Everything You Need to Know About CBD Lab Tests

Lab Testing beakers and machinery

If you’ve spent any time in the CBD world lately, you’ve likely heard quite a bit about the importance of independent third-party lab tests. Since CBD is still unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — or any other federal agency, for that matter — there’s no government-approved testing process for determining the purity and quality of CBD products. As a result, the responsibility for ensuring consumer safety has fallen to an ad hoc network of private laboratories across the country — some of which are better than others.

Whether you’re buying a tincture for your dog or an edible for your grandmother, chances are good you’ll find brands proudly informing you that the product in question has been tested by a third-party lab (and if you don’t, you should keep looking). In many cases, you can find a certificate of analysis (COA) somewhere on the company’s website, if not on the product page itself. Typically, these will contain information on the product’s:

  • Cannabinoid content — the presence (or absence) of cannabis’ most important compounds like CBD and THC, along with their lesser-known counterparts like CBN.
  • Terpene content — the presence (or absence) of secondary compounds like limonene and myrcene, which affect the product’s taste and smell — and have recently attracted media attention for their still-yet-to-be-proven medicinal properties.
  • Contaminants — the presence (or absence) of toxic chemicals like heavy metals and residual solvents, along with microbiological impurities like e. coli.

However, since no government officials are checking the homework of these labs, test results can’t always be taken at face value. Unlike cannabis itself, which is regulated by state agencies in states where the plant is legal, ensuring the quality of CBD products currently falls under nobody’s jurisdiction, which means that each lab is responsible for setting its own criteria — and “acceptable” levels of contaminants.

Conor Jenkins, the lab manager of California- and Maryland-based Think20 Labs, believes this could potentially put consumers at risk. As he told cannabisMD in an exclusive interview, “There are absolutely no testing requirements outside of THC [percentage]. That means the CBD oil in your friendly neighborhood gas station may contain pesticides, heavy metals, dangerous solvents, and e. coli or mold and be legally sold to you.”

And even if a lab does test for pesticides and other substances, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their results will be accurate. According to Jenkins, some labs are “not able to accurately identify the contents of the sample due to inefficiency of testing.” In other cases, they’re “[unable] to give reliable and reproducible values due to antiquated techniques or ineptitude of the operators [who conduct the tests].”

So if even a third-party lab test is no guarantee of a CBD product’s quality, what are consumers supposed to do?

How to Tell If You Can Trust a CBD Testing Lab

The good news is some CBD testing labs actually are legitimate, and a moderately-talented internet sleuth can discover this with (relative) ease. In many cases, 10-15 minutes of Googling is enough to give you an idea if a lab’s results are trustworthy or not.

Admittedly, deciphering those results can be a bit tricky. Most lab reports are riddled with terms and abbreviations that aren’t familiar to the average reader. Here’s a quick guide to help you make sense of what you’re seeing:

Reading a Lab Report

Term What It Stands For What That Means
LOD Limit of detection This is the lowest level at which a substance can be detected by a test. Lower LODs are preferable because they mean the lab is using the most accurate equipment available.
LOQ Limit of quantitation This is the lowest level at which a test can identify the exact amount of a substance. Again, the lower the LOQ the better, since this will give you a more precise idea of what a product contains.
ND Not detected This one is self-explanatory — if you see “ND” next to a particular substance, that means your product doesn’t contain any of it (at least according to the test).
PPM Parts per million This describes the concentration of a substance. It’s equivalent to 1 milligram per kilogram. You’ll often see this under the results for residual solvents.
PPB Parts per billion This also describes the concentration of a substance, but at a much more sensitive level. It’s equivalent to 1 microgram per kilogram. You’ll often see this under the results for heavy metals, chemical residues, and mycotoxins.
Action Level This refers to the amount of a substance that is potentially toxic or otherwise harmful. You’ll often see this under the results for microbiological impurities.

Once you’re confident (or at least less terrified) about interpreting a lab report, you’re ready for a deeper investigation into the lab itself. Here are some key questions to ask:

What kind of reputation does the lab have in the scientific community?

As Jenkins says, “Some ways that you can tell if a lab is trusted is [checking] if they are in good standing with accreditation bodies, by searching online if their lab has lost licenses or accreditation in the past, and [doing] a simple Google Scholar search on some of the individuals to see if they are actively involved in novel research.”

What kind of equipment do they use?

He also recommends that you check what kind of equipment the lab is using — and if you’re not sure about what they should be using, there’s a straightforward solution. “[Plenty] of labs have images or listings [on their website] of their equipment they use for testing,” says Jenkins, and “a simple Google search can yield if they are using outdated and antiquated equipment to perform their testing.”

How do they test their samples (and who tests them)?

When testing for cannabis compounds and artificial contaminants, reputable labs will use the most modern equipment available — ones that employ technologies like mass spectronomy and gas chromatography — since these instruments offer lower detection windows for potentially harmful substances. The people who operate this equipment are equally important: While many labs are staffed primarily by cannabis enthusiasts, their passion for the plant doesn’t necessarily make up for their lack of scientific expertise.

As Jenkins says, “Think20 Labs has hired individuals who were classically trained in analytical chemistry and who have experience with [mass spectrometry] which is utilized for pesticide, heavy metal, terpene, and residual solvent identification. Putting someone into a [lab] that utilizes this technology that has never done analytical method development or operated and optimized a mass spectrometry assay is like giving a dog a driver’s license.” Unfortunately, he says, “This is extremely common in this industry and companies are not investing enough in individuals who have the experience that is necessary to operate the labs.”

When it comes to microbiological impurities, most labs use one of two methods to test their CBD samples — plating or qPCR. Since neither of those terms is likely to be familiar to you, here’s a quick explanation:

  • Plating — According to Jenkins, this is “basically a technique that is used to identify the presence of microorganisms by observing if there is any growth … on a plate with microorganism ‘food’ on it.” If this sounds like an experiment you did back in middle school, you’re not far off — but the results often are.

While this technique is certainly cheap, it’s also less sensitive than other methods, and it runs the risk of returning false positives and/or false negatives.

  • qPCR — Short for “quantitative polymerase chain reaction,” this technique is decidedly more advanced than plating. As Jenkins describes it, qPCR involves “massively replicating the DNA of the organism that we are trying to identify and then quantitating it,” i.e. counting how many microorganisms are present in the sample.

As you might expect, its main drawback is its price. However, “it is extremely sensitive to the organism of interest and we can get a very accurate, robust, and reproducible value of what is in the sample,” Jenkins says.

Some Final Thoughts
In the end, evaluating a CBD testing lab comes down to four main factors: its reputation, its tools, its people, and its tests. Don’t worry about getting bogged down in the details — a quality lab will make finding this information easy (and if they have a decent copywriter on staff, it may even be presented in plain English). If you’ve spent an entire afternoon scouring the internet trying to discover if a given lab uses qPCR or not, you’ve gone too far: There are probably better and more accessible options out there.

Nick Slater
Nick Slater
Nick Slater is the executive editor of cannabisMD. His work can be found in Slate, National Geographic, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets. He’s also a professional scuba diver.

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