Our editor tested a wide range of CBD creams for pain relief, looking at potency, ingredients, and brand integrity. Find out why CBDfx, Aspen Green, Cornbread Hemp, and more made our list.
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If you’re looking for a cannabidiol (CBD) product to soothe your aches and pains, you have a ton of choices. With gummy, pill, and oil options available, CBD products abound, and they have the potential to help alleviate discomfort. But for muscle or joint pain, topical CBD — such as a CBD cream — may be particularly useful.
But it can be a bit tough to sift through the many CBD products on the market. How can you tell which CBD creams are the real deal?
Read on for my experience testing all the creams hands-on; I provide honest feedback on what worked for me — and what didn’t!
I was diagnosed with sciatica in January 2022 and went to physical therapy until I was deemed OK to return to the gym. After I was feeling better, I switched my workout style from lifting (think heavy kettlebells, pushing a sled, and more) to swimming laps (my one true fitness love), yoga, and walking.
I still have sciatica flare-ups from time to time, and pain relief CBD creams have been life-saving when my physical therapy exercises aren’t quite doing the trick. CBD cream is nice to have when your pain is unpredictable. All the creams that I tried are easy to transport and pack in a backpack, gym bag, or suitcase.
Just knowing that I have my trusty CBD cream in my bag helps me push myself on hikes, bike rides, and long walks.
Research into CBD’s pain-relieving abilities is still in the early stages. However, so far, there’s some evidence that topical CBD products, like creams, may help with a variety of pain sensations, including:
Arthritis-related pain: A 2016 animal study in rats found that topical CBD may help with arthritis-related pain and swelling. More recently, an anonymous, questionnaire-based 2022 study suggests that CBD use is linked with a perceived decrease in arthritis symptoms.
Nerve pain: A small 2020 study looked at the effects of topical CBD oil on pain. Many people in the study, all with nerve damage, reported having reduced pain levels. They described feeling a dip in sharp, intense, and cold and itchy pain sensations.
Jaw pain: A small 2019 study looked into how topical CBD may provide relief from a specific kind of facial pain that mainly affects the jaw. The study found that people who applied topical CBD about two times a day experienced a lot less pain after 2 weeks.
Another 2020 study found that some people in palliative care use THC or CBD regularly and that topical products, in particular, help reduce pain.
Helpful for targeting pain in specific areas: While edibles provide full-body effects, you can apply topicals like creams directly to trouble areas.
Works quickly: Because topicals don’t pass through your stomach, they don’t get broken down like edibles. This means they tend to work faster than gummies or capsules.
Additional ingredients may add pain relief: Many creams have added ingredients like menthol or arnica, which provide enhanced pain relief.
Improved skin health: CBD creams may help with pain and moisturize and hydrate the skin.
Less potent than ingestibles: You may feel the effects of topicals sooner than ingestibles, but most creams and lotions tend to be less potent.
Difficult to dose: Oils and ingestibles such as gummies or capsules are carefully formulated to ensure you’re getting a specific dose with each dropper or serving. However, when applying creams, it can be difficult to figure out exact dosing.
Potential for skin irritation: Anytime you put something on your skin, there’s potential for a reaction to occur.
May not be (entirely) effective: CBD cream may not be effective for some pain conditions because it is not absorbed into the bloodstream
If you’re interested in trying an alternative treatment for your pain, you might want to give CBD a shot. However, keep in mind that CBD isn’t a replacement for doctor-prescribed treatments. It can also interact with some medications, including those with a grapefruit warning. If you take any of these medications, CBD may not be a good fit for you.
If your doctor or healthcare professional gives you the OK, though, and you’re looking to target specific pain areas — like arthritis in your fingers, for example — a topical may provide some relief.
CBD might help you get some pain relief, but there are a lot of products out there to sift through. Here’s what to look for when shopping for a CBD topical.
The FDA doesn’t guarantee the safety, quality, or efficacy of any CBD product — at least for now. It can still take action against companies committing fraud or peddling false health claims, but it’s important for you to carefully read labels before buying.
Look for a product with a COA that’s up to date and comes from a reputable third-party lab. Check that what’s listed on the COA matches up with the company’s product description and that the lab has performed contaminant testing.
We recommend looking for results for heavy metals, molds, and pesticides. If the company uses a solvent-based extraction method, it’s also a good idea to check for residual solvent testing results.
Isolates are typically a good option if you’re looking to avoid THC and other cannabinoids, but broad- and full-spectrum may offer more benefits than isolates.
Keep in mind that while any CBD product can have trace levels of THC, full-spectrum CBD will intentionally contain a low level of THC — up to 0.3% in federally legal products.
Choose CBD creams made from all-natural, U.S.-grown hemp. Since you’ll be applying the cream to your skin, check the ingredient label for any known irritants or allergens.
If you’re looking for a CBD topical specifically for pain relief, you may also want to look for products with additional pain-relieving ingredients. Warming and cooling creams, which often contain menthol or arnica, provide an added pain relief component for aches and pain.
Most topical CBD products contain around 3 to 8 mg of CBD per recommended application. If you have chronic pain, you may want to opt for a higher potency product. But if you’re new to CBD, it’s best to start with a lower potency product.
For more information on how to approach CBD dosage-wise, check out our CBD dosage guide.
It’s always best to read the instructions on the package before using any CBD cream. However, in general, CBD creams are meant to be applied topically and massaged into the skin wherever you’re experiencing pain. Have arthritis in your hands? Rub the cream onto your hands, focusing on the painful joints.
If a product contains ingredients specific for pain relief, like menthol or arnica, you might feel cooling or warming sensations. Start with a small application in case those sensations bother you.
Patch test the product by applying a little to the inside of your wrist and waiting to see if you experience any irritation. Even the most natural products can irritate sensitive skin.
Keep CBD cream away from mucous membranes and broken skin.
Research is still ongoing, but some smaller studies and animal research suggest that CBD may reduce inflammation and help provide pain relief. Studies have specifically looked at CBD for arthritis, nerve, and jaw pain.
Some possible side effects of CBD are:
Whenever you’re using a product that’s new to you, it’s important to check ingredients carefully to avoid any known allergens.
Never apply CBD to broken skin, and remember to perform a patch test before using it for the first time. This can determine if any ingredients in the topical will irritate your skin.
It depends on the person but generally between 15 to 30 minutes.
Yes. CBD oils meant to be taken orally can also be rubbed into the skin. Just make sure to read the ingredient list for any irritants before you apply oils directly to the skin.
Keep in mind that you can apply some CBD oils to the skin, but don’t ingest products meant specifically for the skin.
The jury is still out on whether CBD topicals offer up definitive pain relief, but many people report having success with creams, lotions, and salves for all kinds of ailments.
For the best results possible, pick a potent, full-spectrum CBD cream from a reputable company that sources quality, organic ingredients.
Remember that the most reputable CBD brands are transparent about their products — including clear descriptions on their website about where products are grown and how they’re processed. Talk with your doctor or healthcare professional before trying CBD.
Is CBD legal? The 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the legal definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act. This made some hemp-derived CBD products with less than 0.3% THC legal at the federal level. However, CBD products containing more than 0.3% THC still fall under the legal definition of marijuana, making them illegal at the federal level. Some states have legalized CBD, so be sure to check state laws, especially when traveling. Also, keep in mind that the FDA has not approved nonprescription CBD products, and some products may be inaccurately labeled.
Last medically reviewed on October 30, 2023
How we reviewed this article:
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