. But, thanks to weed’s newfound cultural and legal acceptance, CBD is suddenly everywhere you look, from skin care to supplements.
It’s been dubbed (well, at least by us) the cleaner, greener Xanax. But what is it exactly? Even those of us who consider ourselves well versed in the world of weed are still a little hazy on the details.
Which is why we went to the experts—manufacturers, brands, lawyers, and doctors—to get their wisdom about this frequently misunderstood ingredient.
Here’s your near-definitive guide to all things CBD:
Artwork by Mars Rojas
WHAT IS CBD?
“CBD is an extract that is one of the [many] cannabinoids of the cannabis species of plants,” explains Julie Winter, COO and founding partner of therapeutic skincare brand CBD For Life.
Also known as cannabidiol, it’s found in the stems and stalks of cannabis. We know: that’s a lot of canna for a two-sentence description. Herbologists aren’t known for being exceptionally creative with names.
OK, SO WHAT DOES IT DO?
Unlike THC, cannabidiol has no psychoactive properties (read: it will not get you high). Think of CBD as the yin to THC’s yang—it provides a calming, soothing effect that’s been said to treat everything from insomnia and anxiety to depression and pain.
THAT’S NICE, BUT HOW DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?
Dr. Jordan Tishler, president and CMO of InhaleMD, a cannabis clinic in Boston, explains that biologically, THC and CBD actually work in tandem, something commonly called “the entourage effect.”
“THC stimulates the cannabinoid receptors [in your body],” says Dr. Tishler. CBD modulates those receptors, meaning it has the ability to boost benefits like pain management or to decrease the paranoia that can come with high THC doses.
SO IT’S AWESOME MIXED WITH THC, BUT DOES IT DO ANYTHING BY ITSELF?
Depends on who you ask. According to Dr. Tishler, CBD on its own has no unequivocally proven effect (with the exception of pediatric epilepsy). Anecdotal evidence, however, is to the contrary. “CBD is known for its anti-inflammatory properties,” says Winter. This is what many users claim gives CBD its powers to help treat chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. But, you’ll almost never see those on the packaging of CBD products. That’s because those are considered medical claims, and companies must have FDA approval to make those statements. And approval can take tens of millions of dollars and years to obtain. Which is why all supplements, not just hemp-derived ones, are prohibited from making any type of claim.
IS IT GOOD FOR ME?
Our bodies actually produce their own cannabinoids (called endocannabinoids—“endo” meaning “within”), which help us keep our internal systems in balance. For this reason, CBD is positioned as a supplement rather than a drug. Claudia Mata, a former fashion editor, started her beauty line Vertly with that in mind. Mata’s first product was a lip balm, which contains 25 milligrams of CBD and is intended to be used multiple times a day to supplement your body’s natural reserves. However, at that low of a dose, users need to be realistic about its effects.
“It’s not like you are going to put on a 25-milligram lip balm and have pain relief,” says Mata.
WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS?
Pretty much anything you can think of. Smoke it, vape it, eat it, drink it, rub it in. All in all, it comes down to personal preference and your main objective. If you’re looking for fast-acting relief, your best bet is vaping or sublingual tinctures, as those two methods will reach your bloodstream much quicker. For those who don’t smoke or can’t stomach a tincture’s taste, edibles are a good option but will take longer to activate as the CBD has to be broken down and metabolized before it kicks in. Topicals also take time to absorb, but they are great for targeted relief like muscle soreness, joint pain, and arthritis.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I TAKE?
It really depends on the person, says Winter. “I tell everyone to start low with a 5-milligram dose and then work up to 10 milligrams a day.” After that, she says it’s a matter of trial and error. Adds Mata: “The potency of every plant comes out a little different.” Once you get to a point where you feel better—be it feeling less anxious, pain reduction, or sleeping better—you’ve found your ideal dose.
For topicals, look at both the milligrams contained and how many ounces are in the product. For instance, 100 milligrams of CBD in three ounces of lotion is going to be a hell of a lot more potent than 100 milligrams in 12 ounces. When all else fails, start small and see how you feel, then add more if needed. It’s not an exact science by any means.
The good news is that there’s not really any danger of overdosing on CBD. Much like vitamins, your body can naturally only absorb a certain amount of cannabinoids. After that threshold, they are naturally removed from the body as biological waste (read: down your toilet). The worst effects that you could expect from too much is nausea, agitation, and dizziness.
WHAT ABOUT DRUG TESTS?
This one is easy. “If you are using CBD isolated in itself, it will not show up in a drug test,” says Winter, “because mainstream drug tests are not testing for cannabidiol—they are testing for the psychoactive component, THC.” Meaning as long as your product is THC-free, you’re in the clear. Full-spectrum extractions do contain a small amount of THC (0.3% THC or less) that is well below the legal limit. This means that full-spectrum CBD can (albeit rarely) trigger false positives in drug tests. In those instances, you should ask for a more specific confirmation test, which would show the correct results.
HOW DO I MAKE SURE I’M GETTING REAL CBD?
As cannabidiol becomes more mainstream, it brings with it a host of less-than-scrupulous opportunists. And, since there’s no industry standard or regulation, it’s not easy for consumers to figure out what is real and what is not.
Many legit CBD brands are also afraid to put the ingredient on their labels for fear of legal repercussions. So instead their legal counsels instruct them to use an array of alternative terms, leaving consumers to try to sort out the difference. The two most popular ones are hemp extract and phytocannabinoid hemp. Complicating things are ingredients that sound like they would have CBD but actually don’t, such as sativa seed oil (which is just another name for hemp seed oil).
And, to add an extra layer of fun, you may still see hemp or sativa seed oil listed alongside true CBD. That’s because it’s a beneficial ingredient even if it doesn’t contain cannabidiol. Both Winter and Mata use it in their CBD products for its moisturizing properties.
As CBD becomes more buzzy and the regulation around marijuana loosens, the hope is that we are given hard evidence of CBD’s many benefits that will move us closer to more transparent, easier-to-obtain products. In the meantime, think of cannabidiol, in all its forms, as a type of holistic remedy that promotes mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. Let’s see your Xanax do that.