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 genuineness of these kinds of questions, as well as the bevy of confusion that likely 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 we’ve made it a point, in this article, to explain as cut and dryly 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 treat, and how they differ from other CBD products like oils and creams.
Learning the lingo and differentiating between all the cannabis-related stuff 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 purpose and function, there is no real distinguishing between a ‘salve’, a ‘balm’, and an ‘ointment’ – all three terms can correctly 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 (bases). (Called also salves and unguents).”
In less clinical, easier-to-understand terms, a salve (or balm or ointment) is a medicine-infused concoction (in our case, of course, CBD is the medicine) that’s 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; 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.
CBD Salves: How are they made?
Salves are super-simple concoctions that can be made in any number of different ways, with literally dozens upon dozens of various recipes out there to choose from. All of them, though, are similar in that they include a base (the base is the “vehicle” responsible for carrying the medicine) of natural wax and fatty oil(s).
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 kind of 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 cannabinoids). The more fatty acids an oil has, the more CBD it will potentially be able to carry.
To infuse the oil with functionally 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 the 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. And 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 seed oil as the cannabidiol source (industrial hemp is loaded with CBD), but a lot of others use hemp-infused coconut or olive oils as well.
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 translates at the functional, cellular level.
In reality, though, 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, therapeutic 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 inflammation).
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 help control and maintain – among other things – skin sensitivity, pain, inflammation, appetite, memory, and the 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 dermal layers are “[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 most effective for arthritic joint pain/inflammation, localized muscle pain/soreness, and chronic skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. For other CBD-treatable conditions like anxiety, depression, autoimmune disease, and chronic pain management, orally-ingested forms of the medication are generally 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. The 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.”
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 also went on to praise the healing effects of cannabinoids on “skincentric sensory functions” like general pain and itch, and pointed out the likely fact that the endocannabinoid system out-and-out 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,” he says, “the endocannabinoid system fights against it.”
What’s the difference between CBD salves and CBD oils?
In terms of CBD salves (or other topicals) 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 work much quicker and their effects are much more faster-acting than oils, 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 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 absolutely nothing to worry about in that regard.
Also, do 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. 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 absolutely incredible products out there, there are plenty of totally bogus duds 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 your convenience and 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, “[though] cannabinoids haven’t really emerged [yet] within mainstream dermatology … there’s going to be an exponential increase in the [amount of] attention paid to them in the derm world.”
- Full-spectrum Hemp extract
- No pesticides, solvents or chemical fertilizers
- 3rd party laboratory tested
- Price Range ($48.00 – $139.00)
- Maximum potency and purity
- Compounded by a licensed pharmacist
- Highly concentrated extraction process
- Price Range ($26-$169)
- Over 5 Years Experience
- 3rd party laboratory tested
- Organic hemp CO2 extract tincture
- Price Range ($62.00 – $204.00)
- CBDPure uses a chemical-free CO2 extraction process
- 3rd party laboratory tested
- Certified hemp grown in Colorado
- Price Range ($29.99 – $79.99)
- Full-Spectrum Extract (Made in USA)
- 100% Natural and Organic
- Contain no artificial flavors or preservatives
- Prices range ($48-$125)