CBD Salves: The All You Need to Know Guide
September 15, 2018

CBD Salves: The All You Need to Know Guide

The practical guide to CBD salves, creams and balms
MarijuanaBreak Staff / Updated on September 15, 2018
Photo Credit: Euphoric Grounds

Salves, oils, tinctures, creams, butters, balms, lotions, moisturizers… what’s one to make of all these meandering terminologies within the cannabis marketplace? Just what is a salve, anyway? And what’s the difference between CBD salve and CBD oil, for that matter? Or the difference between a salve and a cream?

Certainly we can appreciate the honesty of these kinds of questions, as well as the bevy of confusion that accompanies most folks when pondering the list of topical cannabis options that are out there both online and on the shelves of marijuana dispensaries.

That’s why, in this article, we’ve made it a point to explain as cut and dry as possible everything you need to know about CBD salves; what they’re used for, how they’re made, what kinds of medical conditions they can potentially treat, and how they differ from other CBD products like oils and creams.

Learning the lingo and differentiating between all the cannabis-related products out there can definitely seem a daunting task, but with a little knowledge and a bit of self-informing, it certainly doesn’t have to be.

What is a CBD salve?

In the general sense of function, there is no real distinguishing between a salve’ a balm, and an ointment – all three terms can more or less be used interchangeably.

The Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, in fact, (that is an absurdly long title, by the way) officially defines an ointment as a “semisolid preparation for external application to the skin or mucous membranes … [that] consists of medicinal substances incorporated in suitable vehicles. (Called also salves and unguents).”

In less clinical, easier-to-understand terms, a salve (or balm or ointment) is a medicine-infused concoction wherein the medicine (in this case CBD) is administered directly through the skin.

Regarding CBD creams and CBD lotions, the only real difference between them and salves/balms/ointments is that creams and lotions use a bit of water and moisturizing agents in their bases, while salves and balms only use fatty oils and wax as a base, with no water.

Of course, this accounts for a difference in texture more than anything else – the real functional differences, which we’ll talk about in just a moment, lie more in the specific ingredients used and the amount of CBD present in the salve.

Elixinol Balm

CBD Salves: How are they made?

Salves are actually super-simple concoctions that can be made in a number of different ways, with literally dozens of various recipes out there to choose from. All of them, though, are similar in that they include the following two ingredients:

  • A natural wax (most commonly beeswax)
  • A fatty oil base (this is the “vehicle” responsible for carrying the medicine)
  • A medicinal or therapeutic compound

For the wax portion of the base, natural (non-enriched) beeswax is by far the most common choice. If you’ve never handled beeswax before, it’s a sticky, dense, hard material that has to be melted down to garner any sort of fluidity.

Vegetable waxes like Candelilla wax (which comes from the leaves of the Mexico-native Candelilla plant) also work well, but are mostly only used in products that are meant to be 100% vegan. In most instances, pure beeswax is generally the better option.

The oil portion of the base is the part that’s responsible for “carrying” the medicine in the salve. While a number of different oils can (and are) used to make CBD salves, coconut oil has thus far proven to be the best option, mainly because of its high content of fatty acids (which are the molecular devices responsible for carrying the active CBD).

Generally speaking, the more fatty acids an oil has, the more CBD it will potentially be able to carry.

To infuse the oil with active CBD, the cannabis plant (of which there are certain “CBD-specific” kinds that we’ll talk about later) is ground up into fine bits (although not quite to a powder), and then “steeped” for several hours at 200+ degrees Fahrenheit in the oil. The heat decarboxylates the cannabidiol into its active molecular form, at which point the fatty acids in the oil are able to latch onto it.

Once the oil is infused with active CBD, it’s then simply mixed in (usually along with some other essential oils like Vitamin E) with the melted-down wax to create the salve.

All CBD salves should have the broken down list of ingredients on the tub that they come in, so when browsing around for options, keep an eye out for what wax was used, what oil base, etc.

Also, if you’re unsure of where the CBD is actually coming from, just get in touch with the manufacturer and ask them. Most brands use hemp as the cannabidiol source (most strains of industrial hemp are loaded with CBD), but others use marijuana strains with a higher THC content, which are illegal in most states without a medical marijuana card.

CBD salves: How do they function?

It’s easy to imagine how something that’s ingested or injected into the body might get absorbed, either via the bloodstream or the digestive system, but it can be harder to visualize how putting something onto your skin would eventually translate at the functional, cellular level.

In reality, the skin is an incredibly active and functional organ – the largest organ in the human body, to be exact. And while it does of course act as a barrier to potentially harmful, foreign substances, it also acts as a useful molecular passageway and is quick to absorb lipid-based oils, such as the ones that are used in CBD salves.

When you apply a CBD salve topically, the cannabinoid-carrying lipids in the oil base are transported across skin cell membranes, at which point the CBD begins its healing mechanisms on surrounding cell and tissue layers. (This is also why salves are a good choice for things like joint pain and skin-specific conditions like eczema and psoriasis – you can “target” the CBD activity directly onto a desired area and initiate therapy right at the source of the pain or discomfort).

On a more physiological level, CBD (which is a cannabinoid of course) functions by interacting with the body’s own endocannabinoid system, or ECS.

The ECS was discovered in the early 1990’s, and consists of a network of naturally-occurring cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors that are believed to help regulate and maintain things like:

  • Skin sensitivity
  • Pain
  • Inflammation
  • Appetite
  • Memory
  • Immune response

When CBD interacts with natural receptors in the ECS (which have been found to exist in virtually every cell type in the human body), it allows the body to function more efficiently and better control all sorts of internal processes relating to homeostasis.

And regarding the specific presence of the ECS in skin cells, Dr. Tamas Biro, the director of immunology at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, claims that the skin is “[indeed] capable of producing endocannabinoids,” and points out the likelihood that:

 “…most, if not all, skin functions are controlled to a certain extent by the local skin endocannabinoid system.”

Likewise, Folium Bioscience’s Dr. Raj Gupta has reiterated this same notion, stating that:

“…because the skin has its own endocannabinoid system, just the superficial application of CBD by itself [can be] extremely helpful.”

Medical benefits of CBD salves

CBD salves have been shown to be effective for arthritic joint pain/inflammation, as well as localized muscle pain/soreness and chronic skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema.

For other potentially CBD-treatable conditions like anxiety, depression, autoimmune disease, and chronic pain management, orally-ingested forms of the medication are thought to be more appropriate.

Just last year, in fact, a study was published showcasing the inflammation-reducing and pain-alleviating capabilities of transdermal (through the skin) CBD applications that were specifically-targeted for arthritic joint pain. Researchers explained that the results of their study indicated:

“[a] topical CBD application has therapeutic potential for relief of arthritis pain-related behaviours and inflammation, without evident side-effects.”

Now that’s some quality proof in the pudding, if there ever was such a thing.

Moreover, the therapeutic and healing effects of CBD salves on skin-specific diseases like eczema and psoriasis have been well-documented, as have their effects on temporary complications like burns, wounds, rashes, skin infections, and general muscle soreness.

The University of Debrecen’s Dr. Biro has praised the healing effects of cannabinoids on “skincentric sensory functions” like general pain and itch, pointing out the likelihood that the endocannabinoid system controls skin inflammation based on the results of a CBD-administration study he and his research group carried out on human skin cells growing in a Petri dish:

“[It appears that when] an inflammatory or irritation challenge assaults the skin,” Dr. Biro says, “the endocannabinoid system fights against it.”

What’s the difference between CBD salves and CBD oils?

In terms of CBD salves and CBD oils, the key difference, of course, is that oils are administered orally (usually under the tongue with a dropper bottle), while salves are administered by rubbing the ointment directly onto affected skin areas.

Functionally, however, salves usually work much quicker being that they’re applied directly at the source, and don’t have to travel through the digestive system or go through multiple stages of absorption and metabolization.

Like other topical ointments along the lines of BenGay or Icy Hot, in fact, the effects of CBD salves can be noticed almost immediately, while many orally-administered CBD oils can take well over an hour to fully take effect.

Other things to consider when looking for the best CBD salves

One really important thing to consider about CBD salves (or any kind of pure CBD product), is that they won’t get you high – or even slightly buzzed.

Most CBD-containing products, in fact, are derived from industrial hemp – not marijuana. Though the two plants both belong to the same biological genus and species (Cannabis sativa), hemp is a CBD-heavy strain of cannabis that contains practically zero traces of THC – the psychoactive component of the plant responsible for euphoric, mind-altering highs.

So if you’ve been skeptical about using hemp or other CBD-related products because you don’t want to get stoned or became a “pothead”, you’ve got nothing to worry about in that regard.

Also, keep in mind that while CBD salves have been proven to work for thousands upon thousands of individuals, they don’t have the same exact effect on everyone. Thus, it’s important to do your own research, try out different doses, and perhaps even explore with different products in order to find one that’s suitable for you and your condition.

And lastly, make sure to be wary of the actual product that you’re buying, if/when you do decide to give a CBD salve or other other topical treatment a shot. While there are some incredible products out there, there are plenty of totally bogus ones as well.

Just last year, in fact, the FDA issued warning letters to several companies for manufacturing “CBD products” that contained virtually none of the active cannabinoids. For peace of mind, we’ve mapped out a few of the most trusted and reputable brands below that are currently available on the market. Like George Washington University’s assistant professor of dermatology Dr. Adam Friedman has said:

“Cannabinoids haven’t really emerged [yet] within mainstream dermatology, but there’s going to be an exponential increase in the [amount of] attention paid to them…”

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Article Sources

  1. Darlene Allyn

    I am still looking for answer . If taking Xarellto blood thinner can you safely use the lotion or salve .

  2. sveta granovsky

    How can it be used in dentistry?

  3. Carol Miller

    I have been using the salve for about 6 mo. It works really well on my face and neck to get rid of age spots and skin tags. It takes about 2 wks for the skin tag to fall off, with no scar. I was worried about using it because I have very oily skin and I was adding more oil to it. But it cleared up my complexion, no blackheads or zits, age spots are fading. I love it!

  4. jan

    So why can’t you just rub the CBD oil on your , say, knee that is hurting, instead of the salve? If the CBD in a salve gets absorbed topically, wouldn’t the CBD in an oil also absorb topically (even tho it’s meant to be used orally)? I would prefer to spend less money, so if I can use the same oil product both orally and topically why buy a separate salve/cream?

  5. brad feuerhelm

    Noob here I’m harvesting my crop as I write this. My question is for the salve, do you dry and cure then debox or can you skip the dry and cure and just debox? A lot of recipes states to cook the oil and cannabis mix for 25 min. Would it be better to cook longer like 45 min or more?

  6. Barb

    Does CBD salve act as a blood thinner?

  7. Myrna Panton

    Been using for a while, salves are awesome

  8. Lynne

    I have some vials of CBD oil that are each 40mg and am looking for a recipe to make a salve in a small batch. Anyone have one? It greatly reduces my nerve pain in my legs and any other muscular pain I get but I can’t seem to find a good salve anywhere that doesn’t contain a low volume of CBD and THC which I don’t want to smell like. I tried a cream and that worked but I really like the salve better.

    1. Nancy Brady RN
      How to make your own salve

      Hi, to make a salve, I just take a tiny bit of coconut oil or any oil that’s good on the skin… even olive oil and mix some of the CBD oil in it… I just do it in the palm of my hand and then put it directly onto my skin… works wonderfully

  9. Sara

    Can cbd oil be rubbed directly on to skin instead? I have the oil but don’t know quantity wise how to make a salve!

    1. Adam

      It can but CBD oil are normally used orally. If you are looking for a cream, you’d tend to buy a topical.

  10. Nancy

    CBD oil did help with my hip joint pain. However it did have side effects. I was more emotional (weepy) the next day, dry mouth and tiredness. I’m very sensitive so if you are too, go easy on the dosage until you know how it effects you.

  11. Christina Adams

    CBD salves is a super simple but effective salve for joint pain.

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