Cannabis isn’t just for smoking anymore. You can still light up a joint, of course, but gone are the days of leaf limitations. Now, there’s all kinds of ways to ingest marijuana: candies, dabs, vapes, somewhere there’s probably cannabis infused fajitas too. And, yes, there’s even rectal marijuana suppositories. No, I haven’t tried one. No, I wouldn’t tell you if I had. The point is there are many routes you can take on your cannabis trip, but the effects of these routes (and the trips themselves) vary. And, sometimes, there isn’t much of a trip at all – instead, it’s more of a “topical” vacation. That’s where medicinal salves take the stage.

Medicinal Salves and the Permeability of THC

Medicinal salves aren’t something you want to use to feel euphoric before a party or as a pick me up when you need some motivation. In fact, the high-flying potential of salves comes with some controversy and disappointment. According to The Healing Magic of Cannabis, debate surrounds the question of whether marijuana topicals can reach the central nervous system. Most people agree that these types of applications don’t have any psychoactive affects, at least not in terms of “high as a kite, eating Cheetos all night”. Studies also seem to back up the inability of topicals to affect a person in this manner.

A 1987 study conducted in Israel looked at the skin permeation behavior of THC in rats and humans. They found that the skin of rats was much more permeable than ours, but, even then, the THC concentrated in the upper epidermis (the outer layer of the skin). Their conclusion? When it does permeate, it doesn’t go all that deep.  But researchers were able to manipulate this to a degree: when oleic acid was placed on the rat’s skin prior to THC application, THC reached the bloodstream and the rats sustained a measurable concentration in their blood for the next 24 hours.

Still, no matter how much of a permeation enhancer you use  most medicinal salves are unlikely to get you high because they contain very low THC

TrCannabis patch, cannabis salve patch ansdermal patches are different – they are able to reach the bloodstream. They probably won’t get you as high as more conventional ways of ingestion, but you can feel their effects. And they’re long-lasting: transdermal patches deliver a steady dose of cannabis for a period of twelve or so hours.

Medicinal salves typically don’t contain the THC of some medicinal patches (some patches are purely CBD or other cannabinoids). But, when the topical contains a measurable percentage of THC, the cannabinoids only penetrate the CB2 receptors near the skin’s surface. This is what allows them to work locally, but not on your body as a whole. Thus, breaking out the cannabis infused lotion at a rave and enthusiastically telling people “you’ve got to try this” probably won’t win you any friends.

The Medicinal Effectiveness of Salves

While it’s difficult for THC to permeate the skin, CBD is a different story (and so is CBN). Both the latter two cannabinoids stimulate the CB2 receptors past the skin’s surface and work more effectively in lotions. But they need help, which is why topical tubes usually direct users to apply oils and gels liberally. More goop makes permeation more likely; a small squirt isn’t going to do all that much.

CBD, while not used to get high as it doesn’t produce psychoactive effects, is used frequently by medicinal marijuana patients

It’s good for anxiety, decreasing inflammation, and relieving soreness and pain. And it’s perfect for people who want the therapeutic benefits of marijuana without the cerebral interference. This is a reason so many medicinal salves are CBD based – it’s what works and what consumers want.

What Medicinal Salves Solve

Most people who purchase medicinal salves use them for localized pain relief, things like tennis elbow, rashes, cuts, strings, or sore knees. They’re useful for aches, tension, and inflammation in skin or muscles. But some people use them for dermatitis, itching, psoriasis, and cramps. They may be effective as decongesting agents as well, a tricked-out Vicks that helps you breathe.

In complementary medicine, medicinal salves are used for several things including wounds, abrasions, and acne; arthritic discomfort; back pain; sprains or contusions; venous ulcerations; hemorrhoids; menstrual pain; colds and sore throats; bronchitis; asthma; inflammation of the larynx; and migraines.

The Study Behind their Effectiveness

To figure out if cannabis salves are effective or a placebo scientists turned once again to rodents. In a study published in the journal Science, mice who had their internal cannabinoids purposely blocked had a harder time healing from the ear tags used to identify them. But they healed faster from skin allergies when give topical THC. The conclusion wasn’t really that much of a conclusion: cannabinoids are involved in many if not most of the body’s daily functions but no one’s sure exactly how or why. At least not yet.

The Different Types of Salves

There’s a variety of different salves and topicals available in legal recreational and medicinal markets. The salves in the illegal markets, the ones mixed in Tupperware and sold on street corners – those are just Jergens sprinkled with basil.Ethos cannabis salve, cannabis muscled salve

In places where citizens have passed marijuana legislation, consumers can purchase the following (and other stuff too): THC infused menthols, cannabis warming balms, muscle relief lotions, pleasure sprays, bath soaks, and oils. These are intended to relieve localized discomfort, but might require reapplication if the pain persists.

Topicals, whether or not they contain cannabis, are most often fast-acting and short-lived

Different salves provide different benefits and different levels of relief and there’s no one-size-fits-all gel or lotion. The best thing you can do is experiment to find out what works for you and any discomfort you’re experiencing.

Jenn Keeler

About the author: Jenn Keeler is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in humorous lifestyle articles. She is one of the few people on earth actually using an English degree. Her heart belongs to the Denver Broncos and her husband. In that order.