THC Topicals: How Do They Work?

THC Topicals: How Do They Work?

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There are many different ways to consume THC. You can smoke it, vape it, eat it, drink it, or even drip it onto the glands underneath your tongue. But when it comes to applying this cannabinoid to the skin, many are left a bit puzzled about how- and if- it can deliver any effects.  

So, why would you want to purchase a THC topical, and how do these products even work? Below, we'll explore the science behind cannabis topical products, including the endocannabinoid system, the differences between CBD and THC topicals, and even whether these topicals could make you fail a drug test.

The Endocannabinoid System 

To understand how topical THC works, you'll first need a rundown of the endocannabinoid system, or "ECS" for short. The ECS is a vast network of receptors and chemical messengers throughout the human body. One can locate endocannabinoid receptors in almost every organ, from the brain to the skin. 

Every mammal has an endocannabinoid system. But this doesn't mean humans and other organisms evolved to consume cannabis. The ECS was named after cannabis because scientists in 1988 discovered the system while trying to figure out which mechanisms in the nervous system were activated by THC. 

Essentially, this system naturally uses chemicals made in the body called "endocannabinoids" to regulate homeostasis, or simply put, stability. It plays a significant role in memory, cognition, sleep, appetite, pain management, and other functions. 

There are two known receptors in the ECS: CB1 and CB2. There are more CB1 receptors in the brain than any other receptor type. These receptors help regulate the activity of most neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that carry messages from one nerve cell to another). 

The second type of endocannabinoid receptor, CB2, primarily exists within immune tissues. Some examples of immune tissues include: 
  • Skin
  • Bone marrow
  • Tonsils
  • Spleen
  • Mucous Membranes 
But how do they help with our immune responses? In one instance, research has shown that CB2 receptors play a role in regulating gastrointestinal inflammation

How Does a THC Topical Work?

woman's hand with dollop of THC topical

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the cannabinoid most often associated with the psychoactive effects of cannabis. It has this property because when the compound enters the bloodstream via digestion or the lungs, it binds to the CB1 receptors within the central nervous system. In other words, when you smoke flower or eat an edible, THC activates the CB1 receptors in your brain to give those... "classic" cannabis effects.

But how do cannabis topicals work?

The truth is that your skin is quite absorbent. It protects our body against dust and larger particles, but smaller compounds can still go through the outermost layer. There are many ways that THC and other compounds can enter the skin, which can include hair follicles, pores, or through diffusion (when molecules move from an area of high concentration of molecules to an area of lower concentration). 

So, let's say you put some THC balm on your arm. Once the THC has "breached" the outermost layer of skin, it will bind onto the CB1 receptors located beneath, which, in turn, deliver localized effects

What Are the Effects of THC Topicals?

orca roll on

THC topicals offer targeted relief without psychoactive effects. Generally, people will apply them to areas on the body that may feel sore from workouts or other reasons. Some of the ways enthusiasts have described the effects include: 
  • Soothing
  • Relieving
  • Comforting
Anecdotal evidence suggests that it takes several minutes for the effects to take in, with results lasting between 1-2 hours. You should keep in that these types of products affect everyone a bit differently, so these results may vary. 

THC topicals generally come in cream or roll-on form. To use a topical THC product, apply it to the area where relief is needed, wait for the effects to set in, and reapply as you see fit. It's that simple. 

THC Topicals vs. CBD Topicals

Many people choose THC over CBD or vice-versa because one is psychoactive and the other is not. However, in either case, you will not likely experience such effects with a cannabis-infused topical. As stated earlier, the effects of a topical are targeted and will likely not impact mood (unless the soothing sensation makes you happy). 

Whether one is more effective depends on your body's endocannabinoid system. However, you should consider the different binding affinities between THC and CBD. 

As mentioned earlier, the endocannabinoid system has two main types of receptors, CB1 and CB2. Although CB1 receptors exist primarily within the brain, there are CB1 receptors in the skin, along with CB2. 

CBD has very little binding affinity to cannabinoid receptors, while THC's affinity is much stronger. If you are looking for greater activation of these receptors (and thus, potentially, more accurate effects), you should go with THC topicals. 

Will a THC Topical Make You Fail a Drug Test?

drug test form

Whether it's THC or CBD applied topically, we recommend staying away from topical cannabis products if you have a drug test (whether blood or urine) coming up, including topical THC products. 

As of this writing, there is not enough comprehensive research to determine if a THC topical will or will not yield positive results for a drug test, and it's best to stay on the side of caution if you think you may be drug-tested in the near future. 


That's all you need to know to get started on THC topicals. Essentially: 
  • You have cannabinoid receptors in your skin
  • THC activates these receptors without psychoactive effects
  • THC has a stronger binding affinity to receptors compared to CBD
  • You should avoid all cannabis products if you have a drug test coming up
Until next time, happy exploring, and mind your mind.

FDA Disclaimer: The statements made regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA-approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant as a substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your healthcare professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires this notice.

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