Life is full of small annoyances, and itchy skin is near the top of the list. While it’s usually not a dangerous or life-threatening condition, excessive itchiness can have a negative impact on your quality of life — affecting comfort, sleep, and even how you dress. Common treatments include everything from oatmeal baths to high-strength pharmaceuticals, but they often come with significant caveats due to their lack of effectiveness, high price tags, or unpleasant side effects.
It’s little wonder, then, that a growing number of people are curious if CBD topicals might provide a better solution.
CBD, the non-intoxicating cannabis compound that has “revolutionized” the skin care world , is now present in a startling array of topical products, many of which specifically claim to help relieve itchiness. Largely side-effect free and available over the counter in almost every state, CBD topicals sound like a great way to get rid of itchiness in theory — but does the evidence match the hype?
Itchy skin is a common phenomenon that can have a multitude of causes, from mild irritants to underlying conditions. Its chief symptom is an uncomfortable, irritating sensation that makes you want to scratch, but redness, dryness, and bumps and cracks in the skin can also co-occur. Repeated scratching can lead to bleeding and infections.
The American Academy of Dermatology Association gives a number of causes for itchy skin, such as:
However, most itch is caused by everyday problems like adverse reactions to detergents and cosmetics, irritation from certain fabrics and excessive dryness. Older adults are at particular risk of itchy skin, with many experiencing it as a chronic condition.
For some people, the problem is seasonal; for others, simple tweaks to self-care regimens can help. Staying hydrated is a good first step. Using moisturizer, a humidifier, and mild, hydrating soaps can also curb some of the worst effects.
Dr. Henry Granger Piffard, a founding father of American dermatology, was an early booster of the cannabinoid cure for itchy skin. In the first medical dermatology textbook, which Piffard was behind, he wrote, “A pill of cannabis indica at bedtime has at my hands sometimes afforded relief to the intolerable itching of eczema.”
Fast-forward a century and researchers have found good reasons for Piffard’s observation, as well as a more direct and less fraught route to relief in CBD topicals . CBD lacks the intoxicating qualities of THC , and even its mild psychoactive effects on anxiety are avoided when it is applied in a non-transdermal topical form.
This topical form does have an effect on the skin, as the skin is host to a wide proliferation of cannabinoid receptors . Furthermore, research has suggested that the cutaneous endocannabinoid system is responsible for “the proper and well-balanced proliferation, differentiation and survival, as well as immune competence and/or tolerance of skin cells.” A disruption, the study goes on to theorize, “might facilitate the development of multiple pathological conditions and diseases of the skin,” including allergic dermatitis, psoriasis and painful itch.
On a more practical level, CBD topicals have been shown to work locally on the inflammation present in itchy skin. A 2007 study in the Journal of Dermatological Science found that this anti-inflammatory quality can have inhibitory effects on epidermal keratinocyte development — one of the markers of the inflammatory skin disease psoriasis .
If you’re considering using a CBD topical, your best bet is to follow the usage instructions provided on the product label (this can differ greatly between various forms of topicals such as lotions, balms, or creams). At this early stage, there hasn’t been definitive research on best practices for the use of CBD topicals — but the good news is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given them a longer leash than ingested CBD.
The bad news is, like most skin care products, CBD topicals aren’t usually regulated at all. In most cases, people put their trust into the manufacturer’s description as to the quality of the CBD — and whether or not the benefits they see from the use of a product come from its oils or other moisturizing ingredients.
In the small sample size that they’ve been studied, CBD topicals seem to work well for pain and inflammation — and, relatedly, the itchiness that often accompanies them. The National Eczema Society cites a study showing that patients with acute dermatitis reported improved severity of itch and loss of sleep by 60 percent after the use of a topical endocannabinoid cream. The study found that 20 percent of participants were able to stop their topical immunomodulators, 38 percent ceased using their oral antihistamines, and 33.6 percent no longer felt the need to maintain their topical steroid regimen by the end of the study.