CBD Salves: The Definitive Guide

The practical guide to CBD salves, creams and balms

Photo Credit: Euphoric Grounds

You may be wondering, 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?
We can appreciate the honesty of these kinds of questions. We also understand the confusion surrounding topical cannabis options, both online and on the shelves of marijuana dispensaries.
That’s why, in this article, we’ve made it a point to explain everything you need to know about CBD salves. This will what they’re used for, how they’re made and what kinds of medical conditions they may treat. We will also explore how they differ from other CBD products like oils and creams.
Learning the lingo and differentiating between all the cannabis-related products can be a daunting task. With a little knowledge and a bit of self-informing, it 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. These waxes 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. This is 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. Don’t worry; those of you that are sensitive to coconut oil there are many options available to you as well. Regardless of the distributor, it is important for everyone to be aware of what is in the products they are utilizing evaluating for substances they may have allergies or sensitivities to.

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. The resulting mixture is then “steeped” for several hours at 200+ degrees Fahrenheit in the oil. The heat decarboxylates the cannabidiol into its active molecular form. This is the point 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 with the melted-down wax to create the salve. The salve is often mixed usually along with some other essential oils like lavender or peppermint. Other ingredients include fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin E, A or D.

All CBD salves should have the full 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 the desired area and initiate therapy right at the source of the pain or discomfort).

CBD & The Body:

On a more physiological level, CBD functions by interacting with the body’s own endocannabinoid system, or ECS.

The ECS was discovered in the early 1990s, 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

The body may function more efficiently when CBD interacts with natural receptors in the ECS. This interaction allows better control of many different ll 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 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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