Smoke and Mirrors

We all want CBD to be the next miracle skincare ingredient — but right now, it’s just a message in a bottle


Like any convert, the first time I tried cannabidiol, or CBD, on my face, I proselytized the miracle that was calm, glowing skin. Forget that it takes 28 days for any skincare product to show consistent results, and forget the telltale red bloom of rosacea creeping in around my cheeks — I had just found my skin saviour, and I made sure everyone knew about it.

After a week and a half of using it daily I woke up to screaming cheeks. Scanning my bathroom cabinet’s top shelf, I realized I’d just told about 50 people to use a brand that was making me break out. Spoiler alert: It was the CBD oil. Before we dive into how a product with CBD broke my moisture barrier, I’ll divulge the facts that piqued my interest in this compound.


The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a set of receptors and neurotransmitters. They are responsible for regulating every- thing from cognitive processes, mood and fertility, to pain, memory and immune function. The body produces its own (endogenous) cannabinoids, which act as keys to unlock certain bodily functions. Cannabidiol is a cannabinoid molecule found in hemp and cannabis plants that triggers a reaction in your ECS. When you smoke or eat cannabis and hemp products, or rub them onto your body, you’re introducing phyto (plant) cannabinoids into your system. These then interact with your ECS, which includes your skin.


One of the more widely cited studies of CBD and skin, with the catchy title “Cannabidiol exerts sebostatic and anti- inflammatory effects on human sebocytes,” was conducted at the University of Debrecen, in Hungary, by Dr. Tamás Bíró. It concludes that synthetic isolated CBD is highly effective in preventing and treating zit-causing, pore-clogging nasties like inflammation, increased lipid production and excess skin- cell growth. A godsend for the blemish-prone. In fact, some studies, and plenty of anecdotal evidence, suggest there’s almost nothing it can’t do, from calming rosacea and psoriasis to reducing oil production, plus, it’s antibacterial. The problem is, because cannabis has been illegal for so long, we have limited knowledge about the relationship between CBD, the ECS and skin due to the lack of clinical studies “in-vivo” (in living humans). However, according to Dr. Sherwin Parikh, of Tribeca Dermatology in New York, research on rats and test tube “tissue samples” have proven CBD does two things well: Regulating oil production and reducing inflammation.


No, we’re not talking about the TV show. Most CBD skincare products say they are “full-spectrum” meaning their product has a range of cannabinoids and terpenes, considered the active compounds in cannabis. While terpenes are essential oils, (the essence or fragrances found in flowers), their purported benefit here would be the “entourage effect.” This theorizes that the cocktail of compounds in the hemp plant creates a stronger effect than an isolated ingredient like CBD alone. While full-spectrum products may be more efficacious than isolated CBD, research points to CBD being a powerful ingredient that could become a pillar of modern skincare regimens, just like vitamin C and retinol.


One of the big issues with CBD skincare products is that they tend to be oil-based, and when it comes to carrying active ingredients deep into the skin oil isn’t always the best delivery method. Why? The deeper you get in your skin, the more aqueous or water-based it becomes. And as we all learned at school, oil doesn’t do well with water. So even though an ingredient may be active in a test tube, in order for it to work outside the lab the active ingredient has to have a good delivery system that can penetrate the stratum corneum and still remain stable and active when it finally reaches its target, the skin’s ECS receptors.


So back to my face: Why did it blow up? According to Joyce DeLemos, a clinical chemist with over 15 years of formulating experience who is behind some of Skinceuticals’ patents, it is unlikely that it was the CBD oil. As rosacea happens in the top layers of your skin, the CBD, in theory, could have had enough oomph to help calm it (currently there is thin research on the impact of CBD on rosacea). The problem was with the added delivery ingredients: DeLemos warns she has seen brands use comedogenic, or pore-blocking, oils such as coconut, which can lead to breakouts. She also notes that the trend of using terpenes and essential oils is a bane for anyone with sensitive skin. They have been co-opted by the “clean beauty” movement as safe and natural alternatives. “Essential oils main use in skincare is for their fragrance and antibacterial properties, but they can be major irritants,” she says. In my case, lavender and citrus oil were high on the ingredient list. While brands will market their “active botanicals” as helpful to sensitive skin, if you see essential oils on the ingredient list, do a swatch test before you buy — if you’re allergic, your skin should react 12 to 72 hours after exposure.

DeLemos feels CBD is a promising ingredient, but until we have more research, skincare companies’ dosing claims are dubious. Referencing one study done at the University of Kentucky, she notes there was no difference in the performance of a 6.5 mg and a 62 mg application of CBD. Translation? More isn’t more, and you might be wasting your money on excess product in the name of marketing. Also important to note: Beauty retailers aren’t required to vet products, that CBD product you’re buying might not actually have much CBD at all.

While full-spectrum products may be more efficacious than isolated CBD, research points to CBD being a powerful ingredient that could become a pillar of modern skincare regimens, just like vitamin C and retinol.


With all the confusion around CBD and beauty, what should you look out for when browsing the beauty aisles? Dorian Morris, a Harvard Business School graduate and beauty veteran with experience at companies like Johnson & Johnson and Sephora, was frustrated by the lack of transparency and went on to found her own skincare line, Undefined Beauty, in 2018. She had seen too many brands completely overcharge customers. “Value comes in many shapes and sizes, but I think accessibility and transparency are needed in this industry instead of a lot of smoke and mirrors,” she says. Morris’s advice is to look for words like “PCR hemp” or “cannabidiol” to make sure you’re getting CBD and not cannabis sativa seed oil, which is not an active but is similar to other vegetable oils used in skincare, like olive and grapeseed. Lastly, ensure the product has been tested to rule out pesticides and heavy metals.

So is CBD just a trend? With such promising preliminary research, it’s an ingredient that’s here to stay. After reading the studies, talking to dermatologists and listening to chemists, I’ve determined everyone from scientists to Sephora is calling CBD a breakthrough ingredient. While I’m still on the hunt for my perfect product, one thing I can say for certain is any ingredient that can reduce oil production, calm inflammation and potentially boost cell turnover isn’t a trend, it’s the future — we just need the science to catch up.

Until it does, follow these basic rules in choosing your product: Always look for words like “cannabidiol”, “hemp extract” or “PCR” (phytocannabinoid-rich) on the label; search for other skin-loving ingredients; check for potential irritants in the formula; and, finally, practise patience (remember, it takes three months to see any significant changes in your skin). If all else fails, you can always go back to the tried- and-true holy trinity of retinol, niacinamide and ceramides to reduce oil, increase cell turnover and hydrate your skin.

One thing I can say for certain is any ingredient that can reduce oil production, calm inflammation and potentially boost cell turnover isn’t a trend, it’s the future.

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