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How Cannabis Topicals Actually Work: A Deep Dive into Your Body’s CB1 / CB2 Receptors

Cannabis topicals are all the rage right now, and for good reason.

Tens of millions of Americans are afflicted with chronic pain, and many are seeking safe, non-addictive solutions to ease their suffering.Beyond that, research suggests cannabis topicals could provide relief for sufferers of ailments ranging from sports injuries and migraines to skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.

Topicals represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the cannabis marketplace, according to market-research firm BDS Analytics.But all these balms, creams and lotions can get confusing. Are cannabis topicals safe? Do they get you high? How does putting cannabis on your epidermis actually work?

Cannabis and the Body: It’s Not Just in Your Head

The world’s most trusted scientific bodies confirm that cannabis has pain-relieving properties. But to fully understand how topicals can relieve pain and other ailments, we need to take a quick tour of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS is a vast network of receptors throughout the body. It’s responsible for modulating many physiological systems involving the brain, endocrine, immune and nervous systems. Researchers have found that the ECS is essential for maintaining homeostasis, or balance, in these various systems. [1]

There are two main types of receptors or “message receivers” in the ECS, classified as CB1 and CB2 receptors.[2] CB1 receptors are predominantly located in the brain and central nervous system; CB2 receptors are primarily in the peripheral nervous system. The “messages” these receptors receive are actually chemicals that bind to the receptor and either activate it or shut it down, producing a corresponding effect within your body.

The chemical compounds in cannabis that interact with the ECS are called cannabinoids—the most well-known being psychotropic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which activates CB1 receptors in the brain to create the “high” feeling.

More than 100 cannabinoidshave been identified in the cannabis plant [3], including non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD), and others like cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG) and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), whose various medicinal properties are under escalating scrutiny.

When you apply a cannabis topical to your skin, the cannabinoids interact with CB2 receptors in your epidermis and muscles. In a 2016 report published in Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, researchers found that when such CB2 receptors were targeted, the result was reduced inflammation, an immune response that plays a role in many ailments including skin conditions and chronic pain. [4] Unlike anti-inflammatory medications, cannabis topicals can be used without risking unpleasant potential side effects or overdose.

How Topicals Work with the Endocannabinoid System

Some cannabis topicals do contain THC, but when applied to the skin, the cannabinoids don’t actually enter your bloodstream. Instead, THC interacts with the ECS receptors outside the blood-brain barrier.[5] Furthermore, a research review in Molecular Pharmacology concluded that “activation of CB2 receptors does not appear to produce … psychotropic effects”.[6]

Topicals allow consumers to localize and directly target an afflicted area to reduce inflammation. People can and do ingest cannabis via smoking, vaping or edibles for generalized pain relief, but many prefer to single out that aching knee or sore neck by applying a topical directly.

Some research even indicates that cannabinoids may accelerate our bodies’ natural healing process. A 2005 study that focused on CB1 and CB2 receptors in the gastrointestinal system found that cannabinoids can promote the healing ofmepithelial wounds. [7] Our skin is composed of epithelial cells, which also line the surfaces of our organs and blood vessels. So while further study is needed, cannabis topicals may also promote a quicker healing response for skin conditions and injuries.

Perhaps best of all, cannabis topicals offer consumers a simple, safe and low-stakes entryway into exploring the wellness benefits of cannabis. Many people still harbor fears about cannabis, but topicals are approachable, and are, in many ways, the best ambassador for the cannabis plant’s pain-relieving and healing capabilities.

The emerging research is clear in showing the tangible ways cannabis topicals work with our bodies. Just let that knowledge soak in.

Dahlia Mertens is the founder and CEO of Mary Jane’s Medicinals, a leading cannabis topicals company practicing natural, whole-plant infusion at its Telluride, Colorado production facility since 2009.


[1] Skaper, S. and Di Marzo, V. “Endocannabinoids in nervous system health and disease: the big picture in a nutshell.” Philos Trans R SocLond B Biol Sci., 2012, Volume 367(1607): Pages 3193-200. [journal impact factor = 4.75; cited by 59]

[2] Bíró, T. et al. “The endocannabinoid system of the skin in health and disease: novel perspectives and therapeutic opportunities.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences,2009, Volume 30(8): Pages 411–420.[journal impact factor = 12.108; cited by 145]

[3] Atakan, Z. “Cannabis, a complex plant: different compounds and different effects on individuals.” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology,2012, Volume 2(6): Pages 241–254.[journal impact factor = 1.768; cited by 95]

[4] Turcotte, C. et al. “The CB2 receptor and its role as a regulator of inflammation.” Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 2016, Volume 73(23): Pages 4449–4470.[journal impact factor = 6.721; cited by 56]

[5] Pertwee, Roger G. “Emerging strategies for exploiting cannabinoid receptor agonists as medicines.” British Journal of Pharmacology, 2009, Volume 156(3): Pages 397–411.[journal impact factor = 6.81; cited by 392]

[6] Amey, D. and Mackie, K. “CB2 Cannabinoid receptors as a therapeutic target—what does the future hold?” Molecular Pharmacology,2014, Volume 86(4): Pages 430–437.[journal impact factor = 3.987; cited by 96]

[7] Wright, Karen, et al. “Differential expression of cannabinoid receptors in the human colon: cannabinoids promote epithelial wound healing.” Gastroenterology, 2005, Volume 129(2): Pages 437-453. [journal impact factor = 20.877; cited by 307]

About the author

Dahlia Mertens, Mary Jane’s Medicinals