Skin Deep: The Budding World of Cannabis Topicals

Photo: Esteban Lopez

Originally published in Santa Cruz Waves Magazine.

The cannabis plant has a plethora of applications that don’t involve getting high. The two best-known compounds in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and pain-relieving effects. When applied topically, THC and CBD bind to receptors in the skin without entering the bloodstream or the brain, which means that they don’t produce the typical psychotropic effects.

“People are looking for a gentler solution to problems that they used to rely on pharmaceuticals to solve,” says Elise McDonough, who currently manages public relations for KindPeoples dispensaries in Santa Cruz and previously worked as an editor at High Times. “These [topical] delivery methods are less focused on the euphoria, and more focused on health and wellness.”

Cannabis topicals, which include creams, oils and salves, have populated medical dispensary shelves for years, where they were once seen as a sideshow to the main attraction—cannabis flowers. But thanks to legalization and changing attitudes, the world of topicals has recently blossomed into a trend unto itself. Options now include beauty and self-care products like bath bombs, facial steams, massage oils, lubricants and much more. Whether you want to make your own (it is legal, after all!) or shop around, here are some useful tips to get you started.

DIY Cannabis Balm

Bridget May, analytical chemist and founder of Little Green Bee (, which makes topical wellness products in San Francisco, shares her recipe for a cannabis balm you can make yourself. Rather than reaching for the Advil after a surf session or a hard workout, try this soothing salve to alleviate muscle and joint pain. It can also be used to treat skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dryness, as well as minor cuts and burns. May recommends using whole-plant cannabis tincture from your local dispensary to maximize the therapeutic effects.


4 tablespoons beeswax

½ cup coconut oil

5 drops peppermint oil

5 drops lavender oil

½ teaspoon cannabis tincture

Place beeswax, coconut oil, and cannabis concentrate in a double boiler. Heat gently until melted. Add essential oils, mix well, and pour into a jar or other container. As the mixture cools, it will solidify into a balm. Rub a liberal amount on any part of the body for relief from pain and inflammation.

The ABCs of CBDs

THC is the molecule that produces the famous “high” when smoked or ingested. CBD, on the other hand, is non-intoxicating, and has been shown to lower anxiety and improve depression.

Highly Recommended Goods and Services

Commercially available CBD is derived from hemp (marijuana’s straightedge cousin), which contains little to no THC. Products made from whole-plant extracts, which contain higher concentrations of CBD and/or THC, are restricted to people over the age of 21. Here are a few products worth checking out.

Experience the benefits of a massage enhanced with Vital Body Therapy’s custom CBD massage cream, formulated with hemp-derived CBD, arnica, ginger, and cooling menthol. Book your 60- or 90-minute treatment at

Shea butter, coconut oil, and locally sourced herbs combined with hemp-derived CBD provide deep moisture for dry skin and reduce inflammation. Available at Go Ask Alice in downtown Santa Cruz and online at


Enhance your bath with organic hemp-derived CBD, deeply penetrating minerals, and a blend of essential oils formulated to relax muscles, calm nerve inflammation, and soothe irritated skin. Available locally at New Leaf Community Markets, Staff of Life, and The Herb Room, and online at


Made from whole-plant cannabis extract, this anti-inflammatory and emollient cream reduces the effects of aging, UV damage, and fine lines. Available at


Derived from 20 CBD:1 THC cannabis plants, this CBD-rich tincture is perfect for making your own topical wellness products. Available at KindPeoples dispensaries: 3600 Soquel Ave. or 140 Dubois St., Ste. C., in Santa Cruz.

*Must be 21 or older to purchase.

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